What Will Become of the Pundits?

Wednesday, Feb. 17

43 Circling the city like a school bus, the MSNBC shuttle delivers on-air reporters and crew members from various spots in Manhattan to the network’s massive, Buck-Rogers-meets-the- Daily Plane t studio in Secaucus, N.J. Not surprisingly, the shuttle has become a convenient satellite for office gossip. This week, a source on the MSNBC shuttle told NYTV that as the Clinton scandal unwinds, pundits–the lifeblood of repetitive 24-hour networks with way too much time to kill–are panicking. Terrified of losing their air time and green-room sodas, these legal analysts and political strategists are dropping broad hints to MSNBC that they have other areas of expertise: divorce law, international relations, meteorology.

The Great Pundit Panic of 1999 has begun. Tim Russert told Conan O’Brien the other night that as their phones stop ringing, pundits will be lucky to hail a cab in Washington. The Monica Lewinsky saga was the first to take place in the three cable-news network (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel) era, when an insatiable demand from dozens of news shows produced a huge supply of talking heads, shouting heads. With the Clinton trial over, bookings will most likely dry up, or perhaps scale back to a once-a-week gig on the Sunday shows.

How will these $300-an-hour lawyers and Republican blondes fill the void in their lives?

If anyone has advice for pundits hoping to remain on the air, it should be Alan Dershowitz, a man who pops up during each big scandal like Marty Feldman in a Mel Brooks movie. “I have three words of advice,” said the law professor from his Cambridge, Mass., office. “Get a life!”

NYTV was taken aback by Professor Dershowitz’s harsh words– what’d we do? –until he properly identified the object of his derision. “Anyone who lives for TV or who relies on TV for life and for gratification is doomed to unhappiness,” he said. “A pundit who panics is a pundit who should be fired … I can’t wait until this is over so I can get back to my priorities.”

Mr. Dershowitz, you see, is not really a pundit. He’s an advocate. “I don’t offer myself up as an expert on the issues. I usually advocate a point of view, and I only pick issues I feel strongly about.” For every booking he takes, he said, he turns down 10.

“So many of the talking heads really aren’t experts–they’re just good-looking. I’m lucky, no one’s accused me of being good-looking … The people who are the real experts, they’ll keep getting calls. Now I gotta go. I have another call.”

Carol Ross Joynt, a Washington-based MSNBC producer and booker, doesn’t think the pundit crisis will kick in too quickly, considering how much air time the networks have to fill. “Networks are not going to give this up so fast,” she said. “O.J. didn’t come to a stop for weeks after the trial ended … Some will find themselves on the junk heap, but others will flourish. Johnnie Cochran got his own show, and Marcia Clark became a star. Who will have their own show after this? Lanny Davis?.”

And what Jonathan Turley, the almost-ubiquitous George Washington University law professor whose name became synonymous with “pundit” in the last year? At the height of the scandal, Mr. Turley was appearing on five different networks in one week. “He’ll be around forever,” said Ms. Joynt.

Professor Turley downplayed his pundit role, calling himself and his fellow media commentators “trifles.”

“Pundits,” he said, “are like mimes. They tend to grow irritating with time.” Professor Turley isn’t worried about his future. “I can find something to do. I’m a little worried that John Dean will be lost without me, but he can cope with the separation problems … that kid has a real future.”

[MSNBC, 43. Fox News Channel, 46.]

4 Alien abduction poster boy Whitley Strieber came out with a book last year called Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us . But the paperback version, just released to coincide with a new NBC special, is now called Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us? Hey! What gives with the question mark? Is the military-industrial-entertainment complex once again suppressing the truth about extraterrestrials?

“Half the evidence we present is not hard evidence,” said Mark Wolper, the show’s producer. Shocker. “The only hard evidence of aliens among us will happen when an alien shakes hands with the president.” But Mr. Wolper, calling from a car phone as he pulled into Fox Studios, said creating the show helped him quantify his U.F.O. skepticism. “I’m now 60 percent believer, 40 percent skeptic.”

“We took an alien implant out of one of the abductees, and had it analyzed by a major mineral institute in Texas that analyzes obscure objects. Their database has, like, 400 million different objects. and this object was not found in that database …

“Why hasn’t 60 Minute s done this?” he asked. Maybe because … Mike Wallace also has implants … that are in no database on earth … [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Feb. 18

4 Remember Punky Brewster ? We knew you would. The Fred Silverman-era 80’s NBC sitcom starred a cherubic youngster named Soleil Moon Frye. (Her mother wanted both the sun and the moon in her name.) “I never really disappeared,” she said about the decade in which she disappeared in forgettable “MOWs” (Movies of the Week) and studied theater and psychology at the New School.

“Don’t ask about her breasts!” pleads her publicist, fearing NYTV would pry into S.M. Frye’s breast-reduction surgery of a few years ago. (Track down an old episode of The Wonder Years to see Ms. Frye’s full moons.) So instead, NYTV asked what she’s been up to. “I directed a film called Lunchtime Special with my brother, about five teenagers who think they’re dying of food poisoning and have 24 hours to live. I’m still finishing it.” Last October, she married the producer of the movie. On this week’s Friends , Ms. Frye, 22, plays Joey’s girlfriend, “who punches him whenever she gets excited.” See how far TV has advanced? [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Friday, Feb. 19

47 Gran Hotel (Mexicana, 1944): Un caso de identificación errónea en un hotel de lujo resulta en situaciones cómicas. [WNJU, 47, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, Feb. 20

4 Though it will surely disappoint its remaining hard-core fans, Saturday Night Live has canceled its April 17 show, which would have been hosted by John Goodman. A source at the show told NYTV that the production is overbudget. Perhaps that’s because of the extra four or five skits per week that get cut in Saturday evening’s dress rehearsal, meaning thousands of extra dollars are spent for costume and set design. (Yes, there are skits worse than the one that airs at 12:46 A.M.)

However, according to Lorne Michaels, founding monarch of SNL , it’s not the show that’s pressed for cash, but the network, which is still hurting from shelling out a whopping $13 million per episode for ER . “Last June when we were doing the budget for this year’s season, there were fairly stringent budget cuts across the board at NBC,” said Mr. Michaels, calling, as all television producers are required by law to do, from a mobile phone. “In June, there’s always a battle over budget. When a cast is in its third or fourth season, the budget needs to go up, because people have been there longer. But we had been held flat to last year’s budget, with the agreement that we would do 19 shows at the same budget level, and reassess our situation at the beginning of ’99.”

So he scheduled 20 episodes as usual–and as there have been each year since the 1988-89 season–though he had enough money for only 19, hoping that “things would be in a better place with the network.” They weren’t, despite all those CD’s NBC sold from The Sixties . When he realized more money was not forthcoming, he eliminated the extra show.

Mr. Michaels called a typical show’s budget “considerable,” which he indicated meant somewhere north of $1.5 million.

“There’s no objection [from the network] to the work we’re doing,” said Mr. Michaels, noting that the show has withstood increased competition this year from Howard Stern and Jerry Springer. As for the semiannual purge of writers and cast members, Mr. Michaels said he won’t be making any real decisions until after the season finale on May 15.

Tonight, watch the great genius Bill Murray, snubbed–as so many great comic geniuses have been–by Oscar, for Rushmore . And critics’ favorite Lucinda Williams will make bittersweet music. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Sunday, Feb. 21

20 Uh-oh. Another Millennial Sign of the Apocalypse: Rock ‘N Jock Bowling . Minor celebrities knock down pins. Unless they don’t. Do they wear those shoes? With minor pop diva Deborah Cox and minor TV star Alyson Hannigan. [MTV, 20, 7 P.M.]

Monday, Feb. 22

13 Powerfully built straight role model “Tink-Wink” and the other sexually healthy Teletubbies , Po, Larry and Curly, hump mercilessly and teach young children the joys of heterosexual contact. [WNET, 13, 9 A.M.]

Tuesday, Feb. 23

11 Some of the most clever satire around comes from a weekly phony newspaper in Madison, Wisc., The Onion . (Typical recent headline: “Lewinsky Subpoenaed To Re-Blow Clinton on Senate Floor; ‘We Must Know Exactly What Happened,’ Say Legislators.”) So it’s not surprising that Buffy the Vampire Slayer , a cleverly written TV show, has an Onion alumnus on staff who calls both the “newspaper” and the TV show “very deconstructionist.”

” The Onion is pretty much at its core a parody of a newspaper, and is very self-aware of conventions and of form,” said Dan Vebber, the former Onion staff member. “Buffy’s characters are teenagers who are very ironic and media-savvy, like characters in a horror movie that go to horror movies themselves.” That might describe Scream , except that Buffy is a lot funnier and dramatic and also actually succeeded in making NYTV cry during an episode.

Mr. Vebber, 28,wrote this season’s best episode, riffing on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead , now Mr. Vebber and a few Onion vets have a development deal with Fox TV. He wouldn’t give any hints about next season other than to say that Buffy will be heading to college in the fall. Tonight on Buffy , Willow’s evil doppelgänger comes to town to do some very bad things. [WB, 11, 8 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

One could date the start of the American independent film movement with the release in France in 1959 of a picture that heralded the beginning of the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s first feature–made when he was 27–and one of the classics of humanist cinema, The 400 Blows [Saturday, Feb. 20, Turner Classic Movies, 4 A.M.; also on videocassette] . Entirely autobiographical, the movie poignantly tells about 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud’s beautifully played debut) and his sad travail as a neglected, misunderstood and troubled boy who runs wild, commits petty crimes, is sent to reform school, finds temporary solace only in movie theaters (one night stealing poster and stills of Citizen Kane ). After the kid’s escape from the reformatory, the picture ends on a beach with an ambiguous freeze frame–original then–but probably the most imitated conclusion in modern filmmaking.

The international success of The 400 Blows opened the floodgates to the Nouvelle Vague–the young critics and writer-directors who took French films away from the cinéma de papa with a movement that reverberated around the world. The picture also set up Truffaut for an illustrious, productive career that flourished right up to his tragic death from a brain tumor only 25 years later, in 1984, at the age of 52. His writings as a young critic, which preceded his directing, and continued afterward, had an overwhelming influence on movies everywhere, essentially fathering the then controversial politique des auteurs which would finally dominate most film criticism.

Truffaut also made four other works chronicling the further adventures of Antoine Doinel, his alter ego, always played by Léaud: the “Antoine et Colette” episode of Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). All of these, like The 400 Blows , were deeply influenced by Truffaut’s spiritual father, the great poet-picturemaker Jean Renoir, whom he adored and who loved him, as Renoir would tell me, “like a son.” The passionate young filmmaker’s stepfather, so to speak, in terms of influence and admiration, was Alfred Hitchcock, whose technique and style had a noticeable impact on Truffaut’s other kind of movies, like The Bride Wore Black (1967), or Mississippi Mermaid (1969). His interview book with Hitchcock became a standard text and ironically helped to give the Master of Suspense a respectability in the United States he had never enjoyed previously.

I knew François a little. He was shy, modest yet vital, and especially charming with women. One time he invited me to lunch at his Paris apartment, prepared a delicious salade Niçoise, proudly showed off his vast collection of Eiffel towers–not that you could miss it–he had them all over the place in every possible size. Because my French was even worse than his English, our conversations were necessarily somewhat limited, but I could always see that his passion for film as both liberation and tonic was total and totally real, as real as his love of Renoir and Hitchcock, who died just a year apart, in 1979 and 1980. Strangely, François only outlived their loss by four years. When he went, an incandescent light that showed the way of movies for so many was extinguished, and is now more sorely missed than ever. Despite his vast success, Truffaut could not avoid life’s “400 blows” and his first film eloquently conveys how cruel and traumatic these can be for a child. Yet his own life became an inspiration for overcoming them.

What Will Become of the Pundits?