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Seven Days in May

Every spring, Hollywood descends on Manhattan to tout the new fall TV shows, and every spring, we scratch our heads and wonder, "What were they thinking?"

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By the end of the week, everything had become a blur except the freak hailstorm and the even curiouser report from Kelsey Grammer’s agent that the Frasier star doesn’t have a new deal in place with NBC. There’d been too many fast-cut action dramas, annoyingly loud sitcom laugh tracks, insincere “we’re all a family on the set” claims -- and almost no shows you could hang a hope on, which was, after all, the reason everyone had come to New York in the first place. Even at that bastion of success the “21” Club -- where the William Morris Agency held its annual group-therapy session for jilted producers, passed-over talent, and the lucky few who’d won prime time’s equivalent of Powerball -- the frenzy seemed born more of anguish and anger than of anticipation of the TV season to come. The party game of choice was guessing which new shows in the fall lineups presented to advertisers would be the first to go south. At least there was company in their misery: Nobody seemed very excited about the prospects for next season. Except maybe Morris vice-chairman Jerry Katzman.

“No one from NBC has come to me yet about Kelsey Grammer’s contract,” Katzman confided to me. “Can you believe it?” That’s how last-minute NBC’s decision to replace Seinfeld with Frasier was: The network apparently never got around to locking in the star. (“That’s just bizarre,” said NBC spokeswoman Pat Schultz. “We have no comment.”) True, NBC had trouble choosing the veteran Frasier over hit newcomer Just Shoot Me! for the most prized slot on TV. In the clutch, NBC president and CEO Bob Wright himself apparently picked the shrink. Now it’s certain that in a small-box world already gone salary-mad (Tim Allen? $1.2 million per episode of Home Improvement), a new record is waiting to be set. After all, NBC has everything riding on Frasier in its Seinfeld-free Thursday-night lineup; it’ll have to ante up, or it might as well rename the show Niles.

That wasn’t the only misstep in a week filled with shows so across-the-board lackluster that all six schedules looked like wrecks-in-waiting. “Too much of the same,” decried one BBD&O executive after the WB’s breakfast screening at the Sheraton Towers. “Very disappointing -- and ass-numbing,” muttered a Grey Advertising research analyst at NBC’s marathon session at Radio City Music Hall. After ABC’s presentation in the New Amsterdam Theater -- where a tantalizing appetizer of Disney’s Lion King theatrics was followed by the broccoli of ABC’s prime-time slate -- Robert Bishop, who directs advertising for Sharp Electronics, complained, “They showed us the Mercedes, and then you get inside and it’s a Saturn.”

Don’t get me wrong. I shocked myself by laughing at The Benben Show, CBS’s new TV-anchor-gets-fired-and-fights-back sitcom showcasing Brian Benben, the star of HBO’s Dream On (although I hardly recognized him with his clothes on). And Chris Rock is executive-producing the single funniest show on ABC besides Drew: The Hughleys. Think The Jeffersons moved to the suburbs, only George is young, hip-hop, and “I don’t care if O.J. did it or not.” I could kiss CBS for bringing back Michael from thirtysomething, except that this time around, on L.A. Docs, Ken Olin is Arnie Becker with a stethoscope. I don’t want to sound like a suit, but the show had so much heart I actually got teary-eyed.

But as for the rest of it: What were these people thinking? The problem is, they weren’t, and as the week wore on, the word about the utter awfulness of it all got out. The single worst show -- and who would have believed it? -- was NBC’s Encore! Encore!, Nathan Lane’s star vehicle. Here is one of the funniest guys in any medium, and he’s saddled with the tortured premise that he’s a famous opera singer trying to start a new career in his hometown in California wine country. Nearly as shaky was Costello, the new companion to Fox’s savagely sane King of the Hill, which looked more like an evil twin. That this series about a barmaid was created by Home Improvement and Roseanne wunderkind Matt Williams made it all the more bewildering.

From the look of things, CBS is certain to improve its demographics and audience share now that it’s unabashedly going after testosterone. ABC won’t necessarily help itself but won’t sink much lower (how could it?). Fox will build on the Ally McBeal juggernaut and continue onward and upward. But trust me on this: The real comer next season will be the WB, with its pretty good, pretty-peopled melodramas for the Clearasil crowd. And the shocker is that NBC looks to have no new stand-alone hits in the offing, not even All My Life, the latest sitcom from Bright/Kauffman/Crane, starring Cristina Applegate: Not smart, not sexy, not anything, the show from the creators of Friends and Veronica’s Closet is quickly earning its producers the moniker Stretched-Too-Thin Productions.

Unnerved by the anemic reaction to the new slate, some stars actually turned on the audience they were supposed to amuse. “I hear this crowd sucks,” barked Conan O’Brien. “I’m going to win you over if it kills me,” Nathan Lane promised lamely.

The networks even turned on themselves. “To all who said ABC wouldn’t be No. 1,” Drew Carey told the New Amsterdam audience, “good call!” After announcing that he’d signed a “fantastic deal” to continue Mad About You for another season on NBC, Paul Reiser handed his valet-parking ticket to Bob Wright and asked him to gas up the black Mercedes. “We not only want to take a lot of NBC’s money,” Reiser said, “but we want to make sure they have no chance to recoup it.”

By the end of the week, everyone had also taken shots at the competition, and it did get personal. ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses, considerably chastened during a year that began with the installment of chairman Stu Bloomberg above her and ended with the network’s dropping at times to a humiliating fourth-place finish behind Fox, presented the new schedule. But it was Bloomberg who made the point about “A-county, 18-to-49, over-$75,000, college-educated” demographics and couldn’t help but snicker, “At CBS, they’re referred to as ‘them rich, smart city folk,’” a swipe at CBS’s hicks-in-the-sticks image.

The best of the worst was reserved for front-running NBC and that unmentionable, cable. CBS opened its presentation with two opera divas warbling “La donna è mobile” while a screen offered new lyrics: “With Seinfeld gone, NBC’s woes are many / They can always bring back Jenny.” Or “Cable’s a really good deal / If you think pro wrestling is real.” To drive home the point that the NFL was back on his network on Sunday afternoons, CBS Television president Les Moonves starred in a Letterman-style film as Vince Lombardi’s unheralded assistant. Walking off the field tired and dirty, Moonves was approached by a red-haired boy asking for an autograph -- “Because you’re my hero, Mr. Moonves,” the youngster gushed. “What’s your name, kid?” Moonves growled. “Warren,” the pipsqueak replied. “Warren Littlefield!” Later in the film, Fox was berated as “a fourth-rate fledgling network run by Australians.”

Predicting what the 1999 NBC schedule would look like after January, he displayed a graphic in which every slot was filled by Dateline. Moonves -- not coincidentally a former thespian -- put the other presenters to shame. Fox Network president Peter Roth oozed so much warmth he practically glistened.

Littlefield, the NBC Entertainment president, who will forever be judged (unfairly) against the conspiratorial charm and subversive wit of his predecessor, the late Brandon Tartikoff, did try to strut his stuff. He, too, starred in a short film, which reenacted the events of last December 23, when Seinfeld called it quits. “Jerry on line 1,” a minion said, interrupting an office Christmas party to tell Littlefield, who picked up the phone and promptly fainted to the floor. Suddenly, he was on a gurney, being wheeled onto the E.R. set. “He’s lost his Seinfeld,” said nurse Carol Hathaway. Reviving, Littlefield pleaded with the cast, “Promise me you won’t ever leave.” Everyone agreed except George Clooney, who’s nearing the end of his contract; he mumbled, “I have to make a phone call.” The last scene showed Littlefield in a hospital robe, repeating the mantra “There’s no show like E.R.” while a camera panned down to his ruby-slipper-clad feet.

But all joking aside, this is a critical week for all six networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and the WB -- and not just because there’s $13 billion-plus in ad sales riding on the buzz generated by the fall lineup. At stake are bragging rights, pecking orders, and the specter of being the butt of that annual TV riddle (“What’s the difference between the Titanic and fill-in-the-blank? At least the Titanic had entertainment.”). Behind the humor onstage, a very serious game is being played here. NBC wants to talk only about demographics and specifically the coveted 18-to-49 group that is its franchise. CBS wants to talk only about total viewership, which is where it has been doing well. Fox, the WB, and UPN want to talk only about skewing young and niche marketing. And ABC wants to talk only about The Lion King.


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