Bryant Gumbel’s Producer Weighs In on Early Show … Suddenly Canceled Executive Producers Speak

Wednesday, Nov. 3

CBS’s new Early Show debuted with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson on Monday, Nov. 1. Mr. Gumbel looked a little rusty. But NYTV decided to check in with the show’s executive producer, Steve Friedman, to see what he thought of his first outing.

“I think the overall tone of the show was terrific,” he said. “Individual segments, some of them I would have liked to have been longer, some shorter. But trust me … this is a full-fledged competitor in the morning race. This is a long, hard, brutal war. It really is going to take six months for us to find our voice, do our voice and get the audience to accept that voice.” [WCBS, 2, 7 A.M.]

Stephen Engel, the executive producer of Work With Me , got the call that every TV guy dreads, on Oct. 21 at around 10 A.M. It was Nancy Tellem, president of CBS.

“She was very nice about it, but the numbers weren’t what they would have hoped,” said Mr. Engel, a former Manhattan estate tax lawyer. “She said she’d love to do business again and that she hoped that I would work with CBS the next time.”

Work With Me , he was told, was to be immediately bumped from its 8:30 P.M., Wednesday time slot and replaced by reruns of The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond . And with that, Mr. Engel’s show became the fourth series of the ’99-’00 season to get the boot.

As the networks head into the November sweeps period–when ratings are gauged to help set the prices of TV ads–they’re well into cutting season. Only about one-third of all new shows survive each year. This fall, The Mike O’Malley Show over on NBC was the first to go. Then came Fox’s Harsh Realm and Ryan Caulfield: Year One . So now it’s Work With Me , which starred seasoned television actors Kevin Pollack and Nancy Travis.

Mr. Engel, a former writer for Dream On , Mad About You , and Just Shoot Me , had his first show in Work With Me . It was about a married couple working together in a small law office. It debuted with fair Nielsen numbers that kept on going down, bottoming out with about 7.7 million viewers. Mr. Engel said he started getting a bad feeling two days before the fatal phone call.

“I kind of sensed something was up on Wednesday, when they almost had no notes,” Mr. Engel said. “I guess if they know they’re going to cancel you, they figure why put you through the burden of having an extensive rewrite?”

(One note that did come down was from the CBS standards and practices people, who, smarting from the use of the “s-word” on Chicago Hope a week earlier, suggested Mr. Engel cut the number of utterances of the word “ass” on his show from six to four.)

Mr. Engel, 38, didn’t want to go down like a wimp. So despite Ms. Tellem’s call, which came on a shoot day, he and the cast decided to tape another episode, anyway. (Cancellations normally come before or after shoot days, but Ms. Tellem wanted to head off an imminent talk-show publicity tour by Ms. Travis.)

“We said, ‘Let’s shoot it, let’s do it and let’s have a good time and get it on film, and we’ll certainly have it for ourselves’–it was also a chance to just have closure,” said Mr. Engel. “I left the ‘asses’ in because it was like, ‘What are they going to do, cancel me?’ Then we had a wrap party. We had a cake and champagne.”

Tonight on Everybody Loves Raymond , Raymond thinks Deborah is too lovey-dovey. [WCBS, 2, 8:30 P.M.]

Thursday, Nov. 4

Les Firestein, who ran The Mike O’Malley Show before its early demise, took a swig from a bottle of beer.

“My parents don’t understand the television business at all,” he said, sitting on a bar stool at Donohue’s Restaurant, on Lexington Avenue, just days after the cancellation. “They’re like, ‘What do you mean it was canceled?’ They were like, ‘It was barely on.’”

They had a point. The Mike O’Malley Show lasted two episodes. In the wake of the cancellation, Mr. Firestein was in town visiting his parents on the Upper East Side for a little “debriefing and decompression–the same thing they do with the hostages when they’re released,” he said.

Mr. Firestein, 37, has been around a little bit, but he called The Mike O’Malley Show his worst experience in TV. He was brought in to help Mr. O’Malley craft his coming-of-age sitcom by the old NBC entertainment team of Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer. Their replacements, Scott Sassa and Garth Ancier, who came in last spring, were less enthralled with Mr. O’Malley’s show and let him know it. The cancellation is, obviously, more of a black mark on Mr. O’Malley’s record than on Mr. Firestein’s. Still, in TV, the odor of someone else’s loss can stick to your clothes like secondhand smoke if you’re close enough. It has left Mr. Firestein feeling philosophical.

“A lot of us became writers because we were geeks in high school, and all we wanted to do was lock ourselves in our rooms and write and be left alone,” he said. “Now we’re meeting with lieutenants of multinational corporations who’ve been sent to make sure we do a good job and reflect well upon the corporation and we’re like ‘Hey, man, we’re just geeks.’”

Mr. Firestein has just landed a story consulting job on Stark Raving Mad . Tonight on Stark Raving Mad , an exotic fish is almost killed at a fancy cocktail party. [WNBC, 4, 9:30 P.M.]

Friday, Nov. 5

When Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, veterans of The Simpsons , found out last spring that the WB was going to pick up Mission Hill , their animated show about white, downtown slackers, they rushed production. Even though WB programmers wanted to hold the show for midseason and told them the only fall time slot available was on Friday night–a night during which the WB courts black viewers–they pushed until they got their way.

“We were like, ‘We want to go on! We want to go on!’ We came from this isolated world of The Simpsons , where it’s so popular you really can do no wrong,” Mr. Oakley said.

In the end, Mission Hill failed to pull any audience–with the number of viewers tuned to it hovering above 2 million–and has been temporarily cut from the WB lineup. It will be replaced by The Jamie Foxx Show and will return in January in a more appropriate time slot. “I think that the lesson that we learned is that our instincts aren’t always the correct ones in terms of these things,” Mr. Oakley said. “What do we know about programming and things like that?” Tonight, the WB airs the Jamie Foxx pilot. [WPIX, 11, 8:30 P.M.]

Saturday, Nov. 6

For every loser of the television season, there’s a winner. You can consider standup comic Chris Titus one of those. With all the shows in trouble on Fox’s schedule, his new sitcom, Titus , has been given the go-ahead for January, when the networks launch a new batch of programming.

Mr. Titus’ show is based on his own life with an alcoholic father and a mother who killed his stepfather one Thanksgiving and later killed herself. It’s a comedy. Mr. Titus said he thinks his show will give Fox the kind of edge Action promised but couldn’t deliver.

Tonight on Fox, two straight hours of Cops . (Now that’s edge.) [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]

Sunday, Nov. 7

Chris Carter has been hailed as a television genius for The X-Files , which has its season debut tonight. But then his virtual-reality military thriller, Harsh Realm , was only drawing 3.7 million viewers and quickly got tossed. It followed the cancellation of his lackluster Millennium . This has left Mr. Carter fuming. He told the trade papers that Fox “botched” Harsh Realm ‘s premier by not promoting it enough. “I think they have big problems,” he said of the network. [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Nov. 8

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, Maria Semple was in her Warner Brothers Studios offices pulling her dirty-blonde hair out. “We’re besieged!” she shouted into the telephone.

She had just learned her show, Suddenly Susan , was being pulled from the NBC Monday night schedule for the entire sweeps period. Ms. Semple, a veteran of Mad About You and Ellen , was brought in last spring to save the struggling Suddenly Susan . So she and new executive producer Mark Driscoll, who ran Ellen , changed a lot of things–replacing Judd Nelson with Eric Idle and switching the magazine where Brooke Shields’ character works from a life style glossy to a men’s rag, à la Maxim . While that may have improved things a bit for the average viewer, Suddenly Susan ‘s small but loyal audience couldn’t handle that much change. The show’s ratings are down nearly 40 percent compared with last year.

Ms. Semple said she has gotten signs from NBC and Warner Brothers, which owns the show, that the executives are happy with adjustments planned for the show’s December return. “I think that they think that we’re all doing the right thing,” said Ms. Semple. “I don’t think they’re like, ‘those assholes are ruining the show.’ I’m not in some delusional ego bubble or anything. But I do believe these original shows that air in December are going to be better than anything the show has ever done.”

Today, in place of Ms. Shields, it’s the second installment of The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns . [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, Nov. 9

Bill Gates continues his campaign to prove that he isn’t evil, with an interview on 60 Minutes II . [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]