Gore Ogles Cable in Vivendi Stable as His Media Buy

Will the proposed merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, announced on Tuesday, Sept. 2, benefit the political-counterprogramming media dream of Al Gore?

The Observer has learned that the former Vice President and his business partner, the entrepreneur and former Democratic fund-raiser Joel Hyatt-who both have been quietly sussing out the creation of a cable-TV network for the last year-called a meeting with executives of Universal Television Group early this summer to discuss buying Newsworld International, a tiny cable news channel owned by Universal.

Sources familiar with the situation said the property might be up for grabs now that French-owned Vivendi Universal has embarked on a deal with NBC to merge its Universal Television Group properties. A source who spoke with The Observer on the condition of anonymity said another buyer or partner was also vying for the property.

NWI is part of the proposed NBC–Vivendi Universal Entertainment merger deal, said a spokesperson for Vivendi Universal.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt met with Universal Television chairman Michael Jackson, president of network enterprises Patrick Vien and Vivendi Universal’s chief operating officer, Jean-Bernard Levy. Both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Vien declined to comment on the meeting. Reached for comment, Mr. Hyatt would neither confirm nor deny interest in NWI, but he did criticize the media for not waiting until he had an announcement to make.

It was unclear how the venture would be financed, but in June the media investor and politically active fund-raiser Steve Rattner, head of the Quadrangle Group in New York, was reported to be working with the group in lining up capital.

Until now, NWI has been a snoozy little digital channel that exists in about 20 million homes, pumping out “foreign newscasts originally broadcast in countries such as Germany, Japan, Canada and the European Community”-most of them from CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Theoretically, Mr. Gore and Co. could gut the channel for its bandwidth and reformat it for their own purposes. Interestingly, a source familiar with the situation said that Barry Diller, who sold the property to Universal, originally planned to transform NWI into something else himself-a hipper, edgier news channel that could be an non-ideological answer to Fox News. The plan never got off the ground, according to a source.

NWI was originally bundled with a small group of Canadian properties-among them, the arts network Trio-and acquired by Mr. Diller’s USA Networks in 1999 from a group of investors lead by Mr. Vien. Mr. Diller sold his USA cable properties-including namesake USA Network and the Sci-Fi Channel-to Universal in December 2001 for $10 billion.

It’s possible that NWI is one of many prospective deals that the Gore-Hyatt team is looking at. Another possibility: Vivendi could get the green light to sell NWI to Mr. Gore as part of a potential deal with NBC, which until now has not tendered any cash with its partnership offer.

Tonight, find out what’s shaking in the Pacific: Newsworld International presents News from Japan . If Al Gore owned it, would there be footage of former President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 upchuck visit? [NWI, 103, 8:30 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 4

On Thursday, Aug. 28, Lauren Zalaznick, the president of Trio, the little pop-culture network that could, looked down from her office window on 51st Street and saw throngs of teenagers screaming their leathery lungs out at the MTV Video Music Awards in Rockefeller Center.

“Isn’t that fantastic?” she shouted. “It’s like Day of the Locusts out there! Oh, my GAWD!”

The 40-year-old Ms. Zalaznick is an exclamatory presence. With a mass of spazzy Einstein hair, a hyperactive gleam in her eye and a prominent proboscis, this whip-smart, tough-minded, “scary-smart” TV executive even lets her armpits do a little talking: She has little tufts of hair under there, a vestige of her downtown days as an indie-film producer for auteurs like Todd Haynes and Larry Clark (she worked closely with fellow Brown University alumnus and Killer Film’s founder Christine Vachon on Mr. Haynes’ Safe , and also co-produced Mr. Clark’s Kids with her).

Ms. Zalaznick was very familiar with that MTV crowd below, too. In the mid-1990’s, with the indie-film world getting sucked into the corporate void and Ms. Zalaznick in need of a job, she jumped to television, forgoing her highbrow roots to help usher in the Pop Up Video and Behind the Music era at VH1, weeding out its middling Michael Bolton legacy. The leap from art-house cinema to idiot-box fare was a difficult but critical one, she said.

“It was arbitrary to me, all of a sudden, to distinguish between art forms, and one being valuable and one being stupid,” she recalled. “It took a while to articulate to myself that the whole world was wrong, and that films were not de facto better than stupid television. It was a little rough.”

Since she arrived at Trio in April of 2002, Ms. Zalaznick has waxed and buffed the “arts network” vision dreamed up by its inventor, a Canadian TV executive named Patrick Vien, and its original American owner, Barry Diller (who later sold it to Universal), and Mr. Diller’s British TV prodigy, Universal Television Group chairman Michael Jackson. She’s managed its mix of pop-geek documentaries on 1970’s cinema and uncensored comedy and its oddly compelling lost-TV episodes, like East Side West Side , a single-season 1963 drama about social workers and race relations starring George C. Scott. Ms. Zalaznick dreamed up the latter concept, Brilliant, But Cancelled , which is Trio’s first permanent show as of Sept. 8.

With no measurable audience-it’s only available in 18 million homes-Ms. Zalaznick’s goal has been to make it seem to cable distributors like a must-see for the new TV elite-NPR listeners, New Yorker readers-and one that tempts them to visit the tube for something other than The Sopranos and the odd Burns documentary. And she does it with almost no money: They’ve got a reported $15 million budget.

But Trio is coming on like the White Stripes of TV, a small, cool thing, a little bit highbrow in the Age of Low, versatile and scrappy, complete with a red-and-white color scheme and buckets of critical rave, and it might-might!-turn into something so huge it starts dating Renée Zellweger.

But Trio could also be altered very soon, considering the announcement on Sept. 2 that NBC would likely merge with Trio parent Vivendi Universal Entertainment. NBC’s current cable suite includes Trio’s main rival Bravo, an arts network with millions more viewers and the runaway hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy . Although Trio is in too few homes to measure an audience, NYTV knows four pretty cool people in Brooklyn who watch it. But if Trio is absorbed into NBC, Ms. Zalaznick will rejoin her VH1 colleague Jeff Gaspin, the former executive vice president of programming at VH1, who happens to be the president of Bravo.

Mr. Gaspin said Ms. Zalaznick was a close friend whom he was eager to have in the same company. “I think we really are at very different life stages for the channels, and very different business stages,” he said. “That’s why I don’t consider them competitive.”

Ms. Zalaznick was confident that she could make Trio different from Bravo.

“You think it wasn’t hard to define MTV against VH1 every day of our lives?” she said, recalling her time at Viacom. “It’s like defining yourself against your identical twin.” Ms. Zalaznick said she’s a born pessimist, but she and her colleagues consider this their “lightning in a bottle” moment, when just a few people are working the creative levers of an embryonic network without having to sacrifice integrity. So what the hell: Joel Stein in control of the network for a month? Why not! And who knew that a guy so annoying in print could work so well on TV?

Michael Jackson, the chairman of Universal Television-a strong influence on Trio’s programming, and the fellow who invited Mr. Stein to “curate” the network for a month-told The Observer that, based on conversations he’s had with NBC executives, he was confident they’d keep it around.

“I think people are going to see it as an opportunity,” Mr. Jackson said.

Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing internal debate inside Trio over how to make it successful on its own terms. It’s a marketing question, ultimately, and it’s at the heart of Trio’s conceit. According to executives in the company, Ms. Zalaznick didn’t endear herself to Mr. Diller in the early conceptual meetings for the network, when Mr. Diller apparently bristled at her spiky opinions. And Mr. Jackson and Ms. Zalaznick are said to share less than a warm chemistry when arguing over creative stuff.

Ms. Zalaznick admitted as much. “It’s the cool This American Life of television. But it’s a point of contention with Michael: He’s not a great lover of American television. He didn’t care who Vinnie Barbarino was, and he wouldn’t let us explain. I watched Grease this weekend-because I care .”

For his part, Mr. Jackson said of their differences: “It’s more a debate over how you position a network. We think there’s an audience out there. We’re all dead-set against trying to limit ourselves or blandifiy it into VH1.”

But, said Ms. Zalaznick, “Ultimately, you have to believe that some uncanny combination of intellectual fortitude and slap-happy cultural idiocy is going to yield a hit. And that’s the name of the game. It exists on other networks.”

Ms. Zalaznick said Trio would have gladly aired Queer Eye , a show she loves, but confessed it probably wouldn’t have taken off on Trio-not enough viewers yet. After all, Bravo had NBC to send it into overdrive. Now Trio has NBC, too, so the stakes just got higher for Ms. Zalaznick to prove that Trio can work to her new corporate masters.

“I feel like, if Trio fails, I’ll be the only person-and rightly so-who goes down with that failing ship,” she said.

Tonight, the much-ballyhooed, never-seen-the-light-of-day TV pilot, Beat Cops . Shot in cinéma vérité ! [Trio, 102, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 5

NYTV recently caught up with one of the judges of this year’s Miss America Pageant: Her name is Greta Van Susteren.

“I think it’s sort of fun,” the host of Fox News’ On the Record told NYTV recently, considering the Sept. 20 gig. As a legal analyst, TV journalist and book author, Ms. Van Susteren said she felt qualified.

“It’s not like the U.S. Supreme Court, where you had to go to law school,” she said. “You just have to have a sense of fairness and do a good job. I take it seriously, though. It’s an important scholarship for a lot of women. When I told Henry Kissinger about this, he lit up. He thought it was interesting. He loved it. People may think it’s out of character. I may have a fancy education, but I’m no snob. I admire people who can engage in a competition and who can do well.

“I haven’t been hired to commit armed robbery,” she added. “I’ve been hired to engage in something with a rich cultural history.”

All right. So how does one judge the swimsuit contest?

“That’s a good question. There are certain aesthetics involved. It is one of many parts of the competition. That is only one thing. If you did the best in the swimsuit, you’re not going to win the contest.”

Ms. Van Susteren said she really liked these women, too-better than “some of my so-called elite-snob friends who are drinking white wine and eating Brie. I’m not a snob. I appreciate what these young women are doing in the contest. When I hear someone make a crack about Miss America, I look at them and say, ‘Well, what are you doing? What are you accomplishing?’ They’re learning to sing and dance, and some of them went to Harvard.”

Hey, and if they happen to be hot ….

“No crime in that one,” Ms. Van Susteren said. “No crime in being physically fit. A lot of it is genetic. Not only that, there are doctors. Last year, there was a veterinarian. I mean, I couldn’t even get through chemistry!”

Ms. Van Susteren started leafing through the pageant catalog and looked up Miss New York-her name’s Jessica Lynch!

“She was dean’s list,” said Ms. Van Susteren. “That’s not bad. That’s not bad at all! And Miss Montana. Dean’s list-not bad. She works at a gift shop and as a waitress. She’s a young kid. She’s got goals. And look at Miss Texas. Her talent is interesting-‘ballet on pointe.’ Maybe she could teach both of us something.”

Tonight, Ms. Van Susteren judges the news. She will not wear a swimsuit. [FNC, 46, 10 p.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 6

Yes, Anna Kournikova, the beloved three-day veteran of USA Network’s crack reporting team, has left the grounds. But the women’s final of the U.S. Open must go on-chin up! [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 7

Tonight, NYTV will salve the pain of summer’s end by watching Kurt Russell in his best movie, 1997’s Breakdown , as the yuppie hubby who must battle evil rednecks to retrieve his kidnapped wife. [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 8

Check out the premiere of CNN’s refurbished prime-time news program, Paula Zahn Now . Or Never . [CNN, 10, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 9

David Coury, a 45-year-old “custom vocal coach” in Hollywood, has some ideas about how get Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop garbling his words like Frankenstein and start … singing.

“I would tap into Arnold’s musicality,” said Mr. Coury, who has worked with Traci Lords, Uta Hagen and American Juniors contestant Chantel Kohl. “We are all musical beings. Words equals music equals words equals music.”

Mr. Coury called his method “uncharted territory” because he challenges people’s “vocal realities.” He would have to explore Mr. Schwarzenegger’s relationship with Maria Shriver to really get to the heart of the matter.

“I would focus on him and his relationship with his wife,” he said, “what he thinks of her writing children’s books, what he says to his children-there’s a different voice that happens in the house than in public persona. He could try the same speech twice, his way and mine, and it would be amazing, the difference.”

He said he’d do it for free, too: “I would be available to him 24/7 for council. ‘David, what do you think of this?’ ‘This thing bothers me.'”

Mr. Coury also insinuated that Mr. Schwarzenegger had better hurry up and call him, because only so much singing can get him out of all of his recent revelations.

Access Hollywood host Pat O’Brien recently received a free gift certificate for his services, but had not yet exercised the option. What’s he waiting for? “He keeps saying, ‘I’m out of town,'” said Mr. Coury. What town could he be out of? He works for Access Hollywood . [WNBC, 4, 7:30 p.m.]

Gore Ogles Cable in Vivendi Stable as His Media Buy