Wednesday, Oct. 6
Doug Herzog was a cable king. He’s the man who brought South Park and The Daily Show to Comedy Central, and The Real World and Unplugged to MTV. But now, in his first season as the chief programmer for Fox Broadcasting, Mr. Herzog is having a rough start as a network guy. His two big new shows, Action and Get Real , are getting lousy ratings, and the numbers for the Fox lineup as a whole are down 9 percent from the first week of the 1998 season.
Part of Mr. Herzog’s mission at Fox was to bring viewers back from cable TV. Action and Get Real , in fact, are sophisticated, risqué shows that wouldn’t be out of place on cable–but they’re also drawing cablelike ratings, and therein lies the rub.
“I think it was the second week of Get Real when I picked up the phone to call the ratings line, as I now do every morning, and I just got that giant sense of dread,” said Mr. Herzog, 40. “I was like, ‘Here we go, welcome to what the next few years of my life are going to be like.’ I feel like I got out here, and I was put under the microscope right away because I was the cable boy.”
When Mr. Herzog–just a few months into his new job–unveiled his new fall schedule in New York last fall, it won raves from advertisers. He was offering up more new shows than anybody else–eight altogether. And with Action as his pièce de résistance , the Fox schedule had all the elements it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s network needed to regain its momentum after seeing only one new program, That 70’s Show , survive last year.
“Everyone really felt there was some creative things going on there, and bravo for them,” said Stacy Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research for TN Media, which buys network ad time on behalf of corporations. “I wouldn’t count them out.”
With South Park , The Sopranos and Sex and the City , cable seems to be where it’s at now, and Peter Chernin, president of Fox Broadcasting, hired Mr. Herzog last January to bring some of that “it” quality to Fox, which seemed to be airing World’s Wildest Police Chases in the wake of any real new hits. Advertisers tend not to like viewers who sit, clicker in hand, saying, “Dang, look at that dang police car go.” Accordingly, acquiring Action was Mr. Herzog’s first big move. Produced originally for HBO, Action was indeed ready-made for cable. The producer curses right into the camera. There’s loads of sexual innuendo and behavior you don’t see much on TV, like male-on-male oral sex. And it’s done with single camera shots and no laugh track. But now Mr. Herzog is fast learning that network and cable are two different beasts.
“It’s really hard, and it’s nothing like cable. I tell people I used to run a boutique and now I run Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “A broadcast network, it’s a different business, and you have to appeal to far many more people and far many more eyeballs than you can get away with in cable. You can get away in cable with doing the ‘image’ shows. If you were getting lackluster ratings for Action but all the great press that Action ‘s been getting, there’s no way you could think about canceling it because it becomes an image show and it’s playing to your brand. There is not that kind of room on the networks.”
In its first week, Action came in third in its time slot, with 8.4 million viewers, compared with 18 million for NBC’s Frasier . On Sept. 30, it had fallen to fifth place, behind UPN’s WWF Smackdown! , with 5 million viewers. Likewise, Get
Real , about a dysfunctional family with a teenage son who brings girls over for sleepovers and a pre-adolescent one who often fantasizes about breasts, has flailed as well, ranking 89th the week of Sept. 27, with 5.3 million viewers.
Mr. Herzog pointed out that Fox has yet to roll out what could be big hits, like Time of Your Life , a Party of Five spinoff starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Malcolm in the Middle , a family sitcom about a kid who’s part Bart Simpson and part genius. X-Files creator Chris Carter also has a new Fox show, Harsh Realm . And the network’s biggest draws, like Ally McBeal and The X-Files , have yet to premier.
“We haven’t really even gotten to bat yet and it’s just sort of like, ‘Oh my God, we’re down five to nothing in the bottom of the first,” Mr. Herzog said. “We got off to a slow start and it could be a tough year, but we have yet to put up our clean-up hitters.” Fox has the baseball playoffs coming up, which allows Mr. Herzog to plug his shows. (But let’s just hope that the “stars” of Fox sitcoms don’t “happen” to be seated in box seats alongside the first base line this year, O.K.?)
Despite his rough start, Mr. Herzog did get some good news. That 70’s Show , which was expected to tank this season, won its time slot among adults 18 to 49 on Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 8:30 P.M. , with 11.3 million viewers overall.
“A week ago, it was hard to believe we’d have any momentum with anything the way people were talking, and you get caught up in that shit,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying not to do, is get caught up in it and sort of toe the line and stay the course.”
Tonight on Fox, baseball. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]
Thursday, Oct. 7
The Fox News Channel turned three years old on Oct. 7, and it looks as if the cable-TV toddler has finally found its footing. Ratings for Rupert Murdoch’s alternative cable news channel have climbed significantly: up 44 percent from the third quarter of 1999 compared to the third quarter of 1998, with about 235,000 now watching in prime-time each night.
The O’Reilly Factor , the 8 P.M. interview show with Bill O’Reilly, is now often No. 1 in its time slot among CNN, MSNBC and CNBC. Mr. O’Reilly credits his particularly hard-charging, Fox-esque style. “You better have it together if you come on, because I’m not going to patronize anybody,” said Mr. Tough Guy. “If they have an argument, I’m going to try to cut that argument to shreds.” Ooooh.
With that stance, Mr. O’Reilly has lost the bigger guests, like Al Gore, to shows like Larry King Live , where they’ll have an easier time. “But the audience is catching on to all that nonsense,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “The real interesting story about this is that many of the establishment journalists, on television in particular, have now decided that access is more important than journalism. That it’s more important to their careers to be able to get these people on than it is to ask them difficult questions and follow it up and get the truth. They want to be invited to the parties. That’s a tremendously corrupting thing when you see the Clintons go out to Martha’s Vineyard and you see the party list: there’s Katherine Graham, there’s Mike Wallace, there’s Diane Sawyer.”
As for Mr. O’Reilly, he never gets invited anywhere, he said. “Clinton wouldn’t even let me walk Buddy,” he said. “Whatever happened to Buddy, anyway?” That’s a hell of a question. Anyway, catch Mr. O’Reilly tonight with his guest, Patricia Arquette. Wonder what tough, penetrating questions he’ll have in store for her. [Fox News Channel, 46, 8 P.M.]
Friday, Oct. 8
Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm debuts. It’s much better than the last show he produced, Millennium . [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]
Saturday, Oct. 9
An interesting thing has happened to the hourlong television drama. Scripts have become longer, way longer. But the episodes are taking up less film. Simple deduction tells you that means more stuff is happening in the same amount of screen time. “We looked at The West Wing and looked at Third Watch ,” said NBC programming chief Garth Ancier. “Because the audience has been expecting more and more dialogue and action in these shows, what’s happened is that the scripts have gotten longer and longer, and the page counts for the shows have gotten longer. For the first time you have drama scripts that are probably 10 to 20 percent longer to fill the same amount of program time. A couple of shows came in as much as a minute or two short, and then we had to shoot additional scenes to get them up to full time.”
This would explain why the second episode of The West Wing was so hard to follow at times. The characters were talking so fast–obviously in an attempt to depict what it might be like in the working White House–that one trip to the commode and you were through until you could be filled in at a commercial.
Tonight, watch those fast-talkin’ doctors on ER . [WABC, 7, 11:35 P.M.]
Sunday, Oct. 10
The Brady Bunch turned 30 years old this fall. [Nickelodeon, 6, 9 P.M.]
Monday, Oct. 11
Les Firestein has been a television writer for some time now, working on The Drew Carey Show , The P.J.’s and then NBC’s ill-fated The Mike O’Malley Show , which was canceled the week of Sept. 27. Nothing, he said, prepared him for what he went through running Mike O’Malley .
“You’re talking to a guy who worked on In Living Color for four years, which was its own tinderbox,” said Mr. Firestein. “You had eight people with combustible personalities. This was beyond that. There was something about the show that I think brought out the worst in a lot of people. I would call it the most extreme experience I’ve had.”
The chips seemed stacked against the show from the beginning. Mr. O’Malley, basically an untested talent best known for his role as “the Rick” on those ESPN commercials, sold his coming-of-age sitcom to the old regime at NBC, the one headed by West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer and entertainment president Warren Littlefield; they brought in Mr. Firestein to run the show. Midway through the development season, the top executives were replaced by Scott Sassa and Garth Ancier.
Mr. Ancier reportedly hated the pilot and ordered a reshoot. Mr. Ancier was said to believe Mr. O’Malley was not without talent. But Mr. O’Malley apparently did not show much appreciation and angrily resisted many of Mr. Ancier’s suggestions (that Mr. O’Malley recast the part being played by his best friend, Will Arnett, for instance). As reported by NYTV, one disagreement led to Mr. O’Malley storming out of Mr. Ancier’s office in the middle of a meeting. “One group of executives inheriting another group’s development was bad enough,” said Mr. Firestein. “But Mike’s various fallings-out with various executives were, like, driving the nail into the coffin, through the coffin, spackling it over, sanding it down and then restaining it.” That said, when the early ratings came in super low, the show was canned.
Mr. Firestein is now working up his own show for NBC. His requirements for a partner? “Someone who has an excellent relationship with Garth Ancier,” he said. “Maybe even a romantic one.”
Tonight on The Drew Carey Show , Drew reminisces about his relationship with his high school bandmaster. [WNYW, 5, 7:30 P.M.]
Tuesday, Oct. 12
UPN debuts its new Vegas private detective show, The Strip . [WWOR, 9, 9 P.M.]
Home Movies With Peter Bogdanovich
Samuel Michael Fuller directed, wrote and produced his pictures in headlines. There was always a kind of tabloid-journalistic stylization to his work, mixed with the boldness of a scandal sheet’s lead story and the succinctness of boiling it all down to as few striking words as possible. Fuller became a moviemaker with rich firsthand experiences of life as a copy boy from age 12 for the old New York Journal , as a crime reporter by age 17 for the San Diego Sun and as a soldier in World War II, fighting with the First Infantry Division–the “Big Red One”–throughout North Africa and Europe, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and a Purple Heart. By the time Fuller made his first film–with the typical Fuller title I Shot Jesse James (1949)–he had seen enough true horrors, tragedy and human comedy to make even the worst picture crises pale by comparison and the most outrageous picture-plots seem tame. Because of the unquestionable authorial presence behind all his work, the French New Wave critics and filmmakers of the 1950’s adopted Fuller as a perfect illustration of a subversive “auteur” filmmaker functioning within the Hollywood studio system. One of the finest of his numerous crime pictures has an A-cast and a deep B-movie noir funkiness. Richard Widmark (in his lead-heavy period), Jean Peters (at her sexiest), Thelma Ritter (at her most poignant and Oscar-nominated) and Richard Kiley (smarmy as hell) starred in 1953’s gripping, hard-bitten Pickup on South Street [Tuesday, Oct. 12, Cinemax, 33, 8 a.m.; also on videocassette] .
I first saw the film nearly 35 years ago in London on my maiden voyage to Europe, which may have given the work an added piquancy. For my movie card file, I wrote: “Tough, violent, exciting underworld thriller about a pickpocket who accidentally steals a valuable piece of microfilm stolen from the Government by Communists; melodramatic but well played and directed.” Two years later in Beverly Hills, having seen several more Fuller pictures and having come to know and work with the man, I saw Pickup again and rated it “excellent,” adding: “Among Fuller’s best films, and probably the best portrait of life among thieves ever shot. Violent, terse, yet compassionate, Fuller never compromises his characters, and he shows the objectivity-subjectivity of a great crime reporter; the love scenes have an Odetsian power, and the picture as a whole is close to a masterpiece of intensity. With Underworld, U.S.A. , it is probably his most thoroughly successful movie.” (The reference to playwright-screenwriter Clifford Odets, noted for a certain street poetry in his dialogue, was inspired by lines like Widmark’s after first kissing Peters: “Sometimes you look for oil, you hit a gusher.”)
Fuller (1911-1997), whom most people who knew him well called Sammy, remains an outstanding example of the sort of energy and originality that comes to pictures because of a director’s outside, non-show-business activities. Besides knowing about newspapers, crime and war, Fuller had ridden freight trains during the Depression, published his first novel ( Burn, Baby, Burn ) before he was 25, and collaborated on his first film script the following year, in 1936. Fuller’s extensive, harrowing, shell-shock-provoking war experiences resulted in several of the best American movies about war, including the first on Korea, The Steel Helmet (1950). Both Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick, whose World War II movies competed for the Oscar last year, cited Fuller as a major influence with pictures like Steel Helmet , Fixed Bayonets (1951), China Gate (1957), Verboten! (1959), Merrill’s Marauders (1962) and The Big Red One (1980). Surprisingly, for a guy who had lived through some of the worst of human behavior, Sammy to the end retained a tough innocence, a clean inner beauty as a person, that was touching. In a world of crooks, Fuller was the last honest pal.