NEW YORK - With the real Tucker Carlson sitting beside him in a conference room, MSNBC chief Rick Kaplan grumbles at something the televised Tucker Carlson says on a taped run-through of the new prime-time talk show "The Situation."
"You disagree?" Carlson asks his boss.
"You're just wrong," Kaplan replies.
They make an odd couple. On the right, the bowtied conservative. On the left, the friend of Bill Clinton now running his second cable news network.
But they're longtime pals whose fates are now linked. Carlson's talk show, which debuts 9 p.m. EDT Monday, is MSNBC's first new prime-time program since Kaplan took control in February 2004, his most visible chance to place his stamp.
Creating a new political talk show in a crowded market has been "more daunting than I thought, hurts-your-brain daunting," Carlson said.
Two separate development teams have simultaneously worked on "The Situation" since Carlson started at MNSBC in February. Sixteen people were tested for the regular roles of commentary sidekicks before Air America radio host Rachel Maddow and GOP consultant Jay Severin were picked. Keith Olbermann, Monica Crowley, Ron Silver and others will occasionally fill in.
Based on one test show, the result feels a little like ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" for news, with the panelists racing through opinions on a series of topics.
Before leaving the now-cancelled "Crossfire," Carlson sat through an on-air lecture by comedian Jon Stewart about how the argumentative show was doing little to advance the cause of democracy. The irony was that Carlson had privately concluded much the same thing. He had already decided to leave the show and CNN.
He still loves political arguments, but without the nastiness and phoniness he frequently sees on the air.
"I want people to feel like the people they're watching on the tube really like each other, know each other really well and have genuine respect and affection for one another," said Carlson, his bowtie rakishly undone.
He said a test for a host should be: "Are you taking other points of views seriously or are you using your program as a platform for your own megalomania?"
Although he and Severin may outnumber Maddow, Carlson said, "she's not a fake liberal. She's not a straw man. She's real. She's not there as a punching bag for me. She does more than hold her own."
No names are whispered, but the reference to Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" seems pretty clear. That show leads the cable news ratings in Carlson's time slot.
"The Situation" prompted a warning letter from the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America a week before going on the air. The group complained about the potential for unfair fights, although organization President David Brock said he was encouraged by Maddow's hiring.
Media Matters said it also was concerned that Carlson's show will air back-to-back with another anchored by conservative Joe Scarborough at a time no identifiable liberals have their own prime-time shows on cable news.
"The deck is stacked," said Brock, who promised his group would monitor "The Situation" to see if promises of fairness are kept.
With the exception of industry leaders such as Peter Jennings or Brian Williams, Kaplan said he believes viewers today are more comfortable with hosts or anchors that have a definite point of view, as long as they don't try to hide it.
"What we have on the air is not a right-wing program or a left-wing program or even a middle-of-the-road program," said Kaplan, a longtime producer at CBS and ABC News before moving up the executive ranks. "We think that we have a program that's full of opinion and full of biases on all sides. I think that's really the key. You want to leave it with the viewers to make their own determinations."
Kaplan and Carlson know each other from time together at CNN, where Kaplan presided in the late 1990s. He said Carlson's writing first drew his attention, and liked that he wasn't a cookie-cutter conservative afraid to take contrarian views.
"I was always impressed with him as the kind of journalist that we need more of, someone who was smart and had opinions but listened to what was going on around him," he said. "I used to think the greatest shortcoming that he had was that he looked 12. I knew that as he aged he would become a valuable commodity."
The format was still taking shape last week. Carlson's show will also discuss newspaper opinion columns from across the country and have newsmaker interviews that depart from traditional areas of expertise - John McCain talking sports, for instance.
Both MSNBC - the No. 3 cable news network in a market that hasn't demonstrated an appetite for more than two - and CNN now seem to be taking the same approach against Fox News Channel's prime-time dominance. Instead of trying a lot of different programming ideas, both Kaplan and new CNN chief executive Jonathan Klein have tinkered and molded the shows already on the air.
Kaplan realized that MSNBC's chief problem was a head-spinning series of changes that robbed it of any identity. "My first challenge when I got here was to convince the audience we know what we're doing, we know who we are and we're going to give shows a chance to make it," Kaplan said.
Deborah Norville's decision to quit her prime-time show last winter made room for "The Situation."
Kaplan hopes the show is a calling card for his version of MSNBC, smart programming filled with information that leaves viewers feeling like they've learned something new.
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