When author Anand Giridharadas started talking with Vice TV in early March about hosting a new primetime show that would riff on current events, he knew he wanted to depart from the slick sound bites that dominate cable news, where he has been a regular presence since the publication of his 2018 best seller, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
“It’s all so economized and corporatized and sped up,” Giridharadas says of the talking-head paradigm.
He envisioned choreographing something different—a show with room for deep conversation, unexpected humor, but still a bit of roughness around the edges.
He pictured Dick Cavett rough.
He got pandemic rough.
Just a couple of weeks into his discussions with Vice, cases of the novel coronavirus began to spike in New York. Giridharadas relocated upstate with his family and is now trying to create the first episodes of his show, Seat at the Table, in a makeshift studio with agonizingly bad Wi-Fi.
“I’m trying to upload three video files at this very moment and it’s going to take three hours,” he tells me.
The good news for Giridharadas is that while the logistical difficulty of producing a TV show has grown dramatically over the last month, the need for in-depth discussions about power and societal change has meaningfully risen as well. He intends for Seat at the Table to serve as a primetime voice that “challenges power rather than cozies up to it.” Guests, for example, might include the kind of “essential” workers—grocery store clerks, subway operators—who don’t receive nightly applause from Manhattan balconies, much less guest segments on cable TV.
“Let’s center on the issues of regular people but also center regular people in these discussions,” he says. “It’s very rare to have someone who works at McDonald’s discussing a wealth tax.”
That point of view has been a consistent theme in Giridharadas’s career. His best-known work, Winners Take All, systematically dismantles the idea that philanthropic billionaires should be lauded by society as benevolent sages. By going through the motions of “giving back,” he argues, wealthy elites perpetuate inequality. On Twitter, he calls out examples of one-percenter privilege with the refrain, “Plutes gonna plute.”
The first episode of Seat at the Table, which is scheduled to air weekly, goes live tonight on Vice TV at 10 p.m. EST. For the premiere, Giridharadas landed an interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s someone who is unafraid to challenge establishments, unafraid to question authority, and is as much a thorn in Nancy Pelosi’s side as in Donald Trump’s,” he says—all of which embodies the show’s “spirit and sensibility.”
Giridharadas also delivers his first opening monologue; talks with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who has been calling for the Murdochs to reform Fox News; and welcomes a musical guest.
In a clip that will surely spark Twitter dialogue, if not headlines, Ocasio-Cortez suggests to Giridharadas that Americans should refuse to return to work following shelter-in-place unless employers and policymakers better value their time and their health. “When we have this discussion about going back, or reopening, I think a lot of people should just say no,” she says. “We’re not going back to that. We’re not going back to working 70-hour weeks just so we could put food on the table and not even feel any sort of semblance of security in our lives.”
Her comments are squarely in the zone that Giridharadas is targeting: politically provocative, perhaps, but in a way that is authentic and personal. A former bartender who grew up in the Bronx can speak about increasing the minimum wage in a way others cannot. On cable news, Giridharadas says, “There’s this bias for sobriety and for not putting yourself out there.”
Seat at the Table offers him a chance to throw that playbook out the window.
But it’s a complicated time to be launching a media offering of any type. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Vice Media Group, Vice TV’s parent company, was preparing to lay off 300 people. Ad sales are down at Vice, as well as other media companies, as brands hit pause and slash their budgets.
The Journal’s reporting “has not been vetted or endorsed as a plan by Vice Media Group,” according to a company spokesperson. “No decisions at VMG have been made.”
Meanwhile, Vice TV executive vice president Morgan Hertzan has been scrambling to make his programming feel relevant to viewers stuck at home and grappling with big questions. He quickly spun up Shelter in Place with Shane Smith, a weekly show designed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and accelerated the timeline for Seat at the Table.
“Anand has this incredibly powerful voice,” Hertzan says. “Our instinct is that this is the time people will want to hear from him even more to unpack what’s going on in their lives.”
As for future dream guests, Giridharadas has a few ideas. “I want to interrogate the pretensions of centrism as much as I want to interrogate the pretensions of progressivism and country-club Republicanism,” he says. Hence: Stacey Abrams. Ta-Nehisi Coates. John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. Oh, and Donald Trump—perhaps he reads Fast Company and we could pass along the message?
Consider it done.