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, “Onion SportsDome” began its weekly swipe at TV sports coverage and commentary (10:30 p.m., Comedy Central).
Then on Jan. 21 on IFC, “Onion News Network” launches its spitting-image TV version of cable-news excesses.
“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.”
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.
In honoring the Onion News Network website in 2009, the Peabody Awards declared that its ersatz news “has a worrisome ring of truth” presented “so deftly that viewers may find themselves doing a double take.”
“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 included word that Miami Heat superstars Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh were demanding some 27 new NBA rules intended to make the game “a million times funner and cooler.”
Among the reforms: 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. And for the threesome’s convenience, games would only be played in Miami.
St. Louis was reportedly 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 declared at a news conference.
And the lowly status of pro soccer in America was 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.”
Although the two new Onion series have separate staffs, both projects draw on the skills of the team behind the online videos. Both are overseen by Smith and Graham, who keep the Onion’s mission on track.
“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.”