At the Monday afternoon presentation of NBC’s prime-time line-up at Radio City Music Hall, ad buyers were treated to a rare sight: a solemn Jeff Zucker.
By his somber expression, the head of the NBC Universal Television Group seemed to be carrying the abysmal performance of Father of the Pride, LAX and Hawaii, and the lackluster ratings of Joey, on his back.
Jeff Zucker had heard the reports: Analysts predict that NBC will lose a half a billion dollars in ad revenue this year. So at the NBC upfronts at Radio City Music Hall, where the network presents its prime-time line-up to advertisers, there was no reprise of the shticky vaudeville act the NBC Universal Television Group head did with Apprentice superstar Donald Trump last year.
“Let’s be entirely candid,” said Mr. Zucker, his large, pudgy face looming over his small frame from the Jumbotron screen that had been mounted in the center of the stage. “We’re not where we want to be. We’re not where you expect us to be. We get it. We totally get it.”
As Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes might have said, “Get out!”
“Prime time this year, we did not have the season that we wanted to have or that we said we would,” he continued. “If you had told me a year ago that NBC would have this kind of year, I would have told you, ‘Yeah, and the New York Yankees would be in next-to-last place; the L.A. Lakers won’t even be in the N.B.A. Playoffs; and Tiger Woods would probably miss his first cut in seven years.’ Oh, well …. ”
But there was no commiserating chuckle to indicate that the advertisers were willing to cut him the slack that Mr. Woods has gotten.
So the rest of the NBC presentation was a giant bout of self-flagellation.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler jumpstarted the punishment from an SNL “Weekend Update” set, which rose out of the floor of the Radio City stage.
Fey: “In TV news, the NBC executives who last year picked LAX, Hawaii and Father of the Pride have completed rehab.”
Poehler: “There’s a rumor that NBC passed on Desperate Housewives. Not true. They passed on Lost-and Desperate Housewives.”
Fey: “NBC is broadcasting more and more of its programs in high-def. The picture is so clear that last week on Joey, you could actually see Matt LeBlanc’s panic.”
Poehler: “NBC did take some risks last year with shows like Father of the Pride, or what Roy Horn called the most painful experience of his life.”
Now the crowd was loving it. Until Keith Turner, the head of NBC Universal sales and marketing, took the stage.
“Tina and Amy really are amazing on ‘Weekend Update’: all that great SNL humor combined with the accuracy of CBS Evening News.”
Anyone? CBS Evening News?
O.K., next gag.
Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, fared far better with a video that purported to document his first year in office.
What starts off as a parody of The Office-which, incidentally, NBC picked up for a second season-quickly descends, as shows begin to flop, into an homage to Apocalypse Now. To the tune of the Doors’ “The End,” Mr. Reilly starts having hallucinations. A ceiling fan whirls in the background and fiery explosions overlay his face. Mr. Reilly is heard saying in a voiceover, “I was the king of cable, a hero. All I needed was five loyal viewers and a good quote from [Washington Post TV critic] Tom Shales.”
This, of course, is when Martin Sheen shows up, bearing gifts.
“I heard you were down, so I thought I’d come by and cheer you up with this gift basket. Look what I got here for you-all kinds of scented candles and oils,” he said. “I know someone who uses this and still has their job.”
Afterward, at the Rockefeller Plaza reception, Mr. Zucker was also making the rounds. Like a tornado, he made his way through the crowd, sucking people into his orbit and then spitting them out.
Mr. Reilly was working hard for the money, too. He could be overheard convincing a suited gentleman that Fathom, the new underwater science-fiction drama slated for Monday nights, is suitable for kids.
“Too intense?” he balked in response to a query. “My 6-year-old watches it.” He added, “It’s very Spielberg in tone.”
In the background, a long queue had formed to take photos with the cast of The Office as Mr. Reilly continued pitching. “Amy Grant is so delightful,” he told a gaggle of women, referring to the country singer who hosts NBC’s new Friday-night reality-TV series, Three Wishes. “So delightful.”
Ms. Grant was in earshot.
Bonfire of Insanity
Deep in the carpeted and softly lit belly of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on a recent afternoon, a smorgasbord of celebrity schwag-handling was groaning along nicely.
The occasion was the second annual Lucky/Cargo Club: a “hospitality suite” with food, drink and shopping opportunities provided by the two Condé Nast glossies to serve as a getaway for celeb types in town for the upfronts. Just think-this time last year, NBC seemed absolutely certain that Joey would carry the peacock to Friends- and ER-like glory!
But while there was an enticing-looking buffet spread, and a full bar complete with delicious-looking Bloody Marys, the mission for the starving, gleaming-white-toothed stars was clear: to carry out as much free stuff as they and their beleaguered-looking assistants could carry.
“It’s crazy …. They’re already so rich, they don’t need free stuff,” a naïve young worker sighed. “It must be nice to be a celebrity.”
At the Lucky/Cargo club, it was possible to quantify the niceness.
Charlie’s Angels’ Justin Theroux was trying on sunglasses while casually eating a sandwich; the big kid from Lost received a pair of Frye cowboy boots in his size (the $289 coral cowboy boots were worn out of the joint by Debra Messing the previous day); and Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman was giving a cheery good-bye wave to all as she left with two large bags.
Among the more popular spots seemed to be the sound-system maker Bose; the company’s QuietComfort 2 Headphones ($299) were being given out as casually as business cards, while others received the new Wave Sound System ($499); Bad Boy II’s Gabrielle Union dispatched help to carry hers, as her arms were already full. “The men really love Bose,” said the company rep, who’d helped a “very sweet” Kelsey Grammer the previous day.
David Arquette, dressed casually in a sweater vest Chandler would have admired, entered the room, blinking at the spoils. “Oh, is that David Arquette? He’s going to need a Wave Sound System,” the Bose rep predicted, scrambling over to the high pile of boxes she had on hand.
At the James Jeans table, a makeshift dressing room had been constructed out of a couple of sheets. Cowgirl Ms. Messing had been in there for an hour the day before and apparently loved the jeans, various workers told The Transom, staying to try on multiple pairs and chat. Currently, the space housed a perky sitcom actress, who bounded out from behind the screen in form-fitting white jeans.
“Are they too tight?” she wondered aloud to the room. “Do they give me camel toe?”
Meanwhile (and inexplicably), Andy Dick was running around maniacally in a red T-shirt and dark-blue, finely tailored blazer he had picked up from the Ted Baker racks (retail value: $895).
“Doesn’t it make me look good?” he said, running his hands over it.
“He’s been down here awhile,” whispered a photographer. Apparently, Mr. Dick was also a fan of the mp3 player from iRiver ($240). “He loves them-he took three of them,” an iRiver employee said.
Meanwhile, reality stars Brittny and Lisa Gastineau cooed over the long, beaded necklaces at the Lia Sophia jewelry table.
“Do you like the bracelet?” the younger Gastineau asked her mother, pointing to one of the three she currently had on her wrist.
While all the vendors agreed that they were more than happy to provide the celebrities with whatever they chose, they gave particularly high marks to Ms. Messing, co-star Eric McCormack and Ed’s Julie Bowen for being among the most friendly and gracious.
Others didn’t poll quite so well.
“Lindsay Lohan was in here yesterday, and frankly, she was obnoxious,” said one (a vendor Ms. Lohan didn’t chose to stop at), rolling her eyes at the ever-shrinking starlet’s alleged M.O. of all grab and no gab. “She just sort of took stuff and wouldn’t even talk to people, let alone look at them.”
Ms. Lohan, in town to host Saturday Night Live this weekend, did well for herself after being apparently enthralled by the Solstice sunglasses table.
“She ended up with 13 pairs,” the Solstice rep said cheerfully, guessing the value to be roughly $3,000. “She actually had taken 16 pairs, but I put a few back when she wasn’t looking.”
Ms. Lohan’s sunglass spree included five pairs of Christian Dior, two Marc Jacobs and one each of Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani.
Mix, the beleaguered brainchild of financier Jeffrey Chodorow and chef Alain Ducasse, has already gone through two different chefs since it opened in September of 2003. With the arrival of a third from Florence last month, the restaurant was quietly relaunched and renamed, quite simply, Francesco at Mix.
It was there, on May 12, that some 200 people gathered to toast Francesco Berardinelli, the newest chef-and newest namesake-of the somewhat-new restaurant.
“We wanted to indicate that it was about Francesco and not Alain, O.K.?” Mr. Chodorow explained in a later interview. He noted that Mr. Ducasse’s name wasn’t even printed on the party invitations last week, lest it distract from Mr. Berardinelli’s kitchen kingship.
So why did Mix need fixing? Originally, the restaurant was billed as Mr. Ducasse’s effort to bridge the coastal cuisines of France and America-an idea, Mr. Chodorow added, that was inspired by the Franco-American tensions following Sept. 11. But the signature touches-a peanut-butter-and-jelly amuse bouche, and glass serving jars that critics derided as “Petri dishes”-were pummeled by the press. Diners complained that a $72 prix-fixe menu was outrageous for bistro fare. Two of Mr. Ducasse’s handpicked chefs, Doug Psaltis and Damon Gordon, came and went.
Now the restaurant has scrapped the French-American hybrid concept in favor of Italian fare. Does peanut butter and jelly stand a fighting chance?
“No, unless they have Italian peanuts-I don’t know,” Mr. Chodorow laughed. Then he paused to reflect. “I will say they do make my favorite jellies in Italy,” he added, “because the fruit’s so fresh.”
Last Thursday’s sought-after sampler included dishes that were more of a mouthful to say than consume, like stuffed artisanal paccheri with potatoes and mussels with black olives (all one item). Then came simpler fare, like Parmesan ice cream with green asparagus and black pepper-the chef’s favorite-and fresh pea soup with crispy artichoke and mint. In the thick of battle, however, the servers were hard-pressed to say which dish was which and resorted to answering questions with quick, occasionally inaccurate shorthand. Asked about a glass of pale cream with a small chocolate fan on top, one server responded simply: “Vanilla ice cream.”
It may have been tiramisu.
“I have tasted the tiramisu. It was excellent-very creamy, nice textures,” sighed Veronica O’Brien, a food writer who’d come down from Greenwich, Conn., for the party. “I’m dying for one of these lamb meatballs everybody keeps talking about; apparently they’re fabulous. I guess I just wish that there was more access to the food.”
She leaned up against a column on the edge of the madding crowd, debating whether or not she’d dive in. “You have to be a shark,” she said.
A ceaseless tide of guests kept pouring through the restaurant’s leather-lined tunnel entrance, and it swamped a small bar meant to seat six. One gentleman listed from side to side, struggled to balance his drink, and remarked that the experience was much like being on a cruise ship. Beyond the bar, those who lost the Darwinian food fight settled to the edges, where they gnawed on sun-dried tomato biscotti and poppy-seed crackers.
In the midst of it all, Mr. Berardinelli stood and grinned boyishly in his chef’s whites, entertaining questions and compliments. His prepared statement, issued for the media, described a well-fed childhood on the shore of Lake Maggiore, though it left some things to the imagination.
“My nose knows the smell of homemade bread, my mouth recalls the taste of hot polenta with cheese. And my eyes are still stuck at the shop window, waiting to enter and eat the many cakes inside!”
Too much going on!
So what does the maestro eat when he’s in a rush and far from home? The goateed Mr. Bernardinelli flashed a mischievous smile. He thought hard for a minute, brow furrowed in concentration, and then lit up like, well … like a flame that broils.
“King Hamburg? Oh, Burger King!” he said. “You know, I don’t recall the name of the sandwiches, but-yes!-the cheeseburger. Double.”
‘Doesn’t It Suck Here?’
“We’re about making dreams come true,” said the single-monikered “celebrity” CT, a former housemate on MTV’s Real World Paris and a host of the N.Y./L.A. Bolt Model search, a national modeling competition that kicked off Monday at BED nightclub.
And if your dream is to be a low-grossing runway model discovered in a shopping mall in Middle America, then you best sit tight, open your arms and await the warm embrace of this little-known reality-show star. CT will be touring the country this summer, hosting contests in 20 different cities to find the next generation of supermodels (and, just maybe, to get the word out about Bolt Media, the super-keen “Internet community and social-networking site for teens”).
In the process, he will help bring “a slice of New York City” to the rest of America. Which made The Transom wonder: Are they sure Wilmington, Kansas City, Dallas or any of the other cities on the tour are really interested in a slice of New York City?
“Of course they are,” said Erin Lundgren, the director of special events for New York Models/L.A. Models. “It’s so funny: When they know you’re coming into the mall, the moment you walk in the door, there’s always a big crowd of girls there wondering, ‘Are you those New York people coming into town?'”
Added CT, helpfully: “Everywhere I go, there’s always a girl there who has to say, ‘Why are you here? Doesn’t it suck here?’ Seriously, everywhere I go, they want to get out and be a city girl, to experience city life. We’re giving them some hope-you know, a chance to do that.”
So it’s almost philanthropic, what they’re doing?
“Yeah, it’s just like that,” said Ms. Lundgren.
At every stop, everyone who shows up for the contest will be invited to walk the catwalk, she said, and a few select finalists will vie for the chance to travel to New York in mid-July, where they will compete for $250,000 in modeling contracts. According to a publicist for the event, more than 300 pouty boys and stick-thin girls began lining up five hours before Monday night’s contest. A press release from the event said the lucky chosen contestants were to “hit the runway to the live beats of break-through band One Up and will share the catwalk with top models.” The Transom missed the actual catwalk strut, because we were at the first annual Norman Podhoretz Lecture, given by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer at the Union League Club. Surprisingly, there was not much crossover.
When we did arrive, dreamboat judge Justin Bruening, a cast member of All My Children, caught us up. The contestants were of a very high caliber, he said, if you like that sort of thing, which he doesn’t. See, he prefers curvy women, like his 5-foot-3 fiancée and co-star on the soap opera. “When I look at these contestants, I wanna feed ’em,” he said. “I don’t wanna take them out on a date.”
What about both?
But the nation’s aspiring models should take heart, because CT still wants you. If you’re past the age of majority, that is. After all, he may be “really excited to be part of this tour,” discovering new talent and stumping for New York, but, as he said after the BED contest, “I’m not trying to get indicted.”
All yours, America!