Summer of Chandra Levy … The Greatest Thing Since Judge Judy ? … John Stossel Rankles Enviro-Tots

Wednesday, June 27

The nation’s news networks have themselves a hot potato with the Chandra Levy case. Rife with speculation, thick with innuendo–and yet an unavoidably mysterious, intoxicating news story–her disappearance is a reportorial minefield, and the cameras and the viewers aren’t going away.

Is Ms. Levy’s case on the verge of becoming the Story of the Summer, the big, juicy national event with just enough sordid gossip to keep it on the tube through a humid July and August?

Fox News Channel executive producer for daytime programming Dennis Murray agrees the story has its compelling elements: a missing woman, anguished parents, an as-yet-unclear relationship with a U.S. Congressman, Gary Condit. “It’s just a mystery,” Mr. Murray said. “I think people might now be saying, ‘Oh, I wonder if they found Chandra?'”

But the mood in Mr. Murray’s newsroom (and others) is: proceed with caution. After all, while the rumors are bouncing all over the capital, no crime has been declared. And though every news outfit has to take precautions, it’s a particularly tricky case for television news, where so much on-air time is spent chattering away, positing theories, offering predictions.

“We have to be very careful,” said Mr. Murray. “There is no crime. And we have to be very careful, especially with the Congressman.”

However, Mr. Murray certainly felt that Ms. Levy’s disappearance is a valid national story, as did senior vice president for CNN-U.S. Sue Bunda. “There is a questionable connection to a Congressman, and I think it’s valid to investigate that–and her parents have been very public about their plea for help in finding their daughter,” Ms. Bunda said. “I feel like the story is out there, and we should look into it.”

As for whether the Levy case could drift into O.J. or JonBenet land, Ms. Bunda wasn’t sure.

“We look at it on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “It’s really difficult to say if this will turn into the summer story. I don’t suspect it will at this point.”

Tonight on CNN, Greenfield at Large . Did you see the big ad for Mr. Greenfield’s new show in the Sunday, June 24, New York Times Magazine– the same issue that contained an enormous piece about the growth of the Fox News Channel? Placement, placement, placement. [CNN, 10, 10:30 p.m.]

Thursday, June 28

Who Wants to Resuscitate a Beleaguered News Op? They’ve been asking that for a long time over at woebegone WCBS, which has become the witness-protection program of New York local news: Hide there, the joke goes, and no one will find you.

If you talk to the brass over at West 57th, sooner or later they’ll all say the same thing: “Gimme Oprah !” As in: Give us a late-afternoon powerhouse lead-in like The Oprah Winfrey Show and we’ll turn around our early news ratings, lickety-split. (Of course, WCBS used to have a budding powerhouse in the idiotic Judge Judy , but in a decision that looks suspiciously like that Red Sox owner who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance No, No, Nanette , the network pinched pennies and allowed Judy to escape to WNBC, which promptly drove the finger-wagging justice to ratings glory.)

But there’s some hope in Murrowville, now that WCBS and a handful of other local stations around the country have secured syndicated versions of the hit game shows Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Weakest Link for afternoon broadcasts. While it’s a long way off– Weakest Link won’t be on until the beginning of next year, and afternoon Millionaire won’t arrive until fall 2002–there is optimism that a game show tag-team could give local news outfits like WCBS a badly needed boost.

“We think it’s going to help our stations,” said CBS network spokesman Dana McClintock. “Is it the greatest thing since Judge Judy ? It remains to be seen.”

Of course, it’s quite possible that by the time WCBS gets around to airing the afternoon Link and Millionaire , New Yorkers will deeply despise both shows, if they don’t already. NBC is doing its best to beat all the life out of Weakest Link by incessantly beaming Anne Robinson’s jowly mug onto its airwaves, and everyone at ABC knows that Regis mania has officially ebbed. Still, Mr. McClintock felt the programs, which would only have to achieve a fraction of their prime-time viewership to be considered successful in the daylight hour, would be well received. “This is terrific programming for the afternoon,” he said.

Tonight, break with your Blind Date tradition and catch the WCBS Nightcast at 11. [WCBS, 2, 11 p.m.]

Friday, June 29

& Man, that John Stossel keeps steppin’ in it, doesn’t he? Last year, ABC News’ pet contrarian got environmental advocates in a tizzy after he tried to debunk the health value of organic foods by citing a test that (urk!) had never been performed. In the aftermath, Mr. Stossel–a libertarian who runs around telling bureaucrats, activists and assorted P.C. types to “Give [him] a break”–was forced to go on air, scarf a slice of humble pie and apologize.

Now Mr. Stossel has riled his envirosaries again, this time with a forthcoming environmental special entitled Tampering With Nature . Parents in Santa Monica, Calif., are alleging that ABC News producers misled them by not telling them of Mr. Stossel’s prominent role in the special until they arrived at a hotel with their kids last April for what they thought would be a happy little group interview about environmental schooling … only to find the controversial reporter doing the askin’.

“We were all looking at each other and saying, ‘Hey, isn’t he that guy?'” said Brad Neal, who escorted his 8- and 10-year-olds to the interview. Said Tess Cacciatore, an environmentalist who helped round up subjects for the ABC News team and was a subject herself: “I didn’t know John Stossel was involved until I walked into the hotel room.”

ABC News countered that none of these parents complained about Mr. Stossel’s role during the interviews, and only did so after hooking up with the publicity-savvy Environmental Working Group, the Washington-based organization that feuded with the reporter after last year’s organic-foods report.

A statement from ABC News released Monday, June 25, defended the newsman but promised to begin a dialogue. “While ABC News is confident that the interview was handled in a respectful and sensitive manner according to the highest journalistic standards, we take the concerns of these parents seriously and are reaching out to them to open a direct line of communication to resolve this issue,” it read in part.

But was ABC News cloaking Mr. Stossel’s involvement as it pitched the show to potential interview candidates–people who might have been wary about going on had they known the mustachioed finger-wagger was involved? ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said that at least one parent was told in advance that Mr. Stossel would be the interviewer, and he reiterated that no one complained for months. “I feel our producers were honest with the people they were dealing with,” Mr. Schneider said, adding that he thought the special demonstrates that Mr. Stossel, too, was respectful of his subjects.

Apparently, however, ABC News concluded it wasn’t completely comfortable with Mr. Stossel’s kiddie quiz. On Tuesday, June 26, ABC announced it had yanked the interviews with the children, and planned to replace it with a segment on the parental complaints.

But Mr. Neal said that the parents now feel duped. “You know what? They suck,” Mr. Neal said of the ABC News crew. “It’s one thing if [the subjects] were adults. That would be wrong. But when you use little kids, I’m pissed.” Of his hopes for the special itself, Mr. Neal said: “I don’t care if my kids look great on TV. The damage is done.” [WABC, 7, 10 p.m.]

Saturday, June 30

On tonight’s Miracle Pet s , a pit bull rescued by the cops goes to work for the customs patrol. That’s a miracle? [WPXN, 31, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, July 1

You scream, I scream, we all scream for Brooklyn baseball! At least you’d think so from the number of high-fructose corn musings oozed by the city’s hopelessly romantic newspaper hacks, some of whom apparently saved up 44 years’ worth of adverbs for the Monday, June 25, debut of the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones in Coney Island.

Believe it or not, it’s possible for cold-blooded television executives to get misty, too–hence the coverage of Monday’s Cyclones home opener on both the Metro Channel and Thirteen-WNET. “This is a historic moment,” Metro’s sports executive producer, Michael Lardner, said en route to the game.

As for the long-term potential of Cyclones baseball on television, Mr. Lardner was more measured. Minor-league games from Long Island and Jersey have performed reasonably well on Cablevision, he said, and Cablevision intends to broadcast a number of Cyclones games for its Brooklyn subscribers. But when it comes to the city as a whole, the Cyclones, however historic, “don’t necessarily translate into consistent ratings,” he said. “This is like a Final Four game. Next Thursday, there might not be any audience at all.”

Speaking of no audiences at all, tonight NBC drops the Val Kilmer bomb The Saint . [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Monday, July 2

On TNT tonight, Bram Stoker’s Crapula . [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, July 3

Tonight, MTV uncorks its second Real World series set in New York. This time it’s in the Village; the kids live under a sewer grate next to the Lure. [MTV, 20, 10 p.m.]

Wednesday, July 4

Listen, Pet Sounds is a classic, but these Brian Wilson specials just give us a creepy, fragile feeling, as if we were tossing a football to an 88-year-old grandma at a Fourth of July picnic. All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson . [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, July 5

Stark raving Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly has himself a new executive producer: David Tabacoff, a longtime ABC News producer who used to work on shows like 20/20 Downtown and Nightline , decided he’s nuts enough to work with the wildest stallion in Roger Ailes’ corral.

Of course, Mr. Tabacoff knows that you don’t try and tame this stallion. The ABC News vet got to know Mr. O’Reilly years ago, when they both worked in Roone Arledge’s vaunted shop; Mr. Tabacoff was a young producer on the rise, and Mr. O’Reilly was a young, disco-dancing reporter who couldn’t keep his opinions to himself.

“I always liked him,” Mr. Tabacoff said. “I always thought he had tremendous potential that obviously wasn’t being tapped in a network environment.”

Mr. O’Reilly, of course, has gone on to become the Tickle Me Elmo of TV news, with a hit show, a best-selling book and a rapturous wave of press attention capped by a recent TV Guide cover. A few months ago, he contacted Mr. Tabacoff and asked if he’d like to join the party. “I didn’t think he was serious,” said Mr. Tabacoff, who would wind up taking a buyout from the cutback-crazed ABC News before aligning with the Murdoch empire. “It turned out he was.”

Now ensconced in the Sixth Avenue office, Mr. Tabacoff is working on a series of prime-time specials that Mr. O’Reilly will host later this year. The veteran newsman–who’s also serving as a senior producer for Fox News–called them “issue-oriented hours devoted to things and issues that Bill cares about.” (Well, we can all look forward to seeing an eight-part O’Reilly on O’Reilly miniseries, then!)

Mr. Tabacoff acknowledged that some of his friends and colleagues were freaked when he told them he was going to work for Mr. O’Reilly. “My friends who are liberals go, ‘Oh my gosh,'” he said. “But they all admit he’s extremely watchable. And what’s more interesting is the number of people who you know as acquaintances [who] really love him.”

And not surprisingly, Mr. Tabacoff doesn’t think Mr. O’Reilly is the flavor of the month. “While it is an amazing wave [of attention] he’s catching, I don’t think he’s going to just sort of disappear,” he said. “He has a lot to say.” He sure does. Tonight, The O’Reilly Factor. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Friday, July 6

The Fox Family Channel’s Wow! The Most Awesome Acts on Earth . America wants to know: exactly who is on Fox’s Most Awesome Acts Committee? [FAM, 14, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, July 7

Tonight on TNT, Sharon Stone stars in The Quick and the Dead . There’s a joke here about Phil Bronstein and a Komodo dragon, but we’ll spare you. [TNT, 3, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, July 8

There’s something missing from your TV life, isn’t there? Don’t you just sit on the couch and say, “What I could really enjoy right now is just listening to a bunch of preachy, disposable-income yupsters living in the Philadelphia ‘burbs yammer about aging, infidelity, selling out and spitting-up babies!”

That’s right: thirtysomething , the boomer generation’s guilty-pleasure solipsistapalooza, is crashing its Volvo wagon into your cluttered life once again. The suits at Bravo have decided to run all 88 episodes of the Marshall Herskovitz-Ed Zwick drama this summer, starting on July 16. Candace Bushnell hosts..

Bravo vice president and general manager Ed Carroll thinks that thirtysomething deserves another look. “I don’t feel quite as superior to the characters as I did then–now that I have a family of my own,” Mr. Carroll said. “I have confronted some of those issues and made some compromises …. I look at the episodes quite differently and could relate a bit more to some of the situations.”

O.K., well, maybe. Remember the episode where Peter Horton’s earthy-dude character–what was his name … Gary Shepherd!–got hit by a car on his bike? And then they had Apparition Gary wander around like Casper popping in on Michael? That was about as dopey as it gets.

The thirtysomething kickoff is followed by an airing of the panel discussion featuring old cast members that was recently taped at the Museum of Television and Radio. Mr. Carroll said that to the cast’s credit, they know that some people find the show a bit grating. “They are aware that a lot of people would say they brought a whole new level of whining to prime-time television,” he said.

Tonight, CBS takes whining to the next level with a weeper called A Father for Brittany . [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Monday, July 9

Tonight, Fear Factor host Joe Rogan confronts his own career, and runs screaming into the woods. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, July 10

On Tuesday, June 26, New York Times Television and the fledgling National Geographic Channel debuted their big-yahoo Science Times magazine show–you know, the program for your friends who rip that colorful section out of the paper every Tuesday morning, skim it with furrowed brows and authoritatively inform you 10 minutes later that certain Sri Lankan marsupials have “fully developed superegos.”

Twenty-six installments of Science Times will be produced over the next two years. “You’ve got these two incredible world-class brands, both in excess of 100 years old,” enthused National Geographic Channel’s executive vice president of programming, production and news Andrew Wilk. Said Times assistant managing editor Michael Oreskes: “We believe deeply that we can extend the kind of journalism we do in print into television. And doing it with good partners is extremely important.”

But you can’t watch Science Times in Manhattan unless you have a satellite dish strapped to your window grate or subscribe to the still-fringy-in-these-parts RCN. Yup: So far, Time Warner, the Big Kahuna of city cable, hasn’t allowed the National Geographic Channel (of which Fox owns two-thirds) onto its system.

Ironic, isn’t it? No fancy-pants New York Times TV in New York. You can’t get Science Times in D.C., where National Geographic is headquartered, either.

National Geographic spokesperson Russell Howard was optimistic that the situation would be remedied in short order. “I’ve heard the conversations have gone well,” he said. Alas, for now, most of you suckers are going to have to survive without Sci-Ti . Then again, most of you managed to survive without Oxygen–but now, all of a sudden, the Big O is available on Time Warner’s channel 134.

Tonight, you try to survive without the world’s greatest shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, in tonight’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game . [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]