Rather loving HDNet, though visibility low

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NEW YORK -- Dan Rather was walking down 41st Street recently when a woman stopped him, grabbed his right hand and began pumping it. "Mr. Rather," she said, "I just want you to know. We miss you."

It would have been the perfect plant to impress an accompanying reporter, if it wasn't for one detail: Rather isn't gone. It just seems that way.

He proved the point last week, when his criticism of "CBS Evening News" under Katie Couric instantly drew more attention than anything he's done in seven months on his new HDNet news program.

The angry exchange between old colleagues began when Rather said CBS made a mistake with his old newscast by trying to "dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience." The CBS Corp. boss, Leslie Moonves, suggested that was a sexist remark aimed at Couric.

An unapologetic Rather said his remark had nothing to do with gender and was consistent with his hard-news nature. Besides, CBS itself has leveled essentially the same criticism of Couric's first weeks on the job.

"They seized on this to try to take the discussion away from what I was saying," he said.

Besides feeling kicked when they're down in the ratings, CBS News found the criticism particularly galling to take from Rather. Many there blame Rather, who was forced out after a discredited story over President Bush's military service, for leaving CBS a distant third in the ratings.

"Dan must be having some kind of crisis," said Rick Kaplan, current "CBS Evening News" executive producer. "I don't understand what would make him strike out at his old colleagues, especially when they supported him through thin and thinner."

With his weekly "Dan Rather Reports," the newsman aims to recreate a CBS News he idealizes, rather than what he suggests it has become.

Seven months in operation, "Dan Rather Reports" is a meaty news show that has done stories on dangerous chemicals in trailers given to Hurricane Katrina victims, drug cartels that have rendered large swaths of Mexico lawless and civil rights enforcement within the current U.S. Justice Department.

With home video provided by truck drivers, Rather focused on the often unseen dangers faced by wartime contractors in Iraq.

It's a demanding regimen for a 76 year old. Rather commands a 21-person staff, but is the only on-air reporter. With a full hour to fill and no commercial breaks, the stories sometime look like they need editing. A piece with a Kent State University professor recalling that school's violent 1970 anti-war demonstration felt like filler. Rather has also done hour-long pieces, like one on Afghanistan's poppy crop.

Two former CBS News producers run the "Dan Rather Reports" staff with their boss. Their office a few steps away from Times Square -- Rather critics will love this -- is located in the Bush Building.

"I love doing it," he told The Associated Press. "I love the liberating quality of it. It's been an absolute joy for me."

Kaplan said he's seen it once. "It's a nice little show," he said. He compared it to "a poor man's 'West 57th Street,' a reference to a defunct CBS newsmagazine.

Rather's closest model is a longer-dead CBS News program, the Edward R. Murrow-hosted "See It Now." He specifically rejects any comparison to "60 Minutes," where he was essentially put on ice for the last several months of his employment at CBS News.

He said that "what we try to do is let the material dictate the format, not let the format dictate the material." That's a reference to the usually inviolable "60 Minutes" routine of three stories and Andy Rooney.

"We don't do celebrity interviews for the sake of doing celebrity interviews," he said. "We're basically not in that business. We don't do pieces that promote books."

That's Rather's news purism at work, but also business reality. Celebrities and authors wouldn't flock to a show available in only six million of the nation's 111 million TV homes. Rather recently went on the road with John McCain for a story, but other top presidential candidates haven't made themselves available.

FEMA wouldn't speak to Rather for his toxic trailers story. The Justice Department briefly refused Rather the routine permission of shooting a stand-up report at its headquarters.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner who founded the network designed around quality high-definition programming, said Rather has helped HDNet immeasurably.

"It's far exceeded my expectations," Cuban said. "There isn't a show on TV that compares to it. It's been amazing."

Rather insists he's put the unpleasant end to his CBS News career in the "distant past," although the bitter skirmish with Moonves suggests it's a lot closer than he's letting on. He said he doesn't use it for motivation.

"Does he want to let them know they let a good player go?" asked Jim Murphy, Rather's last executive producer at the "CBS Evening News." "I would think that seems natural, that seems human. But I don't think it's motivation. I just think he's doing work he loves to do."

For a man used to the power of network television, HDNet is like a tree falling in some distant forest. Rather's show airs 14 times in a typical week (new episodes premiere Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET), but there's no estimate of how many people watch.

Cuban said "Dan Rather Reports" will soon be offered on iTunes. The program could get greater visibility if offered on the Internet, or if a deal could be struck to show reruns on a more widely distributed cable channel, but Cuban is against that because HDNet would essentially be competing with itself.

Rather said he's considering adding a second correspondent next season: "I'd love to do something here that outlasts my time on the program."
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