Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Can Derek McGinty save the political round-table show? Does it need saving?

These are the questions being batted around the newsroom at WUSA-TV (Channel 9) this week as the CBS affiliate rushes to get the first edition of Mr. McGinty’s newest program, “Eye on Washington,” on the air Saturday evening.

The half-hour show will replace “Inside Washington,” which is moving to WJLA-TV (Channel 7) in December with its host, longtime Channel 9 anchor Gordon Peterson.

Managers and staffers at WUSA say they want to preserve the legacy of “Inside Washington,” one of Channel 9’s signature shows for more than 30 years.

But they also know that if ever a television format was overdue for a shake-up, the political round-table show is it.

When “Inside Washington” debuted in 1969, it was called “Agronsky & Company” and the moderator was veteran television and radio reporter Martin Agronsky.

Each week, Mr. Agronsky and his panelists — a marquee group of columnists and commentators who spanned the ideological spectrum, including Carl T. Rowan and George F. Will — debated the big issues of the day.

“Agronsky” changed its name to “Inside Washington” when Mr. Peterson became the host in 1988. By that time, the show had spawned several imitators, including “The McLaughlin Group,” which perverted the format by surrounding a loud host — John McLaughlin — with even louder panelists.

Today, viewers can choose from “McLaughlin,” “Crossfire” and “Capital Gang,” as well as the Sunday morning network talk shows and a schedule full of noisy debate shows on the cable news networks.

“Inside Washington” has maintained its sober tone over the years, but the other programs largely have devolved into self-parody.

The shouting that began on “McLaughlin” has spread to the other shows, seriously compromising their ability to inform viewers.

During his notorious appearance on “Crossfire” last month, comedian Jon Stewart pleaded with that program’s hosts to “stop hurting America.”

Mr. McGinty wants “Eye on Washington” to be different. He promises that the show will be shout-free and pledges to use a roster of ideologically balanced panelists; but beyond that, he’s not sure what form “Eye on Washington” will take.

“It’s going to be a work in progress,” he said.

Mr. McGinty is also cautious. He knows better than anyone that reinventing the wheel in TV news is tough.

Since September 2003, the former National Public Radio talk-show host has anchored “USA Tonight,” a noble attempt to present a smarter version of local TV news.

The program gives viewers many of the things they say they want in a newscast — more reports on the government and the environment, fewer stories about crime and house fires — but it struggles in the ratings.

“The bottom line is that these shows have been around for a long time. I don’t think you can change them too much,” Mr. McGinty said.

Gordo’s return

Speaking of “Inside Washington,” it will get a new time slot when it moves to WJLA on Dec. 5 — Sundays at 10:30 a.m., after “Capital Sunday,” the public-affairs show that Kathleen Matthews and Leon Harris host.

The ABC affiliate is unable to air “Inside Washington” Saturdays at 7 p.m. — its old Channel 9 time slot — because it is committed to airing “Wheel of Fortune” at that hour.

All of the regular “Inside Washington” panelists will move with the show to WJLA.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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