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When Ted Turner founded CNN in 1980, no one in broadcasting gave the upstart all-news cable network much of a chance to rival the Big Three broadcast nets in worldwide news coverage or audience.

All that changed in 1991, when CNN was the only American network with reporters remaining inside Baghdad as the first Iraq war began. CNN?s live coverage by Bernie Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman vaulted it into the big time in both audience and prestige. CNN was also the first network to break the news of the 9/11 attacks on New York.

But standards have fallen on Turner?s cable news creation. The network that arguably gave birth to the 24/7 news phenomenon today features the likes of: Lou Dobbs bloviating about illegal immigrants; radio artifact Larry King devoting an hour to UFOs; the Christie Brinkley divorce; etc., etc., etc.

Then, along comes CNN?s ?Fareed Zakaria GPS? (GPS stands for ?Global Public Square?), one of the more auspicious developments on cable of late.

What with CNN?s constant celebrity-mongering and its pandering approach to news ? one recent news ?crawl? read ?Man Brings Pig to Work? ? it?s more than a bit surprising that Zakaria?s show, which airs at 10 a.m. Sundays, is on the ratings-chasing cable network at all.

But given ?Meet the Press? host Tim Russert?s untimely death, plus the fact that broadcast networks have been closing foreign bureaus and cutting back on international news, CNN may have seen an audience (even a small one) thirsting for something of substance. ?GPS? couldn?t have come along at a better time.

Zakaria?s hour is, in effect, an international version of ?Meet The Press,? with prominent newsmakers answering his tough, well-researched questions.

Zakaria, foreign-affairs expert and columnist for Newsweek, has been a rising international news star on TV. He was a regular panelist on ?This Week With George Stephanopoulus,? ABC?s version of NBC?s ?Meet The Press.?

Then, the Indian-born, Harvard-educated journalist got his own show on PBS, ?Foreign Exchange,? which also ran on Link-TV. Zakaria?s also been a semi-regular guest on Jon Stewart?s ?Daily Show? on Comedy Central, where he has exhibited a sly sense of humor.

Zakaria?s high regard in the global, non-comedy community was well-demonstrated in the first few ?GPS? programs. His V.I.P. guests have included British P.M. Gordon Brown, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, and, last week, Sen. Barrack Obama.

?No gotcha journalism,? announced Zakaria at the top of last week?s substantive interview with the presumptive Democratic nominee. ?No discussion of flag pins or Jesse Jackson?s recent comments. This will be a much broader discussion.?

Zakaria noted it was Obama?s ?first in-depth television interview about international affairs.?

?In-depth? and ?television,? alas, are too often mutually exclusive terms.

Zakaria?s thoughtful queries to Obama were both serious (?What would you do with Osama bin Laden if he is captured?)? and a few not so serious but revealing: ?Polls show you have an 85 percent approval rating in France. Won?t that make some voters suspicious?? smiled Zakaria knowingly. That got a laugh from Obama.

Obama?s possible election had arisen the previous week during Zakaria?s probing interrogation of Iran?s top diplomat.

He told Mottaki his words did not seem as ?fiery? as those of Iran?s controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then Zakaria asked, ?Is this a good cop/bad cop routine, or has there been a genuine shift in Iran?s attitude toward its nuclear program??

?We hear new voices in America, rational voices,? the diplomat replied cleverly.

The interview with Mottaki, like the one with Obama, made news, as a good newsmaker interview should.

A panel discussion about the possible new Iranian diplomatic approach followed Zakaria?s interview. The roundtable included CNN?s seasoned overseas correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, who then broke the news that Iran had approached the European Union about having ?talks about talks.?

Zakaria asked Amanpour if the ?Arab street? would disdain this diplomatic initiative. Amanpour?s reply was a rare moment of sobriety on politically polarized cable.

?Iran,? she announced firmly, ?has never said it would attack Israel.?

Amanpour then added she?d noted a ?softening tone? on Iranian TV recently about its country?s nuclear intentions. She may have been the first journalist to report that on U.S. TV.

In an era in which Americans are demanding ? and thus getting ? less international news, Zakaria?s ?GPS? is an auspicious event indeed. Only ?BBC World News? has been offering this kind of responsible global perspective and news to U.S. viewers

So thanks, CNN.

Now, about Lou Dobbs...


Comedy Central has two new summertime entries.

One, a remake of Chuck Barris? old ?Gong Show? (10 p.m. Thursdays,) starring comic Dave Atell, is your basic gross-out. I can?t even begin to describe some of the ?acts? featured last week in a daily newspaper. I?m not even sure I could do it in a free weekly. This gets gonged.

Much better is a new concept show, ?Reality Bites Back,? which follows ?Gong? at 10:30 Thursdays.

Hosted by arched-eyebrow comic Michael Ian Black (of NBC?s ?Ed? fame), ?Reality? is a lampoon of eight dismal reality shows, like VH-1?s disgraceful ?Flavor of Love? (called ?Shock of Love? here) and ?The Amazing Race? (dubbed ?The Amazing Disgrace?).

Ten young comics play ?contestants? on these spoofs. Last week?s parody of CBS? dim-bulb ?Big Brother,? which inexplicably started its 10th season last week, was intermittently amusing.

?The house,? one comedian/contestant complained last week, ?is just like our country: The guy who doesn?t know how to spell is in charge.?

One wonders, however, if subsequent ?Reality Bites? episodes will have that many laughs, or if they?ll start to look the same.

In a perversely funny bit last week, all 10 comics took turns in a darkened room, ostensibly talking dirty to and/or seducing a housemate. Then the lights came on, revealing their parents. Guess you had to be there.

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