Television

'The I-man' means business at Fox cable network

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Wasn't it inevitable that Don Imus would someday wind up on Fox?

Today is the day "Imus in the Morning" signs on at FBN, also known as the Fox Business Network. (For those who are hearing those three words together for the first time, it's probably on your digital cable lineup.) Last week, the I-Man and his crew, including newsreader Charles McCord and producer/lightning rod Bernard McGuirk, moved into new studios at the News Corp. building that overlooks Sixth Avenue. It is one block south of and catty-corner from 30 Rockefeller Center, so Imus could go to a corner window and give Keith Olbermann the finger.

Two and a half years ago the management of NBC cravenly (or finally, depending on your viewpoint) gave in to mounting outrage over Imus' comments about Rutgers basketball players and ousted the crotchety radio host from his long-running MSNBC program. Even before he could be given the bum's rush, soon-to-be-ex-colleagues were speaking out against him. "Today" show weatherman Al Roker called for his firing. "NBC Nightly News" aired a highly critical story that Imus, after he saw it, called "disgraceful."

Olbermann, too, piled on with unsympathetic pieces on "Countdown," suggesting that the pressure to can Imus was mostly coming from inside the building. In a radio interview he went further, saying that McGuirk — who had called the Rutgers women "hardcore ho's" on the infamous April 4, 2007, broadcast, just before Imus chimed in with "nappy-headed ho's" — was "a vile person who has done vile things on the air."

Meanwhile, Fox News Channel was providing safe haven to those who felt Imus was getting railroaded. "Hannity & Colmes" invited McGuirk to spar with — that is, beat up on — Al Sharpton. "You terrorized these spineless, thumb-sucking executives into making a bad decision," McGuirk snarled at Sharpton, accusing the reverend of leading the anti-Imus campaign "so you could get back in the papers because you're being overshadowed by Barack Obama." On another Fox program, pundit Jim Pinkerton asserted that Sharpton's misdeeds in the past were "much worse" than those of Imus.

Now that the I-man is at the media outlet more diametrically opposed to MSNBC than any other, it is fair to ask, not so much if he will go after MSNBC, but what choice insults he has been saving up for this moment.

"Are there some people who, if I was given an opportunity to get even with them, would I? Of course," Imus told the AP's David Bauder earlier this year.

He probably will steer clear of his successor on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough. The former Florida congressman hosts "Morning Joe," probably the most Imus-like TV show on the air right now, with its blend of political talk, author interviews and hostly crankiness. His newsreader, Mika Brzezinski, provides both support and pushback, not unlike the long-running shtick between Imus and McCord. The success of "Morning Joe" led New York's WABC radio to offer Scarborough and Brzezenski their own midday show — which immediately follows "Imus in the Morning."

Since December 2007, when WABC put him on the air (because he was also dumped by his radio flagship, WFAN), "Imus in the Morning" has been a top 10-rated show in the New York market. But the show's visibility is nowhere near what it was. The Omaha-based satellite channel RFD-TV had been simulcasting the show, but its distribution is a fraction of Fox Business, which is in 50 million homes. Once Fox got interested, RFD let Imus out of his contract without a fight.

"We are looking at this as one of the great treats of the century," said Kevin Magee, the executive VP who oversees FBN. "We've got a guy coming in with a built-in audience which we believe is completely compatible with what we're looking for."

And it's not just the audience that's built-in. The long roster of perma-guests includes brother Fred Imus, ex-NYPD cop Bo Dietl, countless friends in the media and a bevy of fake guests — "Bill Clinton," "Larry King" — courtesy of the show's house impressionist Rob Bartlett.

But there are a couple of noticeable changes from the MSNBC days. Glenn Beck, the Fox News Channel sensation, now calls in to talk to the I-man. After the FBN deal was announced, Beck joked on Imus' show, "Finally, someone else to draw the fire."

Also, when Imus signed on at WABC he hired two black comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell. Foster's contract wasn't renewed this year, but Powell still checks in regularly with features like "That B---- Is Crazy." (Even the politically correct hire is expected to play by the Imus rules.)

Yet some say that Imus, now 69 years old and a recent prostate-cancer survivor, is sounding mellower these days. The Rutgers controversy seemed to chasten him. Some of his harshest critics were invited onto his show, where they came away convinced of the host's sincerity and even kindness.

Fox's Magee said that fans won't really see much difference between this incarnation of the simulcast and the one on MSNBC, except that the I-man's head will shrink from time to time (along with the rest of the frame) so that FBN can push more business headlines and market stats onto the screen.

And as for the guys across the street? "I'm not lying to you when I say we aren't looking at MSNBC," said Magee.

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