Wednesday, Feb. 23
For Robert Halmi Sr., the biggest TV movie producer in the world, the test of the American audience and just how low it will go comes Sunday, Feb. 27.
That evening–one of the last in the February television sweeps period–NBC will air the first installment of his 10-hour fantasy epic about trolls and fairies, The Tenth Kingdom . It will run against The Beach Boys: An American Family on ABC and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town , a JonBenet Ramsey movie on CBS.
The competition makes Mr. Halmi, a 76-year-old Hungarian man who landed on Ellis Island 50 years ago with five dollars and a Leica camera, particularly angry. He was explaining why to a visitor at his 21st-floor midtown offices.
“What is the country looking for?” he yelled in his gravely voice, jabbing his finger at the air in true producer style. “The JonBenet thing? Or the Beach Boys? I mean, who the hell! … I wouldn’t watch neither of those things, even if it’s free! I have an original thing! It will be a test of the country’s taste!”
Mr. Halmi, small and gray-haired, was sitting behind his desk, by a glass case housing about 30 gold Emmy statuettes earned by his TV movies.
“Everything is really going downhill for the last three or four years,” he said. “Look at it. I mean, where is the dramas? Finished! Game shows, wrestling, you know, Dateline and Stern, Howard Stern, it’s just–just–just the pits, it is! This week it was Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire . Next week it will be Who Wants to Fuck a Millionaire ! Can you imagine when television started? You had Playhouse 90 , all these great, wonderful–”
His voice trailed off.
Mr. Halmi made his upcoming miniseries The Tenth Kingdom for an estimated $36 million. Amid all the reality-based shows popular for the last few years, Mr. Halmi’s stuff has been a welcome change. In the 90′s, he had hits with The Odyssey , Merlin , Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels .
The son of the last court photographer to the Hapsburg dynasty, Mr. Halmi grew up behind a camera. He was a photojournalist during World War II, when the Nazis took over Budapest. He took up arms against them in the Hungarian underground. When the Nazis were driven out by the Communists, he took up arms against the Reds. In 1947, he said, the Communists convicted him on spying charges. Some American journalist friends helped him escape from prison just before he was to be executed, he said.
Mr. Halmi landed at Ellis Island June 12, 1950. He immediately found a job taking baby pictures for a New York diaper service. Soon after that, he successfully shopped pictures from his trip to America aboard the General Sturges to True Magazine , which launched him into an early career working as a documentarian.
“I captured the expressions of these people seeing the Statue of Liberty at 5 in the morning when we came in,” he said. “Very emotional stuff.”
With TV starting to truly boom in the 60′s, Mr. Halmi decided he wanted to get in on it. He convinced General Foods to back his production of Ernest Hemingway’s My Old Man , which he sold to CBS in 1979, starring Kristy McNichol.
This past November came The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns , a Halmi-produced laughingstock that became fodder for late-night talk-show hosts and an embarrassment to NBC because it angered the Irish community. Somehow, the sporadic river-dancing and brawling didn’t go over so well. It flailed in the ratings, with an average 14 million viewers. Mr. Halmi, who had enjoyed consistently good press, started taking a public beating, not only by critics, but by big network heads.
NBC’s new programming chief, Garth Ancier–who inherited The Tenth Kingdom when he took over last year, along with three other shows by Mr. Halmi scheduled to run in the spring–complained to reporters that the film, which will run over five nights, asks “an awful lot of an audience, to commit to 10 hours of a miniseries. You’re almost knocking out a whole tier of viewers under 40.” Instead of using the miniseries to launch NBC’s sweeps push, Mr. Ancier decided to schedule it at the end of the period, with a couple episodes coming after sweeps.
Last month, NBC miniseries chief Lindy DeKoven resigned from NBC, leaving Mr. Halmi’s fate up to her replacement, Steve White.
It didn’t take long for CBS president Les Moonves to jump on her departure: “Garth, by his own admission, said … that The Tenth Kingdom is a dog,” Mr. Moonves told reporters in January. “If I had 10 hours coming on in February that I thought wasn’t very good, I guess maybe I would get rid of the executive early so I could blame them for it.”
You might think that Mr. Halmi’s brand of TV would be a good fit for CBS, but Mr. Moonves doesn’t sound like a fan. Referring to Mr. Halmi, he said, “We at CBS have never been dominated by one producer who provided bad special effects.”
The feeling is mutual. Mr. Moonves is a constant target of nasty faxes from Mr. Halmi. “I am always rubbing it in when he did something stupid,” Mr. Halmi said. “I don’t think he can stand that every time I do something, I beat him.”
The Tenth Kingdom is the longest miniseries NBC has run in 21 years. It stars John Larroquette as Central Park West superintendent who, along with his waitress daughter, played by Kimberly Williams, finds himself trapped in an almost medieval world populated by Brothers Grimm characters. The first episode, with a lot of exposition and a few annoying trolls, is the weakest, and Mr. Halmi knows it.
“They tightened up the beginning a little bit, but you need exposition,” he said. “You’re talking about 10 hours, you have to establish it somehow. I wish I wouldn’t have those first two hours, but I just couldn’t get rid of them.”
After Mr. Halmi’s interviewer left, his phone rang. It was Mr. White at NBC, saying the network was ready to go all out with promotion for The Tenth Kingdom –with bus ads and radio ads and even a “making of” short. Mr. Halmi called his interviewer to set the record straight. “He said The Tenth Kingdom was the best thing he ever saw,” he said. “He said ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to do all this.’ Just like the old times.”
Tonight, catch a little magic on Fox’s The Secrets of Street Magicians Finally Revealed . Finally! [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]
Thursday, Feb. 24
How is it that the cast of Friends is still getting onto magazine covers? It can only be that there hasn’t been a real sitcom created since it launched on NBC in 1994. Tonight, Rachel tries to fix a sink. [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]
Friday, Feb. 25
After WCBS lost Judge Judy to WNBC last fall, its late-afternoon ratings fell off the radar screen as the belligerent TV justice went on to become the No. 1 show locally between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. In its 4 P.M. slot, WCBS put on The Martin Short Show , which tanked. To staunch the bleeding, WCBS has launched News 2 at 4 with Stephen Clark and Dana Tyler. The strategy is helping–it’s viewed in an average 136,000 local households, compared with Mr. Short’s 82,000. But still, WCBS is languishing in sixth place at 4 P.M. Is Judge Judy , watched in 500,000 households daily, huge, or what? [WCBS, 2, 4 P.M.]
Saturday, Feb. 26
A.J. Benza, the host of E!’s Mysteries & Scandals –and the former Daily News gossip columnist who used to employ this NYTV columnist–came to town recently to tape bits for a possible Saturday-night talk show he would host on E! He hopes E! will let him do it because it would allow him to come more often to his hometown. “It’s like New York is my wife and L.A. is my mistress,” he said. “I want to get back to my wife.”
Same old Benza. He said he should find out soon.
“We’re still in the planning stages,” Mr. Benza said. “We’re one big ‘if’ away.”
This morning on M&S , the Harry James-Betty Grable marriage. [E!, 24, 8 A.M.]
Sunday, Feb. 27
For those who don’t like somewhat cheesy fantasy flicks like The Tenth Kingdom , there’s good, old-fashioned seediness tonight on CBS, when we see another take on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case in Perfect Murder, Perfect Town . Still, NYTV’s money is on the first installment of The Tenth Kingdom . Even if you hate the beginning, it gets better during the last eight hours. That’s a promise from us, the folks at NYTV. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]
Monday, Feb. 28
Remember Alison Stewart, the former MTV News correspondent who was clearly too good for cable but seemingly too hip for network news? She had gone off to CBS News primarily as a correspondent for Bryant Gumbel’s now-canceled Public Eye . Well, now Ms. Stewart is resurfacing at ABC as the new co-anchor of ABC’s overnight news show, World News Now , which runs between 2 and 5 A.M. She is replacing Juju Chang at Anderson Cooper’s side. She said she’ll stay there for at least a year, at which point, she said, she might evaluate whether or not she likes being an anchor–and whether television news can get real again.
“I think TV news is so in flux right now, it could be a totally different beast in a year,” she said. Her point? “I think people may turn away from the 24-hour, news-channel sort of talking everything into the ground. You know? When something happens and you can’t get away from it, and they’re showing the same film from the same plane over and over and not saying anything new about it. That might not be attractive to people anymore.” Anything’s possible. [WABC, 7, 2 A.M.]
Tuesday, Feb. 29
Cheers . [WPIX, 11, 12 midnight.]