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Can Peter Brennan Rekindle His 'Affair'?

Rupert Murdoch has little patience. First, he wanted to create a TV newsmagazine that resembled the tabloid energy of News Corp. newspapers. Then he wanted to debut it in four weeks. To make that happen, he tapped Peter Brennan, one of his favorite producers. The Sydney native had started a hit morning show for News Corp. in Australia, and Murdoch hoped Brennan's sass would play in the U.S.

It did. A Current Affair, which debuted in 1986 hosted by Maury Povich, was a breakthrough show that launched a new syndication genre: the TV tabloid magazine.

Five years later, Brennan left the show to take over Paramount's failing Hard Copy for its second season—and he doubled its ratings. He later created Good Day New York, the pioneer of Fox's Good Day franchise, along with Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. But without its creator, A Current Affair gradually lost its luster. Ratings fell, and it was canceled in 1996. Now Rupert Murdoch's son Lachlan is betting that the time is right to bring it back. And he has hired Brennan, now 59, as executive producer. The show, which may return as early as April, will be syndicated by Twentieth Television but will have an initial run on the Fox O&Os. Brennan talked with B&C's Jim Finkle about rekindling Affair.

Why air A Current Affair now?

Lachlan took a look at the TV landscape and saw the vacancy. The original A Current Affair quickly had serious competition. Inside Edition and Hard Copy were intense rivals. Since then, Hard Copy has gone away, and Inside has gone soft. Today's rival magazine strips are celebrity puff. A Current Affair is a great idea at this time. I can't think of any other TV exec who's attempted something like this—bringing back a news-related show, or any kind of show for that matter, after an absence of eight years. It was a great franchise; it made a lot of money. In many ways, the competition is weaker now than it was then. It's a great decision and should be a lot of fun.

You established the tabloid genre. Now you have competition.

They're all the same show, kissing up to celebrities, though some are better than others. It sometimes seems like they're a half-hour of 30-second promos for a story that never happens. Everybody is afraid to do something longer than a minute and a half. About the only place you see that is on Court TV. Even though they don't really have the budget to do it, they are better storytellers. I also like A&E's City Confidential.

Given its problems in the 1990s, how will you get viewers to come back?

We're going to have a fresh start. We'll be coming in with a new chance to entertain people. My experience is that most people remember A Current Affair at its best, when Maury Povich was a welcome visitor and they trusted him. That's a blessing we appreciate deeply.

What's your formula for the new show?

It's going to be different now, the same way it was different then. Television and cable news have discovered tabloid. But they find one tabloid story and decide that it's the one. It becomes obsessive. Like with O.J. and Laci Peterson. They are afraid to leave it for a day and tell a new story in case they get scooped. We'll be doing a show with much greater variety each day. There are stories as good as or more disturbing than Laci Peterson out there. What we used to do was to do a new Laci Peterson every week, or even more often than that—like a mini-movie for 30 minutes or 10 minutes.

So you wouldn't have spent much time on the Peterson case?

If we did something, it would be because we had something exclusive that nobody else had.

Have you found a host?

We're excited by some talent that's available and interested right now. But we haven't signed anyone; officially, we're still looking. That's what I'm doing right now. [We want] somebody who has a news and story background, who understands what a story is and can tell it with some passion.

Any particular qualities?

He will be a guy like Maury, a regular guy who is offended by the things that offend most of us. His taste level is common to the guy next door. He is generous. He is self-effacing. He has a sense of humor. Men and women like him. He's not boring. He's edgy. [Think of this person] as a friend or neighbor who calls five nights a week who entertains you. He basically comes in and tells you stories. Some nights, he's hilarious; some nights, he's dramatic.

Sounds like you're looking for a man.

I'm a Leslie Stahl groupie. I would never rule out a woman as host. What's out there right now are more male possibilities, though it could end up being female.

Will you have somebody ready to meet station managers at NATPE?

I hope so. I can't guarantee. Last time, we had four weeks from the time Mr. Murdoch decided to go with the show to when we aired. This time, we don't feel quite as pressed to deliver a name.

Why was the show so successful in the late 1980s?

It was sort of edgy. We did stories that nobody else was doing. We had fun. It had a heart. The show was unpredictable. One of its great strengths was that we didn't know what we were going to do tomorrow.

After you left the show, it gradually went down hill. What happened?

They started using supermarket-kind-of-tabloid people to run it. That was a big mistake. There was never an equivalent between A Current Affair and the supermarket tabloids. It became mean-spirited. It exploited people's misery. It seemed to me to look down on its story subjects and viewers. It treated everybody like trailer trash. It became something too cynical to have around five times a week.

Shortly before Affair was cancelled, Fox hired John Tomlin and Bob Young as executive producers to turn things around.

They were capable of saving it. But it was too late to repair the damage. Bob and John were the first guys I asked to join us when Lachlan said go.

To what extent will the new Current Affair resemble The Daily Show?

If there is something funny to do and we can pull it off, we'll try. There is nothing we won't try to do, unless it's corny or mean-spirited or pompous. The worst thing the show could ever do is be pompous. I'd love to have a couple of Jon Stewart's field correspondents. I'd like to have Ali G now and then. We're open.