September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Not long ago, Geraldo Rivera told an interviewer that ”the old news format is dying. I want to conduct a show that would be rock & roll news for the millennium.” (One was tempted to point out that this would make him the Kurt Loder of the new century, but Geraldo’s a boxer, and who, short of a nose-busting neo-Nazi, wants to risk sparring with him?) Clearly, however, Rivera has kept his hope alive, for it is the rockin’, rollin’ news of the fin de siecle that his new show, Upfront Tonight, is aiming for, even if it doesn’t have the rhythm quite right yet. In fact, this half-hour wrap-up of the day’s events, coanchored by former Hard Copy and Extra correspondent Diane Dimond, is far less rock & rolly — that is to say, less obstreperous, less rule breaking — than the other CNBC show that gave him new life as a news presenter, Rivera Live.

While Upfront fights for its right to party in a bad time slot (competing with tie-loosening pleasures like Jeopardy! and Access Hollywood in many markets), Rivera Live is the real goods, true alterna-programming. It explores recurring themes — Bill Clinton’s compulsive-liar duress, Monica Lewinsky’s goo-stained dress, and, before that, O.J. Simpson’s bloodstained mess — with the same sort of attention to detail and thudding, metronomic rhythm that Bruce Springsteen once brought to songs of New Jersey prole life.

A Long Island prole himself, Rivera possesses an instinctive contempt for the network-news aristocracy that has inspired both his best and his most foul work. Since re-upping with NBC last fall for a salary in the neighborhood of a very upper-classy $5 mil, Rivera has more than earned his corporate keep, boosting NBC’s cable-channel ratings, using a network assignment as features reporter for Clinton’s June China trip to turn in puffy portraits of the President, and throwing in freebie publicity-generating stunts like taunting NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw on The Tonight Show for treating the news operation ”like a country club or fraternity.”

Rivera always wants to inject passion into reporting — it’s a quality that made his career in 1972, when, as a local-news reporter in Manhattan, he exposed wretched conditions in a Staten Island mental hospital. It’s also what led him to stunts like injecting fat globules from his butt into his forehead to prove…what?…on his frequently shameful Geraldo afternoon program.

Viewers invariably say they want TV news to be ”objective,” but they always respond to the subjectivity of CBS’ 60 Minutes, NBC’s Dateline, and Rivera’s own sort, the impassioned defense of people on the ropes, whether they be helpless patients or a beleaguered President. On Rivera Live, Geraldo contributes to the overkill coverage of the most sensational subjects of the moment, but he does it with remarkable adroitness, marshaling thousands of facts and factoids, and refereeing pundit shouting matches with grinning finesse. I’d rather watch him rehash a Ken Starr subpoena than have to endure Brokaw’s slog through the ”serious” news. If I want real reporting, I read good newspapers; from television, I’ll take solid advocacy journalism, and at that Rivera can be as good as anyone.

That said, his Upfront Tonight is surprisingly squaresville — uptight. His Aug. 24 debut rolled out Henry Kissinger for commentary on Clinton’s domestic/foreign-policy quagmires. Calling Kissinger ”one of our wise men,” Rivera ended up eliciting no more wisdom from Dr. K than ”Monica Lewinsky is the least of [Boris] Yeltsin’s problems.” ”Quite a guy!” enthused coanchor Dimond after this shabby, well-duhhh segment.

Upfront hums with energy but feels hemmed in by its half-hour length, as it does superficial riffs on prison reform, Hurricane Bonnie, and baseball’s home-run race. More crucially, Dimond’s cohost presence seems superfluous; instead of playing Tina to Rivera’s Ike Turner, she just sets up Geraldo’s stories and cheers him on. So far, Upfront Tonight isn’t the rock & roll news; it’s more like a flop single from a superstar seeking to expand his audience beyond the fans who already buy his product. Upfront Tonight: C- Rivera Live: B-

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