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A More 'Current Affair’?

In this week’s cover story, “Inside the Fluff Factory,” Deborah Starr Seibel expertly pulls back the veil on the cutthroat syndicated-magazine world. Hundreds of millions at stake, celebrities gone wild, back-stabbing competition—it’s all there.

Seibel closes her tale with this tantalizing news: There’s talk of bringing back that classic 1980s tube confection, A Current Affair. The show was created in ’86 by one of Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenants, fellow Australian Peter Brennan, who fueled it with the sort of sass, humor, blood, guts and energy that propels the best tabloid newspapers. Hosted with a trademark nod-and-wink ease by anchor Maury Povich, Affair quickly hit it big. Soon, there were imitators, including one Brennan would eventually run: Hard Copy.

By 1996, with Povich long gone to do his Oprah-meets-Springer talk show and Brennan departed, too (he’d later launch Judge Judy), Affair had run out of gas. But so much of what it pioneered—the lurid, noir-ish coverage of murder tales from the heartland, the tongue-in-cheek celebrity reports and the dramatic re-creations—became standard operating procedure across the tube landscape, from Dateline to 48 Hours Mysteries.

“When we first started, Affair was about the only place covering stories like the Laci Peterson murder,” says Brennan. “Now everybody from the network newsmagazines to the cable news channels can’t get enough of it.”

Inside the Murdoch empire, word is the drive to re-launch the franchise is coming from Rupert himself and is strongly seconded by son Lachlan, who is running the Fox station group—an ideal launch pad for a post-millennium A Current Affair. If that power duo wants it to happen, odds are good that, when studio, station and network brass are wheeling and dealing next January at the NATPE confab in Las Vegas, 20th Century’s distribution arm will be pushing a new Affair.

Brennan says, if the show’s a go, he’s likely to saddle up again to run it. It may be a bumpy ride. The fact that Affair’s punk-news sensibility is now commonplace could be a mixed blessing: Yes, the show that once spooked advertisers will be an easier sell, but it might also mean that Affair would find it hard to stand out.

A Brennan acolyte once told me that part of the secret alchemy of Affair’s success was that you could report anything “no matter how sleazy if, in telling the story, you were sure to say how just how shocked you were by the tale you were telling.”

Burt Kearns, who worked with Brennan on Affair and chronicled their various misadventures in his 1999 book Tabloid Baby, says there was something more going on. “When we were at our height, we were really a red-state show,” he says. “We told our stories from the viewer’s perspective. We were their surrogates. We didn’t do all this 'oohh, aahh’ celebrity stuff that everybody out there does these days. If Brennan brings it back, he won’t be looking at four monitors and saying, 'Dateline did that, or ET did, so we better get on it.’ You do stories nobody else will go near.”

If Affair becomes current again, a charismatic anchor à la Povich would be essential. “I think Maury is all tied up and making too much money with his show,” says Brennan. “But if we go ahead, I’d give him a call to see if he’s interested.”