LOS ANGELES - MSNBC isn't exactly sticking to the tried-and-true cable news format when it debuts its new nighttime lineup next week.
Sure, Chris Matthews will still provide a prime-time anchor with "Hardball" the news channel's highest-rated show, at 9 p.m. EDT weekdays. The show is now the exclusive property of MSNBC, ending a sharing arrangement with sister channel CNBC.
But the two new news-talk shows that lead into "Hardball," "Nachman" and "Donahue," will go against what seems to be the prevailing tide by featuring an admittedly less-than-telegenic ex-newspaperman and an avowed liberal who's coming out of semi-retirement.
When you're in third place, as MSNBC is in the cable news ratings, you can afford to take a few chances.
"(MSNBC president Erik Sorenson) has this quirky theory that ugly people can succeed on TV," says Jerry Nachman, the network's editor-in-chief and host of "Nachman," which premieres Monday. "This is an experiment to see if that's true."
Nachman, a veteran of the New York Post and local TV news in New York and Washington (and a former writer on "Politically Incorrect" and "UC: Undercover") is a balding, portly guy with glasses - in other words, far from the typical TV talking head. He is, however, engaging and funny, and he hopes both his show and "Donahue," hosted by talk-show pioneer Phil Donahue - the aforementioned semi-retired liberal - will provide forums for voices less often heard on Fox News Channel and CNN.
"We're going to serve a lot of publics," Nachman says. He cites as an example a hypothetical story about a death-row inmate. His approach, he says, would likely focus as much or more on the victim as on the condemned person's story and appeal efforts.
"And then you'll have Donahue coming on singing `Kumbaya,' singing the praises of the guy," Nachman says.
Donahue, for his part, hopes he can be a more measured voice in the world of "screaming heads" on cable. His show will air opposite that of the most-watched head of all, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, as well as Connie Chung's new show on CNN.
"For all the screaming heads in this arena, they're talking about very important issues," says Donahue, who since retiring from the daytime talk world in 1996 has kept busy sailing his 56-foot boat, raising money for various charities and campaigning for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. "I want ('Donahue') to be a place for voices not heard on cable right now."
If that gets him branded as the "l-word," so be it, he says. "I think we also have a chance to grab some conservative viewers who want to see what this irresponsible liberal is going to do."
MSNBC's new lineup debuts Monday with "Nachman" at 7 p.m. EDT, "Donahue" at 8, "Hardball" at 9 and "Ashleigh Banfield on Location" at 10.