Andrew Neil's programme for Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV was going to be hard- hitting, a challenge to US news conventions and values. But the experiment was a flop, in more ways than one

Zoe Heller
Saturday 13 April 1996 23:02

IN JUNE 1994, when the news magazine show Full Disclosure was in its second month of development at Fox Television, Andrew Neil, the show's co-executive editor and star correspondent, called a meeting of his staff. Neil had arrived in New York six weeks earlier. His job at Fox was being described as an experimental secondment from his editorship of the Sunday Times in London, and his American staff were still uncertain what to expect from him. Many of them were imports from the Los Angeles- based Front Page, Fox's first attempt at a news magazine show, which had been cancelled, after a year's run, in May. Some had never heard of Neil until they read about his appointment in the trade papers, and quite a few were under the impression that he was Australian. There had been some fretful rumour about his political agenda for the show - in particular, his determination to run a story about how heterosexuals are unlikely to get Aids - but no one knew how much authority to attribute to this hearsay. Neil's opinion of his staff was more definite: he wasn't impressed. The story ideas they had presented to him thus far were, he told me, "very dismal and pedestrian ... slightly cerebral ... lacking in storytelling qualities ... desperate ... unusable".

The meeting he had called took place in the conference room of the show's offices at the News Corporation building in midtown Manhattan. Neil's co-executive producer, David Corvo, a tiny, bearded Californian, spoke first. Corvo has a genial, low-key style of management that tends to inspire great loyalty in his employees. Most of the people in the room had worked with him previously, either at Front Page, where he was also executive producer, or during his earlier days at CBS News. The speech he gave now was a short and friendly morale-raiser.

Next, Neil stood up. It is an unfortunate fact about Neil's physiognomy that, even in genial mood, he has the menacing, choleric aspect of a man in a pub about to order someone "outside" for fisticuffs. His complexion is the colour of raw beef. His bristling, squared-up posture suggests imminent combat. Even his hair - odd, wiry stuff that springs up in rebellious tufts from wherever he conscientiously slicks it down - gives an impression of rage. The speech he gave was bellicose. It was time, he told the people in the conference room, for them to pull their socks up.

What they had heard about the "politically incorrect" perspective of his plans for the show was true, and if any of them felt in the least bit uncomfortable about it they would be better off leaving now. The show, Neil went on, would demand fearless iconoclasm from its staff. If they did their jobs well, the News Corporation building would find itself regularly besieged by pickets protesting against the show's political improprieties. "I want your friends to hate you because of the stories you work on," he said. At this, there was a sharp intake of breath among his audience. "Most people were, um, surprised," David Small, the show's broadcast co-producer, recalled. "We'd never been given a speech like that before." When Neil finished speaking, only one staff member felt brave enough to raise his hand. His poignantly literal-minded response suggested just how unfamiliar the staff were with editorial bombast like Neil's. If the show's offices were going to be surrounded by shouting pickets, the young producer asked earnestly, wouldn't the disturbance make it difficult for staff to concentrate on their work?

When Neil made his speech, his show was still called On Assignment. It had been conceived as the first step towards building a proper news division at Fox - a long-held dream of the network's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. While news tends to get lower ratings than light entertainment, it is news, more than any other sort of programming, that gives a network its credibility as a public service, and news anchors that give a network its public face. Murdoch wanted his Connie Chung and Tom Brokaw, his Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather. "A lot of money is going into this show," Neil said when I first went to see him. "It's always been my experience that if Rupert is committed to something and knows it's essential to the overall corporate plan, then money's not a problem, and he's in it for the long haul." At this point in late June, the show's offices were still under renovation. Wires were hanging from ceilings, walls were wet with paint, and the noise of workmen's drills rose and fell. On Neil's desk, there was a judge's gavel. He had his radio on low, and Beethoven was providing dim, ambient tootle. He was, he admitted, feeling some trepidation about his new job: "I've been given a toy train to build as I see fit - and I run it. That's great. But it is also a bit daunting, because it's so huge ... I mean, I've gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. To get someone from Britain to do a prime-time show and to be on camera as well as be executive producer, that's a huge risk. No one has an idea whether it will work or not." He ran his fingers over his gavel thoughtfully. "It might not work," he said.

The positive aspect of this uncertainty was a spirit of pioneer liberty at large in the On Assignment offices. Free from the inhibiting precedents of a long-established news service, staff felt free to challenge assumptions about the function and style of broadcast news. Issues of content and perspective were understood to be up for grabs. Many of the staff were speaking of the show as a crucible for competing ideas of what contemporary television news values were and ought to be. "We're the new guy," David Corvo said. "We're not an institution where news has been practised for 30 years. We should take advantage of that. There's no hierarchy here for us to discuss things with ... That gives us a kind of freedom."

ONE OF Neil's primary aims for On Assignment, he said, was that it should be "a grown-up show for grown-up people". The purchase of the rights to the National Football League the previous December had brought an influx of older viewers to the predominantly youthful Fox audience, and Murdoch wanted to increase that trend. Unlike Front Page, the new show was to have no tipsy camera angles or kooky graphics. Ron Reagan Jr, the laid- back, ponytailed presenter of Front Page, had pointedly not been invited to join the On Assignment team. "The only ponytails we want to have on this show," Neil quipped weightily, "will be worn by the drug dealers we're exposing." Neil wanted On Assignment to eschew the meretriciousness and sensationalism of other American news magazines. "A lot of these other shows are all soft. It's yet another crime story, or a murder in some little town, and these stories have no meaning or purpose - they're just stories. I want to do a series of items that will have a purpose to them, a lesson in them and a policy point." These hard-hitting, issue-driven items would need to be leavened with judicious injections of "glamour, show business and populism", but generally Full Disclosure would distinguish itself by being tougher, more thoughtful and more bravely controversial than its competition.

"What I'm aiming to do," he said, "is produce a show that is not part of the one-party state that American network television is. You think there's a huge diversity, but there isn't really. Network TV - network news - is run by people who share the same assumptions, the same outlook on life, the same reverence for certain institutions and the same disgust for other institutions. I aim to have a go at some of their sacred cows. This country has an establishment. It's not class-based like in Britain, but the media establishment in particular is very much a group of people who write about the same things and hand out prizes to the same people. I think we might just throw a little hand grenade into that."

In the months that followed, members of the show's senior management tried hard to enlist staff enthusiasm for this aggressive approach. They emphasised Neil's avowed commitment to "policy point" journalism and repeatedly invoked notions of high-mindedness and "classy" reporting. "We're not going to chase after every serial killer, hopefully," Len Tepper, head of the show's investigative unit, told me. "Part of my job is to make sure there is a high degree of journalism. We're not going to takc short cuts." At the same time, there was an effort to play down the ideological undertone of Neil's pronouncements. Neil's angle, staff were told, was not so much right-wing as "sceptical". "Within the office, there's a sense that if you're anti-PC, then you're somehow conservative. I don't buy that notion at all," Emily Rooney, the senior producer of On Assignment, said. Soon after this, the words "politically incorrect" were dropped from office meetings and replaced with the more neutral term "contrarian".

"I think the contrarian approach is a very clever idea," the show's story editor, Dan Cooper, said. "I don't view it as an ideological approach. I view it as a fresh way to approach material - I think it could impact us very favourably as a show." Even on the Aids "myth" story, which Neil had promoted during his editorship of the Sunday Times and which he was now planning to report himself, the staff were counselled to keep an open mind. Kyle Good, the show's director, admitted she had been "really offended" by the Aids idea at first and had argued "vehemently" against pursuing it, but by August she was calmer.

"I don't have to agree with every story we do here," she said. "I'm willing to look at the Aids story when they get it all together and see if they really produce a valid argument."

IN LATE August I went to see Judith Regan, the woman who had been chosen as Neil's co-anchor on the show. Regan had turned her On Assignment office into a flowery dell of femininity, scattered with pieces of French provincial furniture, decorative remnants of antique garden gates and vases of roses. Tiny and fiercely chic, in pale green, size six Calvin Klein, Regan sat at her desk, periodically breaking off our conversation to bark into the telephone headset attached to her coiffure like an Alice band. Regan, one of the star captains of Murdoch's empire, is head of Regan Books, an imprint of the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, and shortly before joining the On Assignment team she signed a multi-media contract with Murdoch, giving her responsibility for bringing in book-related and other sorts of television and movie projects to News Corp. At On Assignment, according to David Corvo, she was expected to concentrate on developing contacts and story ideas for the show's "lighter" side. "We would like her to become our sort of, you know, Barbara Walters," he said.

Regan herself was hoping, she said, to bring a personal, "intensely moral" perspective to the show. She explained that she had a "unique message" to share with her audience. Her origins were working-class - her father was a cab driver, her mother a part-time bookkeeper - and she had twice been the victim of domestic violence (she had been battered by two of her former partners, including the father of the two children she was now raising alone). "There aren't a lot of women in television who've had my life, been through the things I've been through," she said. "Most of the women in television don't have children because they couldn't have achieved what they've achieved very easily with children. I would like to become a voice of moral outrage, representing the voice of most women in this country."

The story she was working on at the time was a piece about young Americans suffering from depression. In it, she planned to argue that responsibility for the damaged psyches of today's young people was borne by the fractured state of the American family. At this point, the focus of her piece was the young writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the polemical memoir Prozac Nation. Regan's view was that Wurtzel's chronic depression could be traced to her parents' - particularly her father's - neglectfulness. "You know, if I were to go and interview this guy who basically abandoned her," she said, "I would - if I didn't spit in his face, you know - I'd ask him in a very dramatic way, you know, 'Tell me, why is it that you didn't see your daughter for 10 years? I mean, who do you think you are to bring this person into the world and then abandon her?'

"I have," she added, "a very profound belief in shaming people. Especially men. I think it's the only way you can keep a culture civilised."

When I asked her how she thought On Assignment would distinguish itself from the plethora of other television news magazines, Regan paused. "Well," she said, after a moment or two, "I'm not blonde." There was another, longer pause while the two of us pondered this fact. "Tell me," she continued, warming to her apercu, "who are the big female news magazine personalities? Come on! Think about it!" She smiled. "They're all blonde. Walters? She's blonde. Sawyer? Blonde. Pauley? Blonde. Katie Couric?

Regan's candid engrossment in the question of coiffure might have seemed a little eccentric, but in fact such matters are far from irrelevant in American broadcast news, where the business of "anchor aesthetics" is taken very seriously. On Assignment executives had expressed many misgivings about Neil's Scottish vowels (he was being made to undergo a course of private coaching sessions in order to develop more viewer-friendly elocution), but their much graver concern focused on whether Neil - once described by the British socialite Bridget Heathcoat Amory as "so ugly it makes you gasp" - could ever find favour with an audience reared on caramel complexions and lantern jaws. Regan was hopeful about her co-anchor. "I think the American audience either likes you, or they don't like you," she told me. "Look at Robin Leach [the English presenter of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous] - there's an example of someone who was certainly not terribly attractive and had an abrasive voice. But for some reason people responded to him." Emily Rooney was also inclined to optimism on this issue. "We have to figure out a way to use Andrew's quirky appeal," she told me, "because that's what it is. I mean he's not, you know, Harry the Handsome Anchor Man from Tulsa. He is what he is. He has this pixie smile and those great little blue eyes that beam out at you. I mean, he's got an appeal. The more I look at him and listen to him, the more I think, you know, there's no reason why that can't work."

IN LATE August, Neil held a story meeting. He, David Corvo, Emily Rooney and Dan Cooper went through the show's current list of ideas and discussed them with the relevant associate producers. Neil was beginning to get irritated with what he saw as his staff's "unwillingness to challenge the consensus", and part of the aim of the meeting was to weed out those without the will or the wit to toe the "contrarian" line. Some staff had already departed voluntarily, having found Neil's journalistic style unpalatable.

According to David Corvo, however, most of the staff were not so much recalcitrant about the politics as bewildered. "I disagree with Andrew on this," he said. "He thinks they're unwilling. I think they're willing - they just don't get it yet." Throughout an entire day, Neil proceeded through the story list, throwing out ideas with grunts of displeasure and the occasional burst of sarcastic laughter. "It's just not a story," he said over and over again as he dismissed the painstakingly composed memos presented by the associate producers. When Regan's "Young and Depressed" idea came up for discussion, Neil winced. "What are you going to say about this depression?" he asked. "I would say it's a load of old bollocks. Let's expose these people." His colleagues looked slightly taken aback. "I just don't see what story there is here," Neil said. "Well," said the assistant producer who had been working with Regan on the piece, "it's a society kind of story - about people in their twenties who're depressed."

"Clinically depressed?" Emily Rooney asked sharply.

"Erm ... yes," the assistant producer said.

"Is this Elizabeth Wurtzel clinically depressed?" Rooney wanted to know.




Neil seemed to be growing bored. "Well, I don't think it's worth doing unless you take the piss out of it. I mean, it says in this memo, 'We're going to relate youth depression to the current economic climate.' What about the Thirties? Why wasn't everyone depressed then?"

"Uh, the difference is," the assistant producer said, "it's an in-thing now and, um, more acceptable... " Her face lit up hopefully as she remembered something else. "We have a man who can talk about the relationship between depression and poor diet."

"Diet!" Rooney snapped. "Well, if poor diet causes depression, then why isn't Rwanda depressed?"

"Exactly!" Neil said, clapping his hands.

Rooney blushed with pleasure. "Why can't we redo this story as one about all the drugs these depressed people are taking?" Neil continued. "Something about pill-popping ... "

"I don't think Judith has a sceptical line on this story," Rooney pointed out.

Neil grunted. "Then we'll just put a new reporter on it," he said, turning to the next memo.

Not all the story proposals displeased Neil. "Ah! Here," he said, towards the end of the morning session. "This is a story about Bob Woodson, a black activist who's had a road-to-Damascus experience and turned his back on the black leadership establishment." He turned to the assistant producer on the story. "Now, are we sure he will be condemnatory of the existing black leadership?"

"Oh yes," the assistant producer said eagerly. "He's a real - forgive the expression - turd in the punch bowl."

Neil guffawed. "I like to be politically incorrect, but not that incorrect."

Other suggestions that met with Neil's approval included a story called "Bosses from Hell" ("Mmm, I could be in this," he said jovially); a profile of the model Gabrielle Rees ("with some great slo-mo footage of her playing volleyball"); and a story tentatively entitled "Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Women". Also being considered at this time, or already shot, were a profile of a 73-year-old American Airlines stewardess; a story about people who perform parachute jumps from the top of tall buildings (highlight: a video recording of a man falling to his death from the top of the London Hilton); and a profile of the country singer Tanya Tucker. Neil was also rooting for an interview with Heather Locklear, star of the Fox soap Melrose Place.

There seemed to be more than a trace here of Randolph Hearst's famous "tits, tots, pets and vets" formula. Where had all the policy points gone? "Well, there has to be quite a lot of soft," Neil said when I put this to him. "But we've got plenty of hard stuff too - the thing about Bob Woodson, a piece about Mayor Marion Barry in Washington. Then there's the 'My dad was a sperm donor' piece, which is both hard and soft. By that, I mean that it's an intriguing story which also raises issues." Despite these protestations the show seemed to be struggling to make up its mind about where, in the great grey area between low and highbrow, it was going to pitch itself. Although the talk of high seriousness had not altogether subsided, executives were to be heard more and more frequently speaking of "the need to draw people into the tent". At the beginning of August, the show's original title, On Assignment, had been dropped. "I never thought we'd go to air with it," Neil said, "it was too PBS-ish." The new title, Full Disclosure, sounded good on promos, he said, and it could "play tabloid or serious".

Perhaps it was not so surprising that the show should find itself hovering between its original aspirations to "classiness" and the lure of easy- watching "fun". Few who are involved in decisions about content in any form of modern journalism - including the editors of the "quality" British broadsheets - have not experienced a similar sort of anxious oscillation. Still, the ambitions of Full Disclosure seemed to be particularly and alarmingly confused. One gauge of the confusion was the senior staff's differing ideas about how to cover the recently emerged OJ Simpson murder story. In a conversation that took place two weeks after the murder of Nicole Simpson, Neil told me that if the show had been on air, he would like to have done a piece on wife-beating. "The politically correct phrase over here is apparently 'spousal abuse', but in fact, it's wife-beating," Neil said. "That, to me, was the untold story in the beginning, and I'd have zoomed right in on that. Also, I would have asked, has the trial by media made it impossible to have a fair trial?"

Len Tepper, the head of the show's investigative unit, said he would like to run a piece that tried to evaluate the evidence against OJ. "We'd ask, what was the key bit of information that came out of the preliminary hearing? Was it the testimony of the chauffeur?" When I spoke to Dan Cooper, the story editor, he spoke admiringly of a report by Barbara Walters the previous week exploring the "issue" of Nicole Simpson's alleged lesbianism. "Would there be room for a piece like that on this show?" I asked.

"Sure!" he said. "I can't imagine why there wouldn't be - if it's relevant to the case, if our motives are not salacious."

"Isn't that story salacious, by definition?"

Cooper thought for a long time, before answering. "Yes," he finally replied. "The Simpson case is not out there being enjoyed by everybody because of their interest in spousal abuse - they're interested in it because it's a celebrity murder. But I'm not a snob. Let's get real and understand what we're talking about here. We're talking about putting together information that people are interested in hearing. I don't regard myself as an elitist. I believe firmly that what we're presenting to the audience ought to be presented with respect to what their attitudes and interests are. I don't view what we're doing as being up here in an office building in New York where we know better, telling everyone out there in the United States what they want to know. Nor should we have an attitude that all we're doing is exploiting them in order to deliver them to advertisers. We have a responsibility, but part of the responsibility is to recognise what the big stories are."

Finally, I spoke to Judith Regan, who proposed doing a profile of Nicole Simpson. "I want to talk about how we take this gorgeous, beautiful, innocent little girl and raise her to have her throat slit," she said. "You know - what are the forces that really conspired to bring her to that point in her life? What did we teach that little girl, about what to value and what to care about? How did she end up with her throat slit on a driveway in California with those two precious little kids? Nobody is telling that story ... I think that my approach is probably going to reflect what I've been through personally ... I'd like to sit down and talk to her parents. They haven't talked to anybody yet. You know, I'd say, 'Look, I'm a mother, I have a daughter. I know how I'd feel, you know. I mean, you sat here and watched this girl getting beaten. What did you say to her, you know? I mean, I as a mother, just would never be able to ... to go into that courtroom without spitting on him. You know. I just couldn't.'"

According to David Corvo, such discrepancies in tone and approach were inevitable as long as the show remained off-air. Indeed, by the end of the summer, everyone at Full Disclosure felt they had achieved as much as they could by talking and planning. What they needed now was an audience. "Working in limbo is difficult for people," Corvo said. "First of all it's hard to get subjects to play ball when they haven't seen the product, and of course there are lots of current news stories that we can't do because they'll be stale by next week. You can't prepare too long for this kind of thing, or it'll get fusty. You have to go for it, knowing that your first couple of shows won't be your best."

This was in early September, and Corvo had been given no clear indication of when or in which slot the show would be appearing. In the very beginning there had been an idea of running it on Sunday nights after the National Football League, in direct competition with CBS's Sixty Minutes. This suggestion had been greeted with snarling derision by CBS executives and then rapidly scotched by Neil. "I thought that idea was crazy from the start," he said. "Maybe we could think about it next year, if all goes well, but it would be suicidal to start off like that."

In late June Corvo had told me he expected to be given a definite air date by the beginning of August. August came and there was no word from Murdoch, but a sign up in the office boardroom proposed an air-date schedule beginning on 26 September. There was talk of the show going on after Melrose Place on Monday nights. But by the end of the month Neil was talking about a premiere in mid-October, or possibly January. "We could go in October, but the fear is that we won't have enough really distinctive stories by then," he said.

AT THE start of September, the show began putting its pilot together. Four stories were to be featured: a report by Neil on drug-money laundering; a report on the "liberalism gone-mad" of the American Civil Liberties Union; a story about two men from Illinois convicted of armed robbery 30 years after their crime; and a profile of Robin Quivers, sidekick of the radio "shock-jock" Howard Stern. (Judith Regan, who presented the Quivers profile, was about to publish the Quivers autobiography - a fact which she saw as presenting not a conflict, but a felicitous coincidence of interests.) On the day I went to observe the proceedings, Neil was sporting a new, short haircut with a dark aubergine tint, and an alarming shade of orange panstick. He was rather dismissive of the sessions he had undergone with a television coach: "She wanted to get me to raise my eyebrows and all that stuff - but I couldn't be doing with it. I'm not an actor."

The sessions appeared, however, to have had an effect. He was still saying "grup" and "cosses" for "group" and "causes", but his accent was rather paler than usual, and he had begun to acquire some of the mandatory anchor mannerisms. Introducing serious stories he assumed the corrugated brow of pseudo-tristesse, and for lighter items he had begun delivering some very accomplished suppressed chuckles and bemused head shakes.

Kyle Good, the director, was terrifically pleased. "Are we all getting used to his accent, or does he sound more like an American than ever?" she said. Later, Neil came into the control room. Kyle Good, David Corvo, Dan Cooper and Emily Rooney were now studying the pre-recorded "bumpers" - the plugs for forthcoming items that appear before commercials. Right now, on the monitor before them, was the bumper for the story about the American Civil Liberties Union. "Panhandlers and sex offenders," a preternaturally deep voice intoned. "Lock 'em up? Not if the ACLU has anything to do with it!" Corvo shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, maybe that's a bit strong. I think we've got some work to do on that." Neil laughed: "Oh, I don't think it's strong enough!"

Next Judith Regan came on to the set. There was some delay while cameras and lighting were arranged. In the control room, Dan Cooper stared at Regan on the monitor. "I think her hair looks fabulous," he said after a while. "Am I the only person who feels like that?"

"Kyle?" Regan's voice crackled. "How do I look?"

"Great," Kyle said, looking up at the monitor.

"Better than yesterday?" Regan asked.

"Just as good."

"What about the hair, Kyle?" Regan asked. "You like it? Is it better than yesterday?"

"It looks pretty much the same," Good said, a little wearily. When the cameramen were ready, the business of shooting Regan's autocue introductions began. Nobody in the control room was very keen on the way Regan read. It was felt that she sounded too stiff, that she was emphasising the wrong words, that she wasn't "allowing her charisma to translate". Underlinings were added to the autocue script so that Regan would know where to stress. She read again, but still the people in the control room shook their heads. "Judith," Kyle Good said tactfully, "has got some work to do on presentation."

The editing of the pilot took up most of September. As soon as it was complete, a copy was sent to Murdoch in Los Angeles, and shortly afterwards Neil and Corvo flew out to receive his comment. In the manner of all dress rehearsals, the Full Disclosure pilot was an awkward, nervy affair. Both Neil and Regan had proved rather wooden. "The general feeling," one member of the show's senior staff told me, "is that the anchors are not ready for TV, and we're grateful for the opportunity to try and work with that. It's a general stiffness in manner and speech." The staff reaction was largely one of disappointment. "The consensus here," said one of the show's executives, "is that the pilot was not particularly strong. To be candid, I would say there was a feeling it was mediocre." Perhaps the most striking thing about the pilot was how little impact Neil's contrarian idea had made on the finished product. No one watching this show would have guessed that the guiding principle of its executive producer had been provocation and iconoclasm. The ACLU story was the only item that proposed a distinct point of view but even this seemed less "controversial" than obscurely het-up in tone. The vivid assaults on received opinion that had been promised were nowhere to be seen.

Instead of wanting to clarify and strengthen the "contrarian" theme, however, the executive response focused on injecting more "soft" into the mix. The show's problem, David Corvo told me, was a lack of "fun" items. "People thought the show wasn't warm enough - that it was a little too aggressive, a little too serious and sombre," he said. "Look," he added a little later, "we're all a bunch of whores in the end. There is pressure. When I started out at NBC years ago, the news division lost $100 million a year, but RCA owned us and they saw a news service as their civic responsibility. They took the loss as the cost of their licence. It was the same attitude over at CBS and ABC. But news has to make money now, and inevitably journalism has suffered."

When I spoke to Dan Cooper, he felt that, in the final analysis, all the brave talk of eschewing tabloid values had been unhelpful. "If you want to know the truth, I like tabloid," he said. "I think tabloid is lively - and I would like to have seen us do something more lively, more spirited and playful." He stared gloomily out of his window at the midtown skyscrapers. "It's imperative for us to find a way for this show to be buoyant," he said. "'Buoyant' is a word I would really stress."

Everyone was somewhat surprised when Corvo and Neil returned from Los Angeles, bearing the happy news that Murdoch loved the show and wanted it broadcast as soon as possible. According to Corvo, it was one of the most unequivocally positive responses to a pilot he had ever witnessed. "Rupert said that the stories that were told through the characters were the ones he found the most compelling. But he liked all four stories - he made that very clear. It was a very enthusiastic response. It was like, 'How fast can you get it on air?'" The staff were told to get into shape for a premiere at the end of October. "Rupert wouldn't discuss day and time with us," Corvo said. "It's sensitive, because for us to get on, someone else has to fall off, so we understand that. But what he said was, 'Be ready to go in a month.'" The office, which had become rather sluggish in recent weeks, was now suddenly revived. "We've got a new adrenalin pumping," Emily Rooney said. "There's a sense of music in the air - we're going into high gear now." Neil was in a positively bumptious mood. The pilot had not suggested the need for any major changes in the show's strategy, he said. But he was now placing renewed emphasis on "storytelling skills". The show needed "to develop ways of telling things that'll draw people in".

At the end of the first week in October Murdoch had still not given Corvo a firm date. Shortly after Neil and Corvo returned from Los Angeles, Murdoch had replaced Fox's chief programmer, Sandy Grushow, with John Matoian, a former CBS executive. No one knew what alteration in the network's programming strategy this shake-up augured, or what Matoian's attitude towards Full Disclosure would be. At any rate, the chances of a first air date in late October seemed to be rapidly receding.

The music that introduced the show had still to be finalised. "The important thing," Kyle Good said, "is to get a little bit of melody that after it's heard enough times gets to be known. I mean I can sing bum-bum-bum-bum - and I know that's ABC. Or NBC has that ding-ding-ding. Fox doesn't have that yet, so we're trying to get a few notes of identification." Corvo and Bruce Perlmutter, the show's broadcast producer, came into Good's office to hear the music, which had been commissioned from Bob Israel, the composer of the ABC news theme. Good synchronised the tape with a video of the show's opening sequence so they could all get a better idea of how the images and music went together. "Is the middle piano too wimpy?" Perlmutter asked after the music had been playing for a bit. "I think it should be more ba-ba-ba."

"Yeah," Corvo said. "It's too bell-like. We need real positive, American- sounding chords." Perlmutter and Kyle nodded. Bob Israel had provided variations on the theme to fit the moods of different segments.

"He does sad really well," Good promised.

"Mmm," Corvo said, when the sad music played. "I like it, but again the piano is too tinkly. It's a little too ... hostile."

Perlmutter shut his eyes. "There's not enough da-da-das at the end," he said, after a bit.

ANOTHER week went by. Murdoch went on a business trip to Australia and told Neil and Corvo before he left that he wanted Matoian to see the show before he decided on an air date. Morale slumped once again. Neil instructed his assistant to tell me that he wasn't going to discuss the show with me any more. "Is that because he's too busy or because he doesn't want to?" I asked. "Both," she said. The atmosphere of uncertainty and gloom fostered a thousand rumours among the office's staff, including stories of major disagreements between Neil and Corvo. "It seems there is a conflict in terms of ideology and in terms of taste," one senior member of staff informed me.

Corvo was trying very hard to keep his sunny side up. "The length of our development time has not been unusual at all," he said. "I've been through this process about five times before this. Some of the kids here are used to going to shows that are up and running, so it's probably a little more frustrating for them. Some of the older producers aren't concerned at all. Hey,"- he leant back in his chair, raising his hands, palm forwards, in a gesture of resignation - "this is TV."

On 13 October Dan Cooper, sitting glumly in his office, told me that the show had now "gone into somewhat powered-down status". And when Murdoch returned from Australia, the tidings were not good. Matoian had seen the programme and was adamant: Regan and Neil didn't cut it as anchors. The show could not run. His argument was bolstered by the recent ratings figures for the established news magazine shows, almost all of which were down on last year's. "The feeling is," Corvo told me, "it's difficult enough to start a news magazine, but with two unknowns, it's really difficult, and when one of the unknowns is British, it's really, really difficult. It's like, who are the people who watch Melrose Place going to relate to?"

In the last week of October Murdoch took Neil out to dinner in New York and broke the news: Full Disclosure was going to be cancelled. Soon after, a rumour from England wafted about Manhattan suggesting that Murdoch had hired Neil for the Full Disclosure project only as a way to lever him out of the Sunday Times. Neil did not take up his old job when he returned to Britain. Early in 1996 he launched The Andrew Neil Show, which the BBC hopes is the British answer to Larry King Live. The programme is broadcast by the BBC's world satellite as well as by domestic transmitters; in it Neil talks to "international celebrities" and receives viewers' questions by phone, fax and e-mail.

Back at Fox, some Full Disclosure staff left to go to jobs at other networks. Murdoch now decided that what he needed for a credible news service was a strong Washington-based bureau. In the meantime the remainder of the Full Disclosure team were put to work researching "specials" - hour-long "theme" programmes. "They have a light-hearted orientation," explained one assistant producer who was working on a Valentine's Day special entitled "Dating in the Nineties". "It's kind of like the stuff we were doing before, for the news show," she said, "except now the reports are longer and more in-depth."

c Zoe Heller 1996

! This article is in the latest issue of 'Granta' magazine, devoted to the news media, which was published last week (ISBN 0-14-014132-4)

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