May 22 – May 28, 2002 Connie Preps for Streetside CNN ….Would You Take Orders From Tiffani Thiessen?

Wednesday, May 22

Gird, Sixth Avenue, gird: Here comes Connie Chung! Ms. Chung, who recently joined CNN, is set to blast live in New York from a brand-spankin’-new fishbowl studio in the Time Inc. building on Sixth Ave. and 51st Street.

Ms. Chung is just one of the high-profile puppies soon to be in the window of CNN’s megabucks, mega-hyped Manhattan TV home. Another show ready to move to the Sixth Avenue location is Paula Zahn’s already-running breakfast yapfest, American Morning . Aaron Brown’s 10 p.m. info hour, NewsNight , is another potential candidate. As for timing, CNN has not announced an official new studio-premiere date-and won’t get into details about its posh pad-but action is expected to begin there in late June.

What CNN wants, of course, is to work a little streetside, Katie Couric–style magic with its new set, hoping that families will load up the minivan and drive 2,200 miles to catch a glimpse of Ms. Chung laying her verbal mitts on John Ashcroft or another embattled Big Kahuna. Currently, CNN’s New York–based shows are produced at the network’s overcrowded, stale-aired hive at 5 Penn Plaza, but they might as well be shot in Saskatoon or Port Washington, since no one in the public has a chance to see their favorite personalities working in the flesh.

Now that will change. CNN has been (literally) keeping the new studio under wraps, but soon the brilliant disguise will be torn away, and the cable network will have its most prominent beachhead in New York City-of course, until that other prominent beachhead, the giant emerald hydra rising at Columbus Avenue, is completed sometime in … 2047.

Is this latest Manhattan splashdown further evidence that CNN’s power base is crawling northward from Atlanta, the network’s longtime home? Publicly, CNN executives maintain that Atlanta is the network’s Mecca, but clearly, with three of the revamped network’s new showpieces here in New York-and the indefatigable Larry King suspendered and sunning in L.A.-Southern cookin’ isn’t as critical to the network as it was when beloved boss Ted Turner would barrel into his newsroom with batty strokes of genius.

And another thing CNN isn’t talking about is whether or not their new, very public Sixth Avenue studio might inspire the competition to have some fun at their expense. There is another New York–based cable news network: It’s called the Fox News Channel, and it’s helmed by a talkative man named Roger Ailes-and it’s approximately three blocks, or the length of 36 prone Bill O’Reillys, from CNN’s new home. Fox has a history of corpo-pranksterism-they’ve taken out classy, taunting billboards right across from CNN’s Atlanta home-and it’s reasonable to expect that they might try a little street-level, welcome-to-the-neighborhood-style disruption of their chief rival.

We shall see. Tonight on CNN’s Moneyline , Lou Dobbs tells his audience that he’s angling to do his show in a gold-plated studio atop the Waldorf-Astoria, sitting on a red crushed-velvet pillow and surrounded by palm-fanning handmaidens. [CNN, 10, 6 p.m.]

Thursday, May 23

Comedy Central vice president and general manager Bill Hilary hears this kind of thing all the time: You must be chafed when your scrappy li’l cable network carefully cultivates talent (Craig Kilborn, Jimmy Kimmel)-only to have a big, lazy vulture (CBS, ABC) with a fat wallet fly down and scoop them up.

“The truth about Comedy Central is that we do build up talent and sometimes they leave,” Mr. Hilary said, sounding a little like a proud coach at Triple-A Columbus. “I don’t have a problem with that; I actually think it’s a really positive thing for our network that we make great stars.”

The good news for Comedy Central, it seems, is that the threat of losing Jon Stewart appears to have abated. The New York Post reported in March that before chasing after David Letterman, ABC played footsie with the swirly-maned Daily Show host. Later, when ABC was dangling megabucks in front of Mr. Letterman, Mr. Stewart’s name was repeatedly mentioned as a potential late-night successor at CBS, which, like Comedy Central, is part of Viacom.

But now, with Dave signed, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien locked in for eternity, Jimmy Kimmel taking the Politically Incorrect slot, and Ted Koppel and Nightline signed for another couple of years-can’t Mr. Hilary breathe a mild sigh of relief about his network’s biggest star?

“Well, who knows?” he said. “Jon is with us for another year and a half, and he seems to be very happy … he’s a brilliant presenter. Will we keep him? Who knows? I’m really realistic about this.” Mr. Hilary has been around long enough to know that the competition will always be nibbling at his talent. Theoretically, for example, should Nightline end its run in a couple of years, it’s not a stretch to imagine that ABC could make a play for Mr. Stewart to take the 11:30 slot, leading into Mr. Kimmel’s show.

But Mr. Hilary said he refuses to “live in the future.” And he said he doesn’t want to push Mr. Stewart into signing a multi-year deal if that’s not what the host wants. “I personally don’t believe in deals that tie talent if they don’t want to be there,” Mr. Hilary said.

In other words, if you love your host, set him free-and pray he doesn’t wind up on The Learning Channel.

Tonight on Comedy Central, Ben Stein crows about the offers he’s gotten from Channel 13 and C-Span 2. Win Ben Stein’s Money . [COM, 45, 5 p.m.]

Friday, May 24

If you had to pick a moment that effectively summed up feelings about this year’s upfront week, it was probably on Thursday, May 16, when Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman was touting a new series called Fastlane . Fastlane, Ms. Berman said, starred Bill Bellamy and Peter Facinelli “as a pair of rogue L.A. cops and 90210 ‘s Tiffani Thiessen as their boss.”

The notion of a buxom bombshell like Ms. Thiessen bossing anyone around anywhere except on a preposterous Fox drama was too much for the audience at the City Center on 55th Street to bear, and the crowd erupted in laughter-not polite, ha-that’s-a-funny-idea laughter, but raucous, man-you-can’t-make-this-crap-up laughter.

In fairness to Ms. Berman, the Fox upfront is the last of a grueling week of presentations, and by the time this year’s crowd sat for her good-natured pitches, they’d already sat through eight others, including two (CBS, UPN) hosted by soft-spoken spotlight-deflector Les Moonves. By Thursday afternoon, the audience was already punch drunk-and in some cases, actually drunk-and Ms. Berman’s plug for Boss Tiffani merely sent them over the edge.

That said, it was not the kind of upfront week that makes one feel poised on the next golden age of television. As dumb as a lot of it was, the reality and game-show wave at least forced networks to think creatively; but now, with the trend ebbing, programmers have largely retreated to conventional sitcoms and dramas, some of which recycle premises kicking around since Uncle Miltie’s heyday. NBC’s Good Morning Miami , for example, may be the progeny of talented Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, but it has to be the six billionth sitcom where the premise is a naïve straight man plopped into a wacky newsroom. They also have a sitcom called In-Laws , which may be the first new sitcom to make comic fodder out of in-laws in more than three or four months. And on ABC, they were thrilled to announce the return of … John Ritter.

It felt very 1987, to say the least, except for the parts that felt like 1957. Networks, you’ve no doubt read, have, in the wake of 9/11, dropped (some of) their usual sex and grime in favor of peachy, family-oriented entertainment-like NBC’s American Dreams , in which a handsome suburban family grapples with football practice, American Bandstand and the Kennedy assassination.

That’s why, really, it was something of a relief as well as a hoot to hear about Ms. Thiessen presiding over a pair of scofflaw, car-crashing cops. Fox thankfully understands that television still has a responsibility to show some irresponsibility-and if it has to smash a few Ferraris, then smash ‘em up.

Tonight on Fox, Dark Angel . Every horndog magazine editor in America tried to make pillow-lipped Jessica Alba a television star, to no avail; Fox clipped her wings last week. [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, May 25

Michael Musto, the Tony Danza of gossip television-just find a network he hasn’t dished on!-is back on the tube as a resident ‘sipper on Pure Oxygen Entertainment , a weekday magazine show on the still-kickin’-but-breathing-heavily women’s network. Every Tuesday, Mr. Musto, a former E! personality most recently seen on the Metro Channel as the co-host of the gone-but-not-forgotten New York Central , pops up on Oxygen to chatter about boldface boo-boos.

Does Mr. Musto feel like a TV survivor? “I am Gossipzilla!” he wrote in an e-mail. “I will never die! I have survived E! and Metro and plan to storm every other channel on your dial except ESPN!”

What’s more, on 61, Mr. Musto is a whole nine channels up the dial from his Metro days. This afternoon on Oxygen, stay home and eat an early supper, because there’s a big, juicy rerun of Cybill ! [OXY, 61, 3:30 p.m.]

Sunday, May 26

Tonight on CBS, catch the jes’-canceled The Education of Max Bickford . Poor Richard Dreyfuss got an education in the vicissitudes of network television, didn’t he? Now go and complete the Stakeout triptych, bub! [CBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Monday, May 27

Back in those go-go days of a few months ago, when times were still pretty good and everyone thought Zach Galifianakis was going to be a big, big star, VH1 commissioned documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler ( The War Room, American High ) to do a vérité series chronicling the U.S. armed forces’ effort in and around Afghanistan.

Mr. Cutler, as he did with the school kids in American High , gave digital video cameras to a number of military personnel and asked them to occasionally record their thoughts. The result is Military Diaries , a surprisingly textured portrait of American soldiers amid the recent war effort. Its grinding throb-rock soundtrack aside, Diaries is a refreshingly toned-down examination of the contemporary military, one that illustrates the dedication of the effort while showing a more human side of the people on the ground.

“The most surprising thing was how open people were in discussing their complex feelings about what was going on,” Mr. Cutler said. “I’d say the vast majority, if not all the people with whom we’d worked, had joined the military long before Sept. 11 and long before there was any thought that they’d be involved in actual war.”

Mr. Cutler said the U.S. military was quite cooperative in allowing personnel to participate in the Military Diaries project. And yes, though he did screen parts of it for the people depicted in the series (something he said he always does), he wasn’t forced to drop anything. “I can tell you that there wasn’t a single thing we were asked to change,” he said. [VH1, 19, 10 p.m.]

Tuesday, May 28

So Bryant Gumbel went out as he went in: with hardly anybody watching. Mr. Gumbel’s May 17 finale as co-host of The Early Show earned it a 2.1 rating-each ratings point represents approximately one million households-keeping the show far behind competitors Today and Good Morning America . Of course, CBS did not exactly give (nor did Mr. Gumbel request, apparently) a “Rachel’s baby”–like promotion for his walk into the sunset, but geez, America-the guy woke up at 3:30 a.m. for two and a half years.

This morning on The Early Show , Jane Clayson runs across 59th Street and applies for a job at the Sherry-Netherland. [WCBS, 2, 7 a.m.]