NEW YORK — For nearly a quarter-century, The Onion has skewered the media with its satirical newspaper, then, starting in 1996, its website and, as of four years ago, the Onion News Network's online videos.
Now it's poised to make a two-fisted assault from within the most fitting of targets: television.
On Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. EST on Comedy Central, "Onion SportsDome" will begin its weekly swipe at TV sports coverage and commentary.
Then on Jan. 21, at 10 p.m. EST on the IFC network, "Onion News Network" launches its spitting-image TV version of cable-news excesses.
Two Onion series on two networks debuting the same month!
"We'd like to say that it was part of an effort toward global domination by The Onion," says executive producer Julie Smith. "But it was just coincidence."
Even so, warns executive producer Will Graham, "Our Onion fake media empire is slowly taking over real media. Eventually, we'll have 36 shows on different networks."
Bring 'em on!
As fans of Onion videos know, this self-proclaimed "America's Finest News Source" has a pitch-perfect knack for replicating real-life TV "journalism" with only a dash of telltale mockery. As the Peabody Awards declared in honoring the Onion News Network website in 2009, its ersatz news "has a worrisome ring of truth" presented "so deftly that viewers may find themselves doing a double take."
Both "SportsDome" and the TV "Onion News Network" have a nose for identifying media shortcomings that most of us dismiss as the natural odor. It fires a witty but cringe-inducing jolt of recognition. It treads fearlessly close to what passes for truth, exposing how little is there.
"SportsDome" is a wicked homage to ESPN's "SportsCenter," complete with blaring theme music, explosive graphics and a pair of glib, good-looking showboaters named Mark Shepard and Alex Reiser co-hosting. (As on the videos, the names of the actors who play The Onion's on-camera personalities are never disclosed, thus helping to preserve the guise of a parallel reality.)
Stories on the first "SportsDome" edition include word that Miami Heat superstars Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh are demanding some 27 new NBA rules intended to make the game "a million times funner and cooler." Among the reforms they've imposed: the fourth quarter would be played with flashing lights and hip-hop music, with a zip line installed from the rafters directly to the basket rim. For this threesome's convenience, games would only be played in Miami.
Meanwhile, St. Louis is trying to entice slugger Albert Pujols to re-sign with the Cardinals by presenting him with a key to the city — a real key that unlocks every door in the metropolitan area.
"Our homes, our cars, our Internet access, our showers and whatever's in our fridge — all of it is yours, Albert," the mayor declares at a news conference. "The buffet is open."
And the lowly status of pro soccer in America is reflected in a brief segment where the anchors "catch up on everything that's happened since we last checked in on the league — four years ago."
Cut to IFC's "Onion News Network." Its flagship show is "FactZone," anchored by Brooke Alvarez, a leggy blonde who would be right at home on Fox News Channel complete with her miniskirt, spike heels and runway-model stance.
Among her "news without mercy" is a report that, after high-level negotiations, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has agreed to suspend his country's nuclear program in exchange for the lead role in the next "Batman" movie.
Later, Alvarez interviews "political analyst" Jason Copeland, who presents the results of a poll where 2,000 lifelong Democrats were asked: "What's the worst that could happen if Sarah Palin were elected president — don't you kind of want to find out?" More than 80 percent responded: "God, I'm so sorry, but yes."
Besides "FactZone" (which is billed as "the nation's number-one source for breaking news, screaming political arguments and vital information on missing teenage Caucasian girls"), "ONN" skewers morning news with surgical precision.
And in a perfect sendup of local-TV piffle, a pandering "Eye on America" story wrings human interest from an Illinois community where an apparently serviceable car tire has been found "just sitting there behind the Kroger, for at least a day."
Although the two new Onion series have separate staffs, both projects draw on the skills of the team behind the online videos, and both are overseen by Smith and Graham, who keep the Onion's mission on track.
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"We're more self-important and pretentious than CNN, and we're more aggressive and biased than Fox," explains Graham. "We think of them as our competitors. Fox News and MSNBC set a very high bar for their level of ridiculousness, and we're always thinking, 'We have to go just 10 percent higher than they are.'
"But there are times where we're kicking around an idea and then we'll be like, 'Wait, Fox News has already done that.' So we feel like we kind of got scooped."
Even for The Onion and the audience that loves it, that's too close for comfort.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.