Two of New York’s Finest eye Michael Moore warily as he paces the steps of City Hall on a May morning.”You guys on a walking tour?” one cop asks Moore and the shaggy crew of his satirical magazine show, TV Nation.
”No, I’m getting the key to the city,” Moore replies.
”Well, they’ve gotta give it to somebody,” the cop says derisively.
His partner starts playing bad cop. ”Seriously, what are you doing?”
”Mayor Giuliani is giving me the key to the city.”
”May I ask who you are?”
”I’m Michael Moore.”
”And I’m Tom Cruise! What more do I need to be?”
The answer: nothing, at least to NBC, which is airing Moore’s TV Nation one of the few fresh series of the summer. Moving from documentary filmmaking to network TV hasn’t dulled the comic blade Moore first unsheathed in his 1989 smash, Roger & Me, chronicling his attempts to get then GM chairman Roger Smith to visit Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., and witness the effects of the automaker’s layoffs there.
The City Hall segment is typical of TV Nation‘s smartass tone. To show how New York City greases corporations to keep them from leaving town, Moore threatens to move to New Jersey unless Giuliani meets his demands — increased water pressure in his Manhattan apartment building (where Moore, 40, lives with his wife, TV Nation producer Kathleen Glynn, and their daughter, Natalie, 12), a parking space on Broadway, Knicks playoff tickets, and the key to the city. (Giuliani delivers only on the last request.)
It’s not the kind of story you’ll see on Dateline NBC — and no one is going to confuse Moore with Stone Phillips. Among the other pieces Moore and his TV Nation cohorts have prepared:
*Correspondent Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat) demonstrates how hard it is for a black man to get a cab in New York City by placing acclaimed African-American actor Yaphet Kotto on one corner and a white convicted felon on the next.
*MTV VJ Karen Duffy goes on assignment to North Dakota to find out why it’s the least-visited state.
*Moore picnics and flies kites with Dr. Jack Kevorkian. ”He’s not Dr. Death,” says Moore. ”He’s Dr. Life.”
*”[Other] newsmagazines are all the same,” says Merrill Markoe, David Letterman’s ex-producer and a TV Nation contributor. ”There’s a piece we call ‘The S— Train’ [following New York City sludge to a Texas dumping ground]. I’d rather see that than piece number 5 million on attention-deficit disorder.”
Another difference between TV Nation and Dateline: Moore’s show is not a product of NBC News (which had its own run-in with GM, over ”exploding” trucks). ”I’ve always been up-front about the fact that I’m not an objective journalist,” he says. But he’s determined not to fall victim to charges of inaccuracies, as he did with Roger. ”Even if you have a point of view, you still have a responsibility to present the facts.”
NBC has dragged its feet getting TV Nation on the air — the pilot was taped more than a year ago. Yet even though the show gleefully tweaks many companies, including network owner GE, NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield says he’s not worried about alienating advertisers: ”C’mon, we’re just trying to have some fun! Who out there in real-world America doesn’t have some corporate frustrations?”
Of course, the bottom line for NBC is ratings. ”It’s been proven over 40 years of TV that networks will put on anything if they believe it’ll get an audience,” Moore says. ”I’m just the opposite extreme of Manimal or ALF.”