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On a rainy post-Labor day Tuesday in New York, Anderson Cooper hit the pavement hard enough to produce an impressive bit of road rash on his right elbow.
The CNN anchor, 60 Minutes contributor and—beginning today—daytime talk show host, was riding his bike to the Columbus Circle set of Anderson, his new Telepictures-produced talk show. He was not wearing a helmet (he doesn’t want to mess up his silver mane, he jokes), but he was filming his ride – via his iPhone – for a video intro to the show, which on this day features Kyle Richards, Lisa Vanderpump and Adrienne Maloof of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (the episode airs Sept 16).
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Cooper, a pop culture junkie and avowed fan of both RHOBH and Real Housewives of Atlanta, booked the entire cast before the shocking Aug. 15 suicide of Russell Armstrong, husband of principal cast member Taylor Armstrong. Taylor Armstrong is not here today, nor is Kim Richards, who had an ugly blowup with her sister Kyle at the end of last season.
“He’s a super-fan, so he booked this a long time ago,” says Anderson executive producer Cathy Chermol, adding that Armstrong’s suicide gave Cooper “pause.” But now the tone of the Bravo show and the cast’s appearance on Anderson has taken a grim turn. So Cooper is doing his best to pull the curtain back on the frothy show that heretofore served as a “guilty pleasure” for him.
“The first season just seemed over the top and ridiculous,” Cooper tells THR in an interview. “And after what happened, you see it through a different lens. I just saw the first episode. But as I was watching I felt differently about it.
Cooper’s ability to glide between hard news and the Housewives will be put to a very public test in the coming weeks as audiences that know him as a newsman check out Anderson. But his entry into daytime comes at an auspicious time. Soap operas are on the endangered list. Oprah Winfrey has departed. Regis Philbin will do so in November. Rosie O’Donnell declined a second stab at daytime syndication and instead will host a primetime show on still nascent OWN. And Katie Couric – the other high-profile news personality giving the softer touch and potentially more lucrative perch of daytime a whirl – does not move into the daypart until fall 2012.
“I think we actually got in [at the right time],” says Telepictures president Hilary Estey McLoughlin. “Katie is coming a year from now, which could be the latter part of the curve. This is the time when viewers are searching for alternatives. I just think the opportunity to strike is now. And I think Anderson has a great shot at it.”
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In the studio at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, with it’s sweeping view of Columbus Circle and the southwest end of Central Park, where the CNN digital clock serves as the real-time backdrop for Anderson, Cooper tells his audience: “By the end of the show today I hope we’ll all learn just how real these Real Housewives are willing to get.”
Indeed, it’s clear from Cooper’s line of questioning that he’s donning his journalist hat, and at least in the early blocks, is approaching the Housewives not as a fan but as an inquisitor. He tells his audience that Kim Richards was also supposed to be here, but she missed her flight – and a second flight she was rebooked on. When Kyle Richards says her sister is truly sorry she couldn’t be here, Cooper counters: “I don’t think she really wanted to be here.”
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He plays the harrowing 911 tape from the scene of Russell Armstrong’s suicide. When Kyle Richards says Taylor Armstrong was “upset” that the tape “got out,” Cooper coolly replies: “Police release 911 calls.”
He presses Camille Grammer, who appears via satellite from Los Angeles, about her break-up with Kelsey Grammer. She admits that the couple, who have two young children, “do not speak at all.”
“We don’t even speak through a mediator, just through lawyers,” she says.
He asks his guests if Taylor Armstrong said her late husband was “abusive.” He asks Kyle Richards if her sister has a drinking problem. And he generally attempts to challenge the thinly veiled conceit that reality television is real.
“There’s a lot of stirring the pot for the cameras.”
“Don’t you play to the cameras?”
“How real is it?”
When Maloof suggests that Bravo executives are “trying to open up a dialogue” about depression and suicide, Cooper counters: “Do you believe that, though? I’ve been touched by suicide. (Cooper’s older brother took his own life when he was 23-years-old and Cooper was 21.) I guess the question is, is reality television really the right forum to bring it up?”
But this is daytime TV, not CNN, and Cooper knows he’s not interviewing cagey politicians on the campaign trail or wily officials from tyrannical governments.
“I think there’s only so much they’re going to say,” he acknowledges. “People dodge uncomfortable questions all the time. I face that in news. I think it’s important to acknowledge when somebody’s dodging. But there’s a level of artifice to the whole [reality television] format, so it’s tough to go beyond that.”
Asked what effect his Housewives grilling will have on his well-documented friendship with Andy Cohen, Bravo executive vp and Real Housewives referee, Cooper shrugs.
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“I don’t know. I think Bravo is under tremendous pressure. I’m sure they would much rather people not even be talking about the suicide. They’re obviously smart enough to know this is a topic they have to address and I think they’re coming under some understandable criticism for going forward with the season. I don’t know how they’ll feel about it. It doesn’t really concern me too much. I want to be fair to anybody who comes on the show. But most importantly, I want our viewers to feel like they’ve gotten a real conversation.”
Cooper gets the hard questions out of the way early and by the end of the show, Vanderpump’s dog Giggy has joined his owner on the couch. The tiny Pomeranian with the enormous wardrobe has his own Twitter account and, according to Vanderpump, a case of what appears to be selective Alopecia. Giggy has hair on his head and legs, “like you Anderson,” Vanderpump suggests as she crawls on the floor with her dog, bending her face toward him for a kiss.
For his part, the second job (or third if you count the six pieces Cooper does each year of 60 Minutes) has added exponentially to Cooper’s workday, which begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. or 11 p.m., depending when Anderson Cooper 360 wraps. Last month, CNN moved the show two hours earlier to 8 p.m., but when breaking news warrants, as it did last Thursday with a pre-9/11 terror threat in New York City, Cooper is also live in the CNN studio for the 10 p.m. repeat of AC360, which makes for a long day.
“I’m sure some TV people will tell you, yes that’s a long day,” says Cooper. “But I do stories on people who do real work. I’ve been out with the Marines in Helmond Province. They have a long day. I work in TV.”
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