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Tina Brown: 'I've Always Put Myself in the Hot Seat'
The host of "Topic A with Tina Brown" says she plans to be low-key with the promotion of her new CNBC talk show, having learned from the ill-fated Talk magazine that "buzz can be harmful."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 04/30/03

Tina Brown is the host of "Topic A with Tina Brown," a quarterly roundtable discussion program featuring guests from the worlds of business, politics and entertainment, debuting tonight on CNBC at 9 p.m. ET.

"Topic A" marks Brown's first foray into television, after editing such high-profile magazines as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and finally Talk, which folded last year. Brown also contributes a regular column on politics and popular culture to the Times of London and

The legendary editor and oft-described Queen of Buzz spoke with I Want Media about how "Topic A" is unlike other talk shows, why today's environment for magazines has never "been worse," and how she's managed to generate buzz throughout her career.

I Want Media: So tell us about "Topic A With Tina Brown." What's the show about? What's the format?

Tina Brown: The format of the show is bringing people together who I consider would have something to say to one another, to discuss aspects of our times and what's in the news in a way that simply creates a great conversation.

In the first show I have Barry Diller in conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, the author of "The Tipping Point." The concept was to not put Barry with a businessman as to put someone with him who he would find interesting and didn't know. Malcolm is at the moment writing his next book, which is going to be about decision-making. And I thought that that would be very interesting, because Barry spends his life making decisions.

In the next segment I've got Conrad Black, who owns the Telegraph newspaper in England, the Jewish Post, and he's a kind of major right-wing. And I have him in conversation with Howard Stringer, the boss of Sony.

And I also have Queen Noor [of Jordan] with the historian Simon Schama. Given that Queen Noor has written a book and we now know more about her, I thought that Simon, who is so incredibly interesting with a historical slant on issues, would be a great person to be in conversation with her.

IWM: How will your show be different from what's already on the air?

Brown: I'm trying to bring people together who you wouldn't necessarily see together anywhere else. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. I'm simply trying to create a conversation that has information and interest.

IWM: The war in Iraq got in the way of the debut of your show. Were you surprised that you were postponed?

Brown: No. I wasn't. In the two weeks leading up to it, it was quite obvious that that might well happen. It was unsettling in preparation for it, because one was so aware that it might not happen. But you still had to proceed.

IWM: What was going to be the topic of your debut show before it was postponed?

Brown: Originally we were going to do a Hollywood show before the Oscars. And then I thought, well, maybe I'd better try to switch in case I have to go on the air during the war. And we did. We started to prepare a war show. But it became quite obvious that CNBC was going to make the decision to go live and have all war-related coverage. So that wouldn't have worked for us. I could not do my first show live. I think that it would have been a recipe for mayhem! [laughter]

IWM: Doing a TV show is obviously quite different from doing a magazine. What do you find most challenging about doing television?

Brown: The way you have to kind of multitask in so many different ways. I've spent a life worrying about words on a page. But with television, you still have to worry about the content, but you also have to worry about timing, the viewer, the fact the clock's ticking. All of the logistical stuff is actually very hard.

When I think of people like Tom Brokaw who can do this stuff intuitively now, I think they're brilliant. But I'm enjoying the process enormously. I have tremendous support from my producer, Kathy O'Hearn. She's very helpful in getting me comfortable with the process of TV.

IWM: Who would you really like to have on your show? Who's your dream guest?

Brown: The show is really not about the individual guest; it's these interplays about just seeing people in conversation with one another. I'm more interested in a conversation that can happen between people. It's about finding one person who's interesting and then playing them against somebody else.

IWM: Do you miss working in magazines?

Brown: I miss being a journalist as such, being a journalist in the mix of the news. I keep thinking every day of articles that I would assign. And I keep thinking, why isn't anybody assigning Anthony Swofford, the author of "Jarhead," to go to Iraq? It seems to me mad. I would have done that instantly.

I get ideas all the time for pieces that I would assign. So that's part of me. I'll never stop doing that. I'll probably do it in my sleep. Yes, I do miss that. But at the same time, I have really enjoyed getting back to writing [my column], which was my first kind of life, and which I did miss tremendously. And I only stopped writing because I had two kids, and I couldn't have magazines and kids and write as well. Now my children are just a little bit older, and of course I don't have the magazine. But I've really been enjoying the freshness of trying to master something new. It's been very, very nice to work in a new medium.

IWM: I understand you're going to be a contributor to Radar magazine.

Brown: I will certainly try and write something for Maer [Roshan, editor of Radar], whom I admire enormously.

IWM: What types of things will you write for him?

Brown: Something that will grab me. I couldn't do anything for the first two issues because the show was launching, and I've got enough multitasking as it is. But I'll come up with something for Maer. Something will hit me, or something will hit him and I'll find a way to write it.

IWM: What is your impression of the first issue of Radar?

Brown: I think it's terrific. It has a lot of freshness and energy. One of the most important things with a first issue is that you get a feeling of vitality and a feeling of attitude. And you get both in Radar.

IWM: You wrote in your column that "Radar's defiant vitality is the first stirring of spring on the magazine world's dead planet." What did you mean?"

Brown: I think there's not much new publishing flair right now because there is so much caution in the magazine world. Anything that's launching is very much niche magazines. And mostly there are no launchings; mostly it's been closings. So finally we've got something that was just an editor's love affair with something he wanted to do. And I love that. I love the fact that it just reflected one guy's crazy passion.

IWM: Have you offered any advice to Maer about launching a magazine?

Brown: Oh my God, yes. [laughter] I mean, we've talked throughout the process.

IWM: Radar, like Talk magazine, has generated a lot of early buzz. In a recent interview with I Want Media, Maer said that he learned from his experience at Talk that buzz can "cut both ways." Have you given him any advice on the subject of buzz?

Brown: Yes, well, I did invite him to try to not overdo that. The trouble is that it has its own momentum. Obviously Maer wants to promote his first issue, but there was a lot of buzz before there was a first issue. And it wasn't actually coming from Maer. It was just that he was interviewing with lots of people and they created their own buzz.

Buzz can be harmful. It certainly was in Talk's case. I mean, we gave an insanely huge launch party that really subscribed to the great David Brown theory of show business -- which is never give a party that's better than the movie.

It's very difficult to maintain momentum with something new. And unfortunately we're in an age where there's not much patience. You're supposed to come out of the box completely perfect, as you see with these [quickly canceled] TV shows like Donahue and Connie Chung.

I've done virtually no promotion for my show at all. In fact, CNBC wants to promote it like crazy and I've said I haven't wanted to do that. Because I don't really want to be shot out of a cannon with something when I know I'm still in a learning curve.

IWM: In a speech at a gathering of magazine editors in London last summer, you said that Talk magazine could have been a success if it had been given more time. Do you believe that its backers, Miramax and Hearst, pulled out too quickly?

Brown: I do. There's no question Talk became a very good magazine in its last six months. And there's no question that even in its early incarnation, when it was a bit of a visual jumble, some of the material we had was extremely good. We had a big piece on Osama Bin Laden in October of 2000. We had a lot of stuff that oddly looks even better when you go back in there.

I definitely think that it was a waste to pull the rug out -- yes. But at the same time, where I'm sympathetic is that the 9/11 atmosphere was so dire, and the need for funds came up just at the time when 9/11 was in full cry. In all fairness again, the advertising recession proved not just to be a blip but very long and painful.

The fact is, they would have had to be very, very hopeful and invest a lot to come out O.K. And our timing was off. It's interesting: most of the staff of Radar are the Talk people. We had at the end got together a group of fantastic people who are very, very talented. And there is no question that the team had developed kind of a flair and success. It did take longer than I wished to get it good. But it wasn't much longer than it took Vanity Fair.

Anyway, it's water under the bridge. With my TV show, I thought, well, let's just do something in a very low-key way, because there's no question that I'm not going to be a fully-fledged Katie Couric in my first inning.

IWM: In that same speech, you said that Talk had come to be the "favorite bloodsport of the press." Do you believe that when Talk folded the knives really came out?

Brown: It was completely understandable. At the end of the day, Talk became this kind of hysterically over-inflated sort of media story. And it was fun for people to write about. I thought that it was a little excessive at times. But I'm kind of used to that at this point. I really am. And it was O.K.

IWM: Several magazines have folded recently - Victoria, Travel Holiday. How would you describe the current environment for magazines?

Brown: It's really brutal for magazines at the moment, really brutal. With the dire advertising climate, the caution of media companies that are so frightened of doing anything and the kind of deadly conglomeratization of it all -- this combination suffocates creativity. So there's not much desire for flair journalism. It's really bad. I don't think it's ever been worse, actually.

IWM: What are your favorite magazines nowadays?

Brown: I love The New Yorker. It's still my favorite magazine, my old home. I like to get into The New York Review of Books, I like to get into Us magazine, I like to get into Vogue when it's around, I like to get into The Weekly Standard. I try to get myself a little clutch of stuff that satisfies different instincts. And of course I like Radar.

IWM: What is your impression of the news media's coverage of the war in Iraq?

Brown: I do think the New York Times' Nation at War section has been absolutely superb. I really do. They've written it brilliantly. I'm very impressed with that. And I think Ted Koppel did a great job.

IWM: You are an infamous observer of popular culture. Is there anything that you find particularly unsettling in our culture nowadays?

Brown: I think we're in a kind of paradigm shift moment where people can be led in any direction. And I think that leaders of intellectual property companies have a good chance now to lead people in a more quality direction, if they wish. It's depressing when they decide to take the other turn. The question is, how to package substance to make it reader and user friendly.

But I don't think there's a need to go further and further down the trash route. I really don't. And I think that the conglomerates have the power -- which is all centered on three or four companies -- to lead us up, or they can lead us down.

IWM: There has been more buzz surrounding you than just about any figure in media. You're often labeled the Queen of Buzz. Why is that?

Brown: I didn't know -- all I know is that my favorite piece about me in London recently said: "We wish the Queen of Buzz would just buzz off!" [laughter]

IWM: How do you account for the "heat" you've generated throughout your career?

Brown: Oh, God. Well, I think I took on controversial titles. I mean, I took on Vanity Fair when it was ailing. It was a kind of "will it, won't it join the dance" kind of situation. And I took on The New Yorker when it was an icon. So I've always been in the hot seat. And then with Talk it was surprising to people that I left The New Yorker to try to do something on my own.

I've always put myself in the hot seat, I think. I've run controversial stuff, and I've tried to be a journalist who stays sort of interesting in the things I've published. And I think if you're a woman you probably attract more attention than not. I have no idea, really.

IWM: Well, now you're in a new hot seat in television, I guess?

Brown: I suppose so. But I'm doing this in a low-key way. Remember that. I mean, look at the state of poor Connie Chung.

IWM: You keep bringing her up. Is her canceled talk show always in the back of your mind?

Brown: No, it's just that I thought her show really improved during its tenure. And I think [CNN was] absolutely ill mannered and sort of grotesquely premature in the way they handled it.

IWM: You've worked in just about every form of media. You've done television, magazines, newspaper columns. I think you've done everything but your own Weblog.

Brown: There's still time. [laughter]




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