Yes, ABC dragged out Regis Philbin at Radio City Music Hall with a puff of white smoke and that dramatic, clinky Who Wants to be a Millionaire soundtrack. Yes, they did a joke about the Time Warner Cable blackout, suddenly interrupting a clip of ABC programming with a blue screen and that ugly Disney Has Taken ABC Away From You message. No, they don’t have new co-hosts for Monday Night Football yet. But yes, the audience, thick with star-struck media buyers, clapped themselves silly, like star-struck media buyers always do.
It’s “up front week,” that annual New York song and dance in which network executives rent fancy auditoriums, wave pom-poms and try to convince advertisers to pony up even more money for their shows. It’s largely a shameless affair-stars are trotted out like slabs of meat, affiliate reps body check each other for photo-ops with network brass and everybody tries to convince themselves that they’re celebrating something more than another mostly unmemorable season of prime-time programming.
But gosh, if anyone was entitled to a little enthusiasm during up front week it was ABC, which held its presentation on May 16. Powered by a little show that gives away money to real live people, ABC uncorked a can of whup-ass on its competition this year. While skeptics gleefully point at Millionaire ‘s increasing median viewer age (50 years old and counting), it was a bravura year for the ABC-Disney brass, even if Time Warner succeeded in pulling the plug for nearly two days in early May.
“Go ahead, take a look at me!” the well-monochromed Mr. Philbin barked. “Here I am-the guy who saved the ABC television network! Can you believe it? Me!”
Now ABC isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with its fall 2000 lineup. Like a football team with a star fullback, ABC will take Millionaire and run it straight up the middle four nights a week. Standbys like The Practice , The Drew Carey Show and Dharma & Greg are back, of course, as is 20/20 and the youthful 20/20 offshoot Downtown . ABC is presenting only four new shows this season- Madigan Men, featuring Gabriel Byrne, a Geena Davis sitcom, an Andre Braugher drama called Gideon’s Crossing and some comedy about paranoid folks called People Who Fear People .
And who can blame ‘em? It ain’t broke yet, so ABC is perfectly content to ride this Regis roller coaster all the way to the end. ABC’s up front was the loveiest of this week’s network lovefests, and when you get right down to it, it really is all about one little show and its likably impish host. “What a difference a year makes, eh?” said ABC entertainment co-chair Stu Bloomberg.
Tonight, watch the show that paid for all those free drinks at the ABC after-party, and then some- Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. [ WABC, 7, 8 p.m. ]
Thursday, May 18
You could practically feel the hormones buzzing in the air on the morning of May 16 at the WB up front at the Sheraton New York and Towers, which looked, smelled and sounded more like an after-party for the prom than a stodgy network presentation. Whether it was the stereo system cranking ‘N Sync, the unavoidable whiffs of Tommy Girl perfume or all the wispy stars and starlets in swanky leather pants, you half-expected someone’s parents to walk in, slam the door and tell everyone to go home.
This is, of course, the WB’s signature schtik. The network’s motto is “The Night Is Young,” and from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dawson’s Creek to Felicity , the WB has successfully swiped much of the 12-to-34 viewer demographic. Still, the upstart “Frog” network had a toad of a 1999-to-2000 season, marred by the loss of carriers on the WGN cable network and a prime-time schedule thrown into greater turmoil than Angelina Jolie’s personal life. “For the first time, we missed,” an apologetic WB president Jamie Kellner told the Sheraton audience.
Yup, the WB has a few zits now, and will try to pop them. Network executives announced they are hanging onto shows like Popular , Felicity and Roswell , which were reportedly on the bubble. Sabrina the Teenage Witch will come over from ABC. (In the presentation’s best “D’oh!” moment, Sabrina star Melissa Joan Hart jumped onstage and praised her show’s “fit with Fox.”) New programs include the Darren Star sitcom Grosse Pointe and yet another teeny-bopper soap, Young Americans . There’s also a midseason replacement called Dead Last , which is about a teenage grunge band that can see dead people-ugh!-and a variety comedy series with Jamie Foxx.
Mr. Foxx told NYTV he’s scouring the globe for talent. “There’s one guy [in London] who’s absolutely hysterical, but he can’t leave the country because he’s got prior convictions or some shit like that,” he said. “That’s what we want to do-get on cats like that, some guys who got a little baggage to them.”
Mr. Foxx should have signed up round-faced comedian Frank Caliendo, who brought the Sheraton house down with a series of impressions he calls the “five minutes of fury.” Mr. Caliendo will be one of the performers on Hype , a sketch comedy show that will satirize stars of the moment.
Six months ago, Mr. Caliendo was doing a grueling college stand-up tour. Now he’s in a prime-time show. So what did he buy with his WB paycheck?
“A 53-inch TV,” he said.
Perfect to watch tonight’s episode of Popular , in which the kids get pissed when they’re denied a “skip day” from school. [ WB, 11, 8 p.m. ]
Friday, May 19
$ So hooray, the Friends will stay. Forty million smackers each for Chandler, Monica, Joey, Phoebe, Ross and Rachel, which should buy a lot of yuks and hair gel over the next two seasons. Now the Friends can actually afford those gargantuan Manhattan apartments they live in. And extra lattes.
If Friends ‘ down-to-the-last-minute standoff with NBC felt a little too cute and staged, rest assured it was pretty real. This was established on May 15 at NBC’s up front presentation at the Metropolitan Opera House, where an enormous banner draped over the entrance stairway featured the faces of stars from NBC shows like Frasier , The West Wing , Will & Grace , Law & Order and Providence , but no Friends . It wasn’t a snub-NBC wanted to prevent an egg-on-face moment in the event that they weren’t able to sign the Friends up-but it felt kind of like walking into Madison Square Garden and finding Walt Frazier’s number missing.
But then again, these are strange days at NBC, where the euphoria of Must See TV and the let’s-kick-the-crap-out-of-everyone spirit of the Seinfeld days are long, long gone. These days, NBC plugs itself as the network of “the quality shows,” a claim that may hold water for programs like Law & Order and The West Wing , but one that requires total mental repression of fare like The Mike O’Malley Show and God, the Devil and Bob . Unable to flatly shout, “We’re No. 1!” like it used to, NBC touts its performance in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic and its “high indexing” among “professionals and the college-educated,” which is just a fancy way of saying they’re still watched by a lot of yuppies with disposable income.
Thankfully, NBC has a bit of a sense of humor about its recent struggles. During the presentation, “Triumph the Insult Dog” from Late Night With Conan O’Brien lampooned NBC as a “great, great network … for me to poop on!” and NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa cracked, “Who says money can’t buy Friends ?” After those funny ha-ha bits, NBC trotted out its Fall 2000 lineup, which includes the aforementioned Friends , Frasier , Will & Grace , ER and The West Wing , among other returnees, as well as new fare like Deadline (a journalism-biz drama from Law & Order creator Dick Wolf), The Steven Weber Show (a sitcom featuring the bed-hopping brother from Wings), Titans (a neo-Dynasty from Aaron Spelling), Tucker (some kind of Malcolm in the Middle clone; cute kid, nutty family) D.A.G. (a secret service sitcom with David Alan Grier and Delta Burke), Ed (that comedy that CBS passed on last year from Letterman producer Rob Burnett) and The Michael Richards Show (featuring Mr. Richards, best known as Kramer from Seinfeld , playing a private dick.)
Mr. Richards, who has dropped his wet-finger-in-the-electric-socket haircut in favor of a flatter ‘do, sounded pretty upbeat about his show, despite rumors that the thing needs some serious work. “I have four writers from Seinfeld ,” Mr. Richards said at the post-presentation reception in a tent outside Lincoln Center. “We’re in good hands, we got a good show here.”
Mr. Richards was asked what he thought of the Friends gang making all that grease. “I’ve been there,” he said, recalling his holdout with Seinfeld ‘s Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which netted the supporting trio $600,000 per episode for the show’s final year. “Get what you can get, it’s a long haul. They’ve been around for a while, and they’re going to go for what they’re worth.”
As Mr. Richards spoke, sweaty ad buyers and NBC affiliate reps mingled among stages set up for photo-ops with the stars of the network’s prime-time shows. The photo line for the Clinton administration’s fetish-porn, The West Wing , was especially thick. The photo line for Daddio not so thick.
Actor and good guy Oliver Platt held court at the Deadline stage. Mr. Platt has already got the disheveled, reckless journalist look down pat, though the tweedy bow tie he was sporting was a bit, well, Paris Review . NYTV asked him what local hacks have been, um, volunteering to help him with his character. “I don’t know if I should say,” Mr. Platt said. “Put it this way: I went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and came away with a lot of business cards and people who were eager to have lunch.”
And what has Mr. Platt been reading?
” Brill’s Content , cover to cover,” he said.
“It’s perfect,” Mr. Platt protested. “It’s a magazine about the media.” He said he was reading other newspapers, too, as well as journalist biographies and compilations of great newspaper columns.
Elsewhere, oft-downloaded vixen Yasmine Bleeth was sticking her face up against an air vent to get a blast of cold wind. NYTV tripped through a group of ogling thirtysomething men to get the 411 from Ms. Bleeth on Aaron Spelling’s Titans . She said she plays a woman who’s slept with both her fiancé and his son. And that’s just the pilot!
“It’s a new prime-time nighttime glamour soap,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a big deal.”
Maybe even as big a deal as tonight’s episode of NBC’s Providence , in which Syd journeys through a coma. [ WNBC, 4, 8 p.m. ]
Saturday, May 20
$ The other big deal NBC hyped during its up front presentation was the XFL , the network’s football-to-the-extreme partnership with mad genius Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Federation. The XFL will begin play next year and marquee games will be shown Saturday nights on NBC from February to April.
A promotional clip for the XFL touted the fact that the smashmouth league-which plans to microphone coaches and stick cameras in players’ helmets-would have “no indoor stadiums,” “no prima donnas” and “no fair catches.” A fair catch is football-speak for a perfectly sensible rule that allows a player to signal and catch a punt without getting his head knocked off. Something tells NYTV that as soon some poor XFL- er winds up on a stretcher on national television, NBC is going to have a little controversy on its hands.
Today on NBC, the comparatively sedate NBA playoffs . [ WNBC, 4, 3:30 p.m. ]
Sunday, May 21
Tonight on the X-Files , is this the end for Mulder? Fox sure as hell hopes not. [ Fox, 5, 9 p.m. ]
Monday, May 22
Everybody Loves Raymond . Until he asks for Friends money, that is. [ CBS, 2, 8:30 p.m. ]
Tuesday, May 23
A&E’s Biography does Mr. Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, who, incidentally, will produce a miniseries of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full for NBC. [ A&E, 16, 8 p.m. ]