Love him or hate him, Geraldo Rivera
has always been impossible to ignore. He made his first big splash in 1971 on New York City's WABC, with a groundbreaking exposé of wretched conditions at Willowbrook, a Staten Island school for the mentally ill, and he hasn't been far from the spotlight since. As an investigative newsmagazine journalist, daytime talk-show host or cable-news anchor, he's never been afraid to take risks. So it's no surprise he's taken up the daunting task of anchoring a syndicated daily half-hour news show for Fox — Geraldo at Large
, starting Oct. 31 (check listings). The Biz recently talked with him about the upcoming project.
TV Guide.com: You were in a secure spot at Fox News Channel, the No. 1 cable news network. You had a weekend show and were being dispatched to the big story when necessary....
Rivera: It wasn't just a secure spot — it was the No. 1-rated cable news program on the weekend.
TVGuide.com: Even better. I don't think I have to tell you that syndicated TV is the toughest game in the business.
Rivera: It is. I did it for a dozen years. In a business sense, it's even more fractured now than it was then.
TVGuide.com: And on top of that you're doing a news show.
Rivera: It's never been done. There has never been a network news division producing a syndicated program before. But therein lies its secret. There are many areas [of the country] where we are up against the evening news, for instance. I think we have a realistic chance of getting some percentage of that audience that wants the news but don't want it in a predictable fashion. I'm not putting down network news, but it does have a kind of approach that's become predictable over the years. I think if people want an alternate voice they can tune in to this program.
TVGuide.com: What will the new show look like?
Rivera: It's going to have three segments. I'll do the lead story from the appropriate location. We have Fox News correspondents who've been assigned to the show — three or four domestic reporters — and we'll be able to tap into the worldwide resources of Fox News. It will be live in New York at 4 pm, and we'll do a second feed for the West Coast.
TVGuide.com: But if I wanted the Fox brand of news, why wouldn't I just turn to the Fox News Channel?
Rivera: That's an excellent question, and I think the answer is — and I'm the biggest fan of the Fox News Channel — that there is something about the personalized "Geraldo" approach that makes people prefer to watch me over some of their stalwarts.... It's weird what makes people want to watch one person or one program over another, when the information being delivered is not all that different. But that's always been the magic or chemistry of success.
TVGuide.com: What is the Geraldo approach today?
Rivera: The whole Geraldo at Large slogan I think encapsulates what the last 35 years have been: news with passion, news with a point of view. It's reporter involvement. It's kind of taking what we helped create at Eyewitness News in New York City back in 1970 and applying it to all the great events of the day. It's not the reporter up on Mount Olympus lecturing down to people. It's a reporter who's involved. If it's sad and it affects him, you show it.... All that kind of stuff I think we pioneered. I'm singing the same song I've been singing for 35 years. I haven't changed at all.
TVGuide.com: Has the Geraldo style become so recognizable that it sometimes gets in the way of telling the story? Do people say "That's Geraldo" instead of paying attention to what you're reporting?
Rivera: Two points: You know that I'm no different on camera than off. It's not acting. It's Geraldo. The second point, whether it gets in the way of the story, it really depends on whom you're talking to. I believe that the professional viewers — the TV critic or some of my peers in the business — can't get past it. They can't get past the violation of the sacrosanct, that reporters' primary duty is to convey data from Point A to Point B, to communicate just the facts. More people than not, the average Jane and Joe, relate to what I do. I'm a normal person in many ways. I get tagged with adjectives like flamboyant and whatever else — so what? I don't care what reviewers say about me. I don't think that there is anything that anyone can say, other than a lie, that can affect what people think about me. Most Americans were born after I was on TV. Many have a Geraldo anecdote. I have people come up to me this day [saying], "I had a cousin in Willowbrook; I got into social work because of your work; I work with migrant farmers because of you." I've had an impact on people's lives over the years. No one's ever going to take that away from me.
TVGuide.com: Do you think Katrina reminded viewers that there is a value to your kind of style?
Rivera: When I held up that infant on Friday night... The storm had hit Sunday night, and the flood happened Tuesday. By Friday evening at the convention center, without any food, to call that one in some cool, calm way would have been absolutely dishonest. I held up that baby; there was no way anybody can spin it. It wasn't about whether FEMA was responsible, or the governor or the mayor was responsible. It was about the fact that those children were still there. They still hadn't gotten help, and [former FEMA Director] Michael Brown was giving interviews about how things were going hunky-dory. But from those pictures, you would have never been able to tell.