OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In all the hype and hoopla over the success of American Idol, the US version of Pop Idol, a salient fact has been overlooked: the show is a microcosm for how television itself operates.

Because of its continuous need to fill airtime, and thus be able to sell commercial time, the TV networks are in a continuous hunt for talent (a word I use in its broadest sense). And if you can't find enough new faces to go around, the alternative is easy: offer comeback bids to familiar faces. After all, surveys show that viewers who routinely refuse to sample unknown personalities will at least tune in to see an old-timer a time or two for auld lang syne.

Even so, it was startling when MSNBC, the cable network devoted to news and talk that is co-owned by NBC and Microsoft, announced that Phil Donahue, a pioneer of the talkshow genre, would emerge from six years of retirement to host a big programme. The show, in the prestigious slot at the start of weeknight primetime (8pm in the Eastern US), is meant to be the flagship for a revamped version of MSNBC, which has lagged badly in the Nielsen ratings behind rivals such as CNN and Fox News Channel.

MSNBC, which now styles itself America's News Channel, is hoping Donahue's age (66), experience (30 years as a chatmeister) and white hair will not turn off the younger viewers so eagerly courted by the network. The hope is that the demographically desirable consumers will recall him from their childhoods and tune in along with their parents and grandparents, who made Donahue such a huge star in the era before Oprah Winfrey and the "trash talk genre of Jerry Springer.

One break already benefiting Donahue is the fierce fight for hegemony among the three cable news networks at 8pm. He has been scheduled against the highest-rated show on Fox News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor, with the bombastic Bill O'Reilly, and a programme on CNN almost as new as "Donahue", featuring Connie Chung, the newswoman who scored the hat-trick, as they say in hockey, of working for all three major broadcast TV networks.

To face such tough competition would seem to be a drawback, but the battle has generated almost as much coverage as actual battles in Afghanistan.

There's nothing the American media adore writing about as much as other media, guaranteeing that Donahue and the show would be the subject of lengthy articles in consumer and trade publications.

So those younger viewers who may not have known Donahue from Don Ho, the Hawaiian singer, could learn about his colourful career in the 70s and 80s (doing the show once in a dress, debating Jane Fonda on Richard Nixon) as well as his high-profile personal life (he's married to the actress Marlo Thomas). The initial publicity was worth at least his $1 million annual salary.

Indeed, the ratings for Donahue's debut were spectacular, drawing four times as many viewers as had been watching the show that previously occupied the time period. Though viewership fell the second night, MSNBC beat CNN for second place behind Fox News Channel. Advertisers that are buying time include Dell, Gateway, Hertz, Nabisco and State Farm. The fracas is even drawing some envious attention from the far larger broadcast networks, jealous that the media are doting over shows that together draw about four million viewers, compared with the 30 million who watch the nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Imagine how apoplectic the broadcasters would be if Donahue does another show in a dress.

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