Onion News Network Takes On TV

BY Tom LeGro  January 19, 2011 at 1:55 PM EDT

“The State Department has announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has agreed to suspend his country’s nuclear program,” reports ONN anchor Brooke Alvarez, before deadpanning, “in exchange for the lead role in the next Batman movie.”

There in the newsroom — “a state-of-the-art, underground news bunker” for a segment called the Fact Zone — images of maps and explosions and lasers dance around the hyperbolic blonde, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a lot of female cable news personalities.

For more on the breaking story, Alvarez talks to ONN’s chief White House correspondent Jane Carmichael, who says a diplomatic deal was reached in Geneva after Kim Jong Il sent “several elaborate oil paintings that he’d made of himself in a Batman outfit” to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The cable news parody was done for the Onion News Network, a 30-minute, weekly television program that will debut on IFC on Friday. The show comes on the heels of SportsDome, which premiered Jan. 11 on Comedy Central and satirizes the round-the-clock coverage of sports channels like ESPN.

Carol Kolb, head writer of the Onion News Network and former editor-in-chief of the Onion newspaper, says that from the outset the goal of the show has been to mirror the look and feel of cable networks like MSNBC and FOX News. (Think opposite of the PBS NewsHour.)

Carol Kolb“We wanted this big, giant and bombastic news show,” Kolb says, “and we wanted to make fun of what has become cable news today and the need to fill 24 hours of programming.”

To accomplish the goal of authenticity, Kolb says, the staff was constantly on the lookout to see what the “real news was doing,” trying to emulate everything from theme music to how anchors and guests often look to the touch-screen graphics pioneered by CNN. Writers of “The Onion News Network” even came up with a slogan inspired by their cable muses: “News Without Mercy.” And ONN’s website runs a ticker titled “News Assault Will Begin In…” counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the show comes on the air.

“Sometimes the real news was doing things so over the top and ridiculous,” Kolb says, “that we’d have to step up our game.”

For the Onion, a website and newspaper that specializes in fake news, the foray into television is the culmination of a media journey that began in 1988, when the publication was started by University of Wisconsin students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson.

Initially, the Onion survived in cities with large universities, such as Madison, Wisc., Boulder, Colo., Austin, Texas, and Chicago. Yet the publication struggled to remain financially solvent and was kept alive largely through advertisers who paid to run coupons on the Onion’s pages.

Like the ONN does with cable news, the newspaper was designed to satirize print media by creating a product that made readers believe its coverage was legitimate — at least at first glance with headlines like “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence” and “New Roommate Has Elaborate Theory About How Kenny Rogers is a Genius.”

“The Onion has always been there to help people who want to find humor in the news,” says Kolb, who began writing for the Onion in 1997. At the time, she was still studying English and Latin at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the city which served as the Onion’s headquarters until 2001 when the editorial staff was moved to New York City.

Kolb says the mindset of the company remains the same, but obvious changes have come with success, which included most recently a Peabody Award for satire in web video.

“Things are a lot more organized now,” Kolb says, “and the couches at our offices are a lot cleaner in New York then they were in Madison.”

All of the episodes of “The Onion News Network’s” inaugural season “are in the can,” according to Kolb, meaning they’ve already been produced and the show will not be topical on a nightly basis like Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

“The Onion has never really been about reacting to the real news, but more about creating fictional news,” Kolb says. “What we hope to do is make it seem like real news in an alternate universe.”

Kolb says some highlights viewers should expect to see include investigations into whether President Obama loves his dog enough, a funding increase for the CIA’s Facebook program to monitor U.S. citizens and Vice President Joe Biden’s replacing of his secret service detail with three sexy women. (The Onion has chronicled in-depth the vice president’s amusing exploits since he took office.)

After the newspaper, the web and now TV, what’s left for the Onion?

“This is simply step one in our plan to take over every single channel,” Kolb deadpans, like in any good Onion story. “We want an Onion show on television every minute of every day.”