Anderson Cooper isn’t the first newscaster to make the jump to daytime talk show host. Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, Barbara Walters, Julie Chen – they’ve all done it before him. Anderson also won’t be the last newscaster to make the jump to daytime talk today host. Katie Couric will be launching her own syndicated daytime show, simply called Katie, in the fall of 2012.
But it’s safe to say that Anderson Cooper is probably the least likely of those newscasters you’d ever expect to have a daytime talk show. After all, this is the guy we’re used to seeing reporting from the frontlines of war-torn nations; the Yale-educated serious CNN anchor who’s known worldwide for his outstanding coverage of Rwandan Genocide, the Sri Lanka tsunami, the war in Somalia and Bosnia, Niger famine, the earthquake in Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina, among others. I mean, he’s a Vanderbilt for Christ’s sake! How is this guy going to do cooking segments, comment on fashion trends, and hock out weight-loss tips?
Well – the short of it is, he’s not. Because Anderson, Cooper’s daytime talk that begins airing in syndication today (Monday, September 12th), is not your typical daytime talk show. And Anderson Cooper, not your typical daytime talk show host. The show promises an array of topics, and for Cooper himself, a variety in his own personality. “I’ve been reporting for twenty years,” he tells us in a phone interview earlier this week. “It’s nice for me to be able to share different sides of myself and just be real. That’s certainly what I want to come out of this show: for viewers to get a sense of what I’m like as a fully rounded three-dimensional person.”
Of course, we’ve seen glimpses of a lighter, looser Anderson Cooper before – on his New Years Eve hosting gigs with Kathy Griffin, his loving tweets about RHONJ star NeNe Leakes, and his occasional giggle fest during his “Ridiculist” segments on his CNN show, Anderson Cooper 360°. Lest we forget, he also hosted ABC’s reality flop The Mole. In all of those cases, we saw a more relatable Andy – fun, silly, and downright genuine.
We’ve also seen him in daytime before. He’s contributed guest segments on The Oprah Winfrey Show since 2005, and subbed in for Regis Philbin on Regis and Kelly a whopping 39 times. It’s those experiences that got Cooper excited for launching his own daytime show in the first place. “I really started to see the connection you can have with viewers in daytime,” he explained. “You can really build meaningful connections, not just with viewers that are in the studio, but also with viewers at home.”
Yet the formality of news often prohibits that connection with viewers. You won’t really find it on 360°, or on his bi-monthly 60 Minutes segments. “In news, the interviews are not about me,” Cooper tells us. “I am not interested in trying to look smart or trying to look like anything; I’m interested in hearing from the other person and trying to elicit responses from the other person. In daytime TV, it’s much more of a two-way conversation.”
That’s not to say Cooper won’t still do nightly airings of 360°. And you’ll continue to see his contributions to 60 Minutes too. He’s also prepared to head to the frontline of breaking news whenever needed – with plenty of Anderson episodes in the can to cover him. And there’s always crossover potential. Says Cooper: “If it’s a really big story and it would be of interest to a daytime viewer and we feel we can do it in a way that would be different than I would be doing it on CNN, then we would tape the daytime show there or do some segment from wherever I am for the daytime show.”
Creating that separation between news viewer and daytime viewer seems important to Cooper, who’s hoping that honesty conversation will not only lead to a more relatable Cooper, but more relatable topics: “A lot of times, people don’t feel like the news connects to their day-to-day lives. A lot of the topics you can cover in daytime TV really resonates in people’s lives. As someone who enjoys story telling, that’s a very satisfying connection to make.”
Looking at Anderson’s premiere week this week, you definitely see some relatable topics. Monday’s episode sees a sit-down with Amy Winehouse’s family for an exclusive one-on-one. Tuesday, he comes back with a rundown of how he spent his summer, including segments with pal Kathy Griffin, his How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying co-star Daniel Radcliffe, and a spray tanning session with Snooki (“one of the odder experiences of my life”). Wednesday, he’ll speak with Baby Jane Doe and Miraculous Mary – two women who made headlines when they were abandoned as infants. Then Thursday? It’s back to fun-times with Sarah Jessica Parker and the cast of I Don’t Know How She Does It. Friday sees the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in an hour-long discussion on the reality of Reality TV – a topic of course sparked the suicide of Russell Armstrong. Quite the variety, huh?
“We feel that this is going to be one of the few shows on daytime that can cover a broad range of topics, from big celebrity interviews one day to provocative social issues the next day to fun pop culture stuff the following day,” explains Cooper. And don’t think he’s concerned with the already crowded daytime market either – Cooper already knows how he’ll stand out from the Dr. Phil’s and Rachel Ray’s of the world. “There’s a lot of shows which are sort of narrow cast, which are very well done with very talented people and do really well. But we really see this show as offering a broad range of topics and stories.”
Delving into some of those premiere week topics, you really get a sense of Cooper’s sincerity. Interviewing the Winehouses, for example, seems less about making headlines and more about wanting to help other families who may have a relative going through substance abuse. “Who doesn’t have somebody in their family who hasn’t been going through substance abuse issues and who has either overcome them or succumb to them or is still struggling with them?” he asks. “I think the Winehouses have been very public over the years in trying to get Amy help. They wrote public letters to her, they told people not to buy her albums because the money would go toward her drugs. They have been very in the forefront of trying to get her help and I think that’s something that resonates with everyone who is trying to figure out to do with a loved one and trying to get them help.”
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills conversation on Russell Armstrong’s suicide seems to hold similar weight. Cooper’s own brother, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, committed suicide on July 22, 1988, at age 23, by jumping from the 14th-floor terrace of Vanderbilt’s New York City penthouse apartment. To this day, Anderson says he’s still trying to figure out why he did it: “Anyone who survives suicide, that’s one of the horrible things about it: you can’t pinpoint one thing necessarily always that did it. You can’t put yourself in someone else’s mind, a mind that is not acting rationally or not thinking rationally. [So] I don’t think we know enough about what happened to Russell Armstrong to judge that.”
Yet that doesn’t mean that the episode won’t explore the ramifications of Russell’s suicide – both on his friends and family, on reality TV, and on us viewers. “We spent probably half the show talking about Russell’s suicide and whether or not the show should be on the air at all and if they bare any responsibility or that reality TV bares any responsibility in what happened to him,” Cooper tells us. “I thought those were all issues to put out to the Real Housewives, [because] rarely do you ever get to seem them in an environment that’s not under the control of the producer’s of their show. So, I thought it was interesting to have them in a venue where they can be asked anything and we had a freewheeling conversation.”
Cooper will also have a chance to explore the impact of suicide from another view: the eyes of his 87-year-old mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. In a future episode, he’ll sit down with the heiress to discuss her life, and the wisdom she can offer to all generations. “She comes from a time and place that no longer exists,” Cooper says, with affection. “She was born in the ‘20s and into this family of great wealth and she’s suffered tremendous tragedy early on in her life. Her father died when she was an infant, the case of her custody battle where she was taken away from her own mother and at the time it was called the trial of the century. It was the height of the Depression it was the biggest tabloid story of that generation. And yet, she is somebody who no matter what has happened to her, she’s a survivor.“
Don’t think of Gloria as a tough-as nails women either. Says Cooper: “My mom, she’s not tough at all. But she does have this inner core determination and drive to move forward. And to remain to be open to be hurt. And to remain to be open to experiences. My mom is 87 and she still thinks that her next great love is right around the corner, it fuels her. There’s something really remarkable about that, to be able to survive. But not to survive with a thick skin and survive with a tough hide, but to survive and still have your heart open and still be open to new experiences to new heartbreak and new love and to new triumphs. To me that’s one of the things I learned from her and what people will see and be inspired by.”
These three episodes seem like they’ll guide a lot of the tone of the show. But don’t expect everyone to have celebrity connections, like Gloria Vanderbuilt or the Winehouses. “I’m interested in having real conversations with people,” Cooper explains. “And maybe they’re people you’ve heard of. But people over the years who I’ve really learned the most from and get the most out of talking to and want to talk to the most are not big celebrities, they’re real people that are facing real life challenges. And weather those people are in Haiti or in Africa or here in the United States in New Orleans trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives in the wake of a storm, it’s real people. And in daytime TV it’s those stories that you can tell every single day. And yes, we’re going to have big celebrities, but even when we do, we’re going to try to have real conversations with them. It’s not going to be a celebrity stopping by to pitch their latest product or their latest movie. There’s other shows that will do that and do it very well. We’d like to have a real conversation with somebody and either have a fun time with them or a serious time with them or a mix of both, but actually try to learn something from them that we can apply in our own lives. That I can apply in my own life, that a viewer can apply in their own life.”
It seems like Anderson Cooper has the perfect balance struck, between silliness and substance – news and daytime. I’ll certainly be checking Anderson out when it premieres in syndication today. Will you?