To Cover State of the Union, Fusion Taps Talking Animals and A Chatty Hot Dog

Cable net backed by Univision and ABC News strikes out in satirical direction to stand apart from TV-news pack

Cover State of the Union, Fusion

When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, NBC News will trot out Brian Williams to anchor its coverage. Fox News Channel will rely on Bret Baier. PBS will feature Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. But Fusion, the upstart news-and-lifestyle cable outlet, will make use of two bickering crabs and a talking hot dog.

In a maneuver sure to raise eyebrows, Fusion, a joint venture of Univision and ABC News that launched in October, will veer from the traditional when offering coverage of the President’s annual agenda-setting speech. Rather than give the spotlight to Jorge Ramos or Leon Krauze, two veteran news anchors who occupy important slots in its primetime schedule, Fusion will instead count on the talents of a group of puppets, and the comedic minds who fill their mouths with speech.

The cast hails from Fusion’s 9:30 p.m. satirical program “No, You Shut Up,” and includes Yerd Nerp, a one-eyed alien who champions immigration reform; Star Schlessinger, a conservative red squirrel; the simian Professor Cornelius Nougat; and Hot Dog, a garrulous Frankfurter. “As far as I’m aware, Hot Dog is the only talking luncheon meat on television at the moment,” said Billy Kimball, senior vice president and chief programming officer at Fusion. All will offer commentary during the event, in a programming notion that sounds like a mash-up of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “The McLaughlin Group” and a  Saturday-morning cartoon circa 1976. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins will serve as host.

The network also intends to hold “Shut Up’s” regular “Crabfire” segment in which a blue crab and a red crab – married, but with opposing political views – debate the issues of the day, often with amorous results.

Viewers will be able to hear President Obama’s every word, said Kimball. The creatures will only talk during gaps in the speech, such as when applause breaks out. Fusion has altered commercial loads so that it can present the event free of advertising, he said.

The off-beat attempt at political coverage marks what Fusion executives hope is a new calling card for the fledgling network: Satire of important current events about which a good chunk of the nation is curious. Fusion’s lineup is an unorthodox mix of hard-news coverage and satire – indeed, the satire takes up an entire hour starting at 9 p.m. Eastern and breaks up more traditional news programming. But Kimball says more is on the way.

“ABC’s ‘State of the Union’ is more or less the same as CBS and NBC and CNN, so we don’t see any particular reason to throw our hat into the exact same ring,” said Kimball, a veteran of “Not Necessarily The News,” CBS’ “The Late Late Show with Craig Klborn” and Fox’s early-era latenight effort, “The Wilton North Report.” The new idea “really comes from our content mission to come up with new and unconventional ways to add entertainment value.”

To further that end, Fusion has a deal with The Jim Henson Company, to use its creatures and creations is a variety of formats. One such program is “Good Morning Today,” a warped take on TV-network morning programs. At 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, an improv group tackles the world of sports. David Javerbaum, the former executive producer of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” is heavily involved with the much of the satire and is at work developing more.

The tongue-in-cheek attitude is surfacing elsewhere on the network. During its morning program last week, Fusion labeled its report about teen sensation Justin Bieber being arrested as “Insignificant Breaking News.”

For Kimball, the “State of the Union” experiment has its roots in stuff he used to do for Comedy Central. Along with “Saturday Night Live” writer-turned-Minnesota-Senator Al Franken, he covered the 1992 political conventions for Comedy Central as part of its “InDecision” series. The coverage comprised several hours per night while it was on.

The idea is not to ignore the news, said Kimball, but to provide a different way to keep people informed about current events. Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” is “funny, but also enlightening and informative, and that’s definitely our ambition here,” he said. Fusion will also offer more serious overage of the event, he added, with anchor Ramos providing a harder analysis earlier in the evening.

Viewers can have “dinner and dessert,” said Kimball. “It will not be completely unhinged silliness throughout. We are also expecting that there will be this sort of comment and analysis that is an aspect of satire.”

Fusion may offer more of this sort of thing, Kimball suggested. Of course, the network’s ability to cover certain events may hinge on logistics and the availability of live feeds, but he believes that viewers may be interested in events where Fusion characters “watch along with the audience. That’s a genre that I think we’d like to explore a little bit more here.”