TALK ABOUT STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: ON the one side there was Dan Rather, the septuagenarian newsman whose 44-year career at CBS ended in ignominy after the airing of an improperly vetted 60 Minutes report about President George W. Bush’s military service. On the other side there was Mark Cuban, the Broadcast.com founder and Dallas Mavericks owner who is forever promising to reinvent the entire entertainment-media industrial complex. Last July these two unabashedly odd ducks announced that they were teaming up to launch a newsmagazine show on Cuban’s HDNet cable channel. For Cuban, it was a bid to lend respectability to his fledgling network, which is best known for programs like World Extreme Cagefighting and Bikini Destinations (a travel show hosted by, um, a woman in a bikini). For the Wharton-born Rather, the stakes were even greater: a chance to prove that his integrity and his ambition were still intact; a chance to show the world that he wasn’t about to fade quietly into the night. Both men promised that Dan Rather Reports would offer up a brand of take-no-prisoners journalism that simply can’t be found any longer on ratings-driven network television.
So when is this would-be revolution actually going to happen? Well, forgive yourself if you didn’t realize that Dan Rather Reports has actually been airing weekly episodes since November. The show, which basically hews to the model of Rather’s old CBS warhorse 48 Hours, in which one topic is examined from half a dozen angles, arrived with a whimper so soft it might have very well induced an existential crisis for all involved: If a program airs in a vacuum and no one is around to see it, did it even air at all? Barely any of the country’s major television critics or media observers bothered to take notice. As for whether Rather has broken any significant stories or taken advantage of Cuban’s high-definition technology to change the way news programs are created and presented, the answer is no. Unless, of course, you count the episode where the host dines with a Washington lobbyist and the images are so crisply, even perversely, detailed that you can basically see the fingerprints on Rather’s wine glass.
With the combined force of Cuban’s billions and Rather’s chutzpah, Dan Rather Reports obviously should have made more of a splash. Then again, looking at the first few episodes, it’s pretty easy to see what’s gone awry. The first one, titled “Coming Home,” focuses on soldiers returning from the Iraq war. The third, called “Survivors of the Storm,” is about victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In other words, you can feel the weight of Rather’s painstaking seriousness—not to mention his determination to erase the blight of the 60 Minutes “Memogate” incident from his résumé—even before the opening credits have finished rolling. And while Dan Rather Reports (which airs on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. CST) can provide some striking images—like the gymnasium in Fort Hood where families wait en masse to greet their loved ones newly returned from Iraq—the program has a doggedly purposeful, trust-us-it’s-good-for-you quality that makes you feel as if you’re eating brussels sprouts. (Rather’s good intentions deny us even those fruity pleasures we’ve long associated with the eccentric newsman; in the first three episodes, there was only one head-scratching “Rather-ism,” when he called disabled vet Tammy Duckworth’s congressional race “tighter than Springsteen’s headband.”)
Then there’s the matter of the show’s physical inaccessibility: It’s almost impossible to find this thing on your cable box. Cuban’s HDNet reaches approximately four million subscribers via a handful of cable and satellite providers, approximately one tenth the audience of HBO. (Full disclosure: I occasionally appear on HDNet’s film review program, Higher Definition, hosted by Dallas Observer writer Robert Wilonsky.) The network needs every bit of attention that a celebrity like Rather can draw to it. The problem is that Rather—who maintains creative and editorial control over the show—seems unwilling to do anything that might be remotely construed as spotlight grabbing. The newsman calls Dan Rather Reports “a combination of the best of 60 Minutes, Nightline at its best, and See It Now, the old Edward Murrow program,” which is an awfully antiquated-sounding description for a program that’s supposed to be exploiting future-world technology. And indeed, in format and style, Dan Rather Reports resembles many such shows of yore: news segment, followed by thoughtful hand-wringing from the host, followed by another segment, followed by more hand-wringing.
Rather has signed a three-year deal with Cuban, and he expects to produce 42 episodes of Dan Rather Reports each year. (When I interviewed him in mid-December, he told me, “I have more work than I can say grace over.”) As it stands now, though, the newsman is looking like just another big-name accessory for Cuban, who in 2005 signed a similarly impressive-sounding deal with director Steven Soderbergh (see “A Match Made in HD”) to produce six films and upend the movie distribution system in the process—a deal that’s resulted in exactly one picture so far, the completely superfluous Bubble. (As for Cuban, despite his producing successes with Good Night, and Good Luck and the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he’s in danger of turning into one of those rich people who like to buy their friends but then don’t quite know what to do once they agree to hang out with them.)
Make no mistake, Dan Rather Reports offers considerable potential (it runs a full hour without commercials), and its A/V club earnestness is certainly an antidote to the catch-a-pedophile tawdriness of something like NBC’s Dateline. But unless Rather and Cuban are willing to radically rethink their approach, it’s going to be impossible to get anyone to pay attention, much less revolutionize television news. Talk about fading quietly into the night.
A Match Made in HD: The story of another Cuban courtship
Before Mark Cuban teamed up with Dan Rather, he partnered with a different media establishment icon: Oscar-winning director