Midway through NBC’s annual upfront presentation to advertisers on Monday, May 14, the gregarious celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse tromped down the center aisle of Radio City Music Hall in his luminescent white chef’s coat, chased by a spotlight. Had an NBC executive forgotten to pay the check at one of Mr. Lagasse’s restaurants? Was Mr. Lagasse coming down to grill crawfish at the NBC after- party outside at Rockefeller Center?
Nope. Mr. Lagasse–the effusive, barrel-chested Food Network star, the very paradigm of a cable-ready but not-quite-ready-for-prime-time personality, the man who invented the blood-curdling Emerilisms ” Bam !” and ” Kick it up a notch !”–had been recruited by NBC. And not just anywhere! Mr. Lagasse had gotten his own sitcom, Emeril , and it was going on Tuesday nights. At 8. Next fall.
The world, it seemed, had been inverted; cable had swallowed network. NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker had just announced Mr. Lagasse’s eponymous show–a sautéed version of Home Improvement , in which the chef plays himself and the plot revolves around ( duh !) a TV cooking show.
Mr. Lagasse swept past the new NBC president Andrew Lack and NBC chairman Bob Wright and hopped onto the Radio City stage. “You know, I love television, I love cooking, and Bam !–a TV comedy about a cooking show!” he bellowed, delivering a vibration that rattled eardrums back in the mezzanine. “Talk about happy happy !” Mr. Lagasse took a breath breath . “Folks, wait until fall, grab an appetite and tune in–because this fall, we are going to kick it up a notch on Tuesdays at 8 o’clock right here on NBC– Bam !”
Bam! Well, why not? It was an odd little moment, one that illustrated the bizarre, often confounding universe that prime-time network television has become. A cable curio, Mr. Lagasse, enlisted to kick off a major night of broadcast network programming. He’s not an actor, and he’s not married to Brad Pitt. But Mr. Lagasse and Weakest Link sourpuss Anne Robinson –who’s not exactly Jennifer Aniston herself–were being hailed as the Jerry and Cosby of 2001-2. And the man who dragged them in was Mr. Zucker, who just five months ago was keeping Katie Couric and Matt Lauer’s coffee mugs hot as the executive producer of Today .
But why not shake it up? After all, NBC–the network of Sid Caesar, Jack Paar, Huntley and Brinkley, Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby–had been feeling the heat in a mega-media world. Just recently dominant, it had gotten to the point where its chairman, Mr. Wright, had been caught whining about The Sopranos. But you’d be whining too if you’d invested $35 million in the XFL, or seen your once-infallible Thursday ‘Must See TV’ franchise torpedoed by CBS’s Survivor .
So now NBC was doing what battered networks do: It was getting a little loopy.
“They say there are rules in television,” NBC’s West Coast president, Scott Sassa, told the crowd. “They say there are things you can’t do. Only we’ve never known those rules, and we’ve never cared.”
Well, it sounds good. Today’s network television executives want you to believe they’re all a bunch of nutty professors, mixing genres, shaking up time slots! Putting chefs on television! But broadcast TV remains a highly conventional business. As David Chase told The New York Times, responding to Robert Wright’s complaints about The Sopranos ‘ relative freedom on HBO, if The Sopranos had been on network television, “they would have tried to make it that, on the side, Tony is helping the F.B.I. find the guys who blew up the World Trade Center.” Indeed, with so much money on the line, the bulk of prime time continues to be filled with conventional dramas, sitcoms and snoozy news magazines. Strictly speaking, Weakest Link is the only conceptual risk in NBC’s fall 2001 lineup.
But these are strange days, especially at NBC. Mr. Zucker’s in, Garth Ancier’s out and management’s denying that Mr. Sassa’s clutching to the awnings. Will G.E. sell or grow? The Friends look a little old and geezy, like when Dobie Gillis was still in high school at 25. ER … who are those people on ER , anyhow? Where’s the guy with the glasses? Is he still there? Is Suddenly Susan still on the air? How about Veronica’s Closet ? How many Law & Order s are there?
This haze of confusion was evident at Monday’s Radio City presentation. Where once there was Carson–who announced his retirement, surprise-attack style, at an upfront presentation–or at least Ted Danson, now there was Ms. Robinson, slithering asexually onto the stage with her Rustoleum-dyed top and bound-up boobies. Famous in this country barely a month, she was on hand to host an “executive” version of Weakest Link featuring Mr. Sassa, Mr. Zucker, sales vice president Marianne Gambelli and NBC’s second-best Bill Clinton– Conan ‘s Robert Smigel’s slightly ahead–played by Saturday Night Live ‘s Darrell Hammond.
“Whose executive elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top?” Ms. Robinson asked the four. The mock Link was actually a bit discomfiting, considering the noise about Mr. Sassa. He took a zinger from Ms. Robinson about the demise of the XFL, the schlock-o-rama on which NBC blew $35 million, and which made you yearn for Johnny Carson just to hear his nightly Nebraskan recitation of those three initials– “X … F … L … doesn’t that stand for my divorce settlements–Extra Free Lexus?”
At least nobody brought up The Michael Richards Show .
Still, Mr. Sassa survived the impolite interrogation, while Mr. Hammond, standing in for Mr. Clinton, took it in the chops as the weakest link. And despite some indications that the British import’s audience is flagging–really, how long will America be berated?–Mr. Zucker has slapped two Links on the griddle next fall, back-to-back on Sunday and Monday nights. NBC, last to sip the reality and game-show champagne, was feeling no pain, and there was much crowing about the show’s younger, disposable-income audience–all to contrast Ms. Robinson with the graying Regis-run Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC.
It’s always this way with NBC, of course. If they don’t have the most viewers, they insist they have the right viewers. More and more, the network skews toward notebook-computing, second-home Bobos who guzzle Frappucinos and enroll the sprites in Stanley Kaplan; Audi-leasers who find gay humor acceptable and class jokes gauche. Mr. Sassa calls these viewers “upscale demos.” Everybody else calls them “Nader voters.” These viewers–who are, we’re told, a new demographic–once loved Family Ties and Seinfeld , just as they now enjoy Frasier and Just Shoot Me and weep shamelessly to Providence after cutting off an ambulance speeding home on the Saw Mill.
The show of shows for this audience, of course, is The West Wing , the cast of which got a disturbingly reverential treatment Monday, as if Jesus and his disciples had risen and rolled into Radio City. Never mind that The West Wing is essentially power pornography from the mid-80′s Steven Bochco playbook–multilayered plots, ensemble characters rattling off comeback speeches few actual humans could ever formulate–or that President Josiah Bartlet’s Clintonian politics look passé in the Halliburtonized world of George W. (The West Wing would look better if they started drilling in Rob Lowe’s office.) But to the true NBC acolyte, the West Wing press secretary, Allison Janney, occupies the same warm, fuzzy axis that David Brinkley once did, or as Tom Brokaw now does, along with MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and the company’s socially acceptable loudmouth, Chris Matthews.
NBC cherishes this high-toned merger between the showbiz and the real; to them, it’s a natural progression that the imaginary Bartlet administration should be celebrated as heroes. After all, it’s only NBC that could, as it did on Monday, follow an old tape of Eleanor Roosevelt with a live speech by Kelsey Grammer. It’s the network that acts as if Cheers had been created by Jonas Salk. It’s the network that continues to announce its annual victim for the 8:30 p.m. Thursdays post- Friends time slot as if it were a Supreme Court nominee.
Mr. Zucker did the honors this year. “Here is what is different this time,” he said. “I’m telling you, I know what we have put in this time slot hasn’t lived up to ‘Must See TV.’ I’m admitting it. We have no bigger priority. And the winner is … Inside Schwartz , a romantic comedy featuring feature-film star Breckin Meyer as Adam Schwartz, a 24-year-old wannabe sportscaster. It’s smart. It’s original. It’s innovative. And most of all, it’s funny.”
So Inside Schwartz was Stephen Breyer. Mr. Zucker referred to Breckin Meyer, who appeared in Road Trip and 54 , as a “feature-film star.” Now, Marcello Mastroianni was a feature-film star. Even Alec Baldwin is a feature-film star. Neither is in Inside Schwartz .
Later, Mr. Zucker delivered some startling news about Law & Order.
Remember, earlier Mr. Sassa spoke about ignoring old TV rules: “We’ve never known those rules and we’ve never cared.” Well, remember that old network rule that says you can only have two different Dick Wolf Law & Order dramas in a single fall schedule? NBC’s got three different Law and Order s coming this fall: Law & Order classic, with dour A.D.A. Sam Waterston; downtown, slightly skeezier Law & Order Special Victims Unit ; and now, brand-new Law & Order: Criminal Intent, starring Vincent D’Onofrio– Full Metal Jacket , Ed Wood , Men In Black ; that’s a feature-film star–which lets the viewer see how crimes go down.
Later, Mr. D’Onofrio was sitting near a fountain with a colleague at the post-upfront party in the Rockefeller Center Summer Garden, smoking Camels, not bothering anybody.
Mr. D’Onofrio was asked what a guy like him was doing here, in television, in 2001.
“Basically,” he began, “a lot of people came up to me last year: David Chase, Dick Wolf–who’s the guy that does Ally McBeal ? That guy, he’s like the Steven Spielberg of television?”
“David E. Kelley?”
“Yeah,” Mr. D’Onofrio said. “A lot of people came to me, but Dick [Wolf] had the best things to say. His stuff is less … soapy. I like that. I don’t like soap.”
Mr. D’Onofrio said his movie-business colleagues had warned him about television, told him it was grueling work. They were right, he said. “It is fucking grueling, you know?” he said. “We’re talking 12 to 15 hours a day.”
Still, there were upsides. Mr. D’Onofrio got to be with his wife and family, who live in Manhattan. As for the TV stuff–who gets picked up, time slots–the actor said he was leaving that to other people. “I came into this show with a film career, and I’ll leave this show with a film career,” he said.
But Mr. D’Onofrio said he was signed up to do Law & Order: Criminal Intent for a long time. He declined to say how long.
“It’s going to cost them a hell of a lot of fucking money, but they’ve got me for a while,” Mr. D’Onofrio said. “I’m totally 100 per cent committed for as long as they’ve got me.”
Aren’t we all? Tonight on NBC, watch Vice President Tim Matheson call conservation a sign of personal virtue on The West Wing . [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Thursday, May 17
The WB’s upfront presentation on Tuesday, May 15, at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers was like every big, awkward pep rally you went to in high school: bumping music, colored spotlights and smiley young faces that were very, very excited about stuff you couldn’t exactly relate to.
As the lights dimmed, a video played. The WB’s motto is “The Night Is Young,” and from the looks of it, the night is not even old enough for pierced ears or PG-13 movies, much less Charmed . Major prepubescent props were accorded to Eden’s Crush, the stars of Pop Stars , the network’s bubbly, Britney-Spears-meets-Backstreet-Boys music confection, as well as Gilmore Girls , the surprisingly addictive (and zipped-jeans wholesome) mom-daughter drama.
Sure, there were some old coots huffing around: Keri Russell of Felicity and James Van Der Beek from Dawson’s Creek ; David Boreanaz from Angel; even the comic Bob Saget, liberated from funny videos and Full House to star in a new WB sitcom called Raising Dad . (Mr. Saget plays Dad.)
Of course, there was no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the WB hit that had fled to those bloodsuckers at the UPN. The absence of Buffy’s skinny keeper, Sarah Michelle Gellar, was almost palpable, but the hormone cases soldiered on. “This is definitely not the UPN,” said Angel ‘s hunky Mr. Boreanaz, a former Buffy squeeze who now finds himself in the bizarre situation of helming a spinoff of a show no longer on his network.
WB chief executive Jamie Keller, who now also runs Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta, had also switched networks, in a way. Mr. Keller assured the gang that he’ll still be around–”I’ll be at the WB twice a month,” he said–but he couldn’t resist yammering about his new gig, lauding CNN’s camera crews for “protecting civilian populations all around the world.” As the WB’s audience might say, Whatever!
Tonight on the WB, a twofer of Charmed . Say goodbye to Shannen Doherty: She’s gonzo! [WB, 11, 8 p.m.]
Friday, May 18
Hey, it’s Barbara Walters, hosting 20/20 at 10 p.m. on Fridays! Why do we get the feeling that, years from now, we’ll see the indestructible Ms. Walters in this very slot and ask ourselves, “Remember that time they pissed off Barbara by moving her for Once & Again ? And where is Billy Campbell these days, anyway?” [WABC, 7, 10 p.m.]
Saturday, May 19
Christopher Walken hosts Saturday Night Live ‘s season finale, making sure the cast puts in a full night’s work before they head off to film their crappy movies. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]
Sunday, May 20
Golly, this Kimes case just gets creepier by the day. Tonight, the inevitable TV movie, Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes , with the part of Sante Kimes going to … Mary Tyler Moore! [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]
Monday, May 21
VH1 examines Genesis in tonight’s installment of Behind the Music . See if they can explain “Invisible Touch.” [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, May 22
Tonight, NBC proffers a double-dip of Frasier . Boy, that Kelsey Grammer sure was chipper at the NBC upfront on Monday, considering he was so miffed last year, when the network bumped him off Thursday nights in favor of Will & Grace . [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]