A Divine Comedy for Bette … Givebacks for Gumbel Backers

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Columbia Tristar Television is finally getting close to creating a show for Bette Midler. The diva recently signed a deal with the studio, but coming up with an appropriate vehicle has been slow going. “It’s almost impossible,” said one writer. “It’s like, what do you do? This is Bette Midler! You can’t come up with a traditional sitcom for her.”

Ms. Midler is said to be aware of the problems the writers have been having but reportedly has been unhappy with various potential plot lines pitched to her–like one that would have made her the mayor of a small town and another that would have made her a former big-time actress who left Hollywood to run a community theater.

We hear, though, that Columbia Tristar executives were planning to catch Ms. Midler’s show in Anaheim, Calif., the week of Dec. 13, then meet her later to toss around some new ideas.

A spokesman for Columbia Tristar said a decision should be made soon. Whatever the concept is, it will likely wind up on cbs, possibly next fall.

Tonight, catch Ms. Midler in Beaches . [Cinemax, 33, 6 P.M.]

Thursday, Dec. 23

Sponsors are beginning to request givebacks from CBS for delivering lower-than-expected ratings with its new Early Show , starring Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson, NYTV has learned.

When CBS ad sales people were selling Early Show time slots last spring, they promised the show would be up to some 2.7 million households each morning by now (that’s a “2.7 rating” in TV talk). So far, it has averaged about 2.4 million, the same as its lousy predecessor, CBS This Morning .

Tom DeCabia, head ad buyer for the media firm Schulman-Advanswers NY, said CBS has already given “a handful” of his corporate clients free ads to make up the difference. He wouldn’t discuss how much the 30-second spots went for–the estimate is less than $40,000 each–or which clients were involved.

The givebacks are the latest bad news for the show, which launched Nov. 2 with lots of hype but too few viewers.

Still, Madison Avenue executives said it’s only six weeks–too soon to tell whether the show will catch on. And Mr. DeCabia said while he wants his clients to get their money’s worth in ad time, he’s not about to pull clients from the show or advise against it as a buy. “If it was a stock, you wouldn’t sell it. You’d hang in there,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fine. These shows take a long time to develop, and these are shows that you have to be patient with; you just can’t pull the trigger on it too quickly.”

The belief is that morning audiences are habit-driven, and they haven’t gotten used to tuning to CBS just yet. After all, the network has been in last place in the morning time slot for 25 years. CBS executives are so confident that Mr. Gumbel’s Early Show will change that they built a $30 million glass studio for it on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. It took the Today show nine months to grow its audience after it moved to its glass studios in 1994.

Meanwhile, the show’s executive producer, Steve Friedman, said all he wants is a fair shake. “We thought we’d be doing a 2.5 or 2.6 going into the new year,” Mr. Friedman said. “Now we’re doing a 2.4. If you want to kill the show for a tenth of a point or two, go right ahead. We said when we started, this would be a long, hard struggle, that the most important thing for us is to go into the field … If a year from now we’re getting a 2.3, then O.K.”

Right. Fair is fair. Give these guys a break. Come back around in March.

Anyway, to nudge things along, Mr. Friedman said he’s making a few small internal changes, and he’ll push for more big bookings–like the two-part interview with Muammar Qaddafi that aired first on Dec. 21.

This morning on the Early Show , Bobby Flay teaches about salmon, and fast-food chain Wendy’s chief executive, Dave Thomas, will talk about adoption. (He’s adopted; Wendy isn’t.) [WCBS, 2, 7 A.M.]

Friday, Dec. 24

They bring you the Knicks and the Rangers and now … The Yule Log ! Ever since Channel 11 stopped airing footage of a burning log every Dec. 24, Christmas hasn’t been the same in this town. So the Madison Square Garden network called WPIX up a few weeks ago to see if it would be O.K. to borrow the concept. Channel 11 said no problem. And tonight, between 11 P.M. and midnight, you can catch the Yule log on MSG.

Now showing a seven-second video loop of a burning log for an hour might seem like a simple enough concept to pull off. Ha! MSG executives had asked their at-home audience to send in pictures of their fireplaces as nominees for the Yule log setting. But all those New York apartment dwellers had no idea what the heck they were talking about. On Friday, Dec. 17, one week before the big date, MSG still had no Yule log host. “We’re certainly not going to have any problem finding an attractive fireplace,” said MSG executive producer Mike McCarthy, obviously trying to reassure himself. And voilà! He was right! On Dec. 20, the Yule log producers finally settled on a 260-year-old house on Long Island. So curl up with that cup of spiced eggnog, draw the old blankie around the neck–and commence snoring.

By the way, if you are glued to some cybersex site tonight, switch over to www.WPIX.com. They’ve kept the old log tradition alive on the Internet. [MSG, 27, 11 P.M.]

Saturday, Dec. 25

Check out the plot lines for the first two programs in tonight’s CBS prime-time lineup:

Early Edition : A bomber targets a skating rink.

Martial Law : Sammo wakes up with a bomb and learns that if he stops moving, it will explode and blast him to bits.

On Christmas, no less! For heaven’s sake, what about the children? [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]

Today on TBS, the Superstation: Planet of the Apes , all day. They don’t call it the Superstation for nothin’. [TBS, 8, 9:30 A.M.]

Sunday, Dec. 26

& Thought you’d never see David Kelley fail? Well, we point you to Snoops , his female private detective show, starring Gina Gershon (who, in one episode, goes undercover as a country singer to lure a serial killer with an affinity for amateur performers). Had it not been canceled, it would have been on tonight, at 9 P.M. Instead, we get Flirting With Disaster , a comedy where a character played by Ben Stiller goes looking for his birth parents.

What about Jerry? [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Dec. 27

Al Goldstein, the Screw magazine publisher, went on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in August. He spent most of his visit insulting Mr. O’Brien. “He pretty much told Conan he was an Irish scumbag who never gets laid,” explained Mr. Goldstein’s managing editor, Philippe Kane.

Well, that’s Mr. Goldstein’s shtick. But then Mr. Goldstein was on his Midnight Blue public access show the other night, listing Mr. O’Brien in his “Fuck You” segment.

Why, Al, why? What’s not to like about Conan O’Brien?

Mr. Goldstein explained: Since he is a member of the television actors union–Aftra–he was entitled to $600 for appearing on the show. But, “We never got the fucking check.” Mr. Goldstein said he filed suit against the show in small-claims court in early December. “It’s nothing personal,” he said. “I did the show, I should get the money. It’s my money.”

Determined to get to the bottom of all this, NYTV called up Mr. O’Brien’s representatives, who told us a check was cut in October and apparently sent out. Mr. Goldstein’s people could find no record of it. But he said if that’s the case, and he finds out it was sent, he’ll do the right thing by Mr. O’Brien. “I’ll apologize,” he said. “I’m a wild man, but I’m not going to lie.”

Hey, you do what you gotta do, pal.

Tonight it will be a Conan repeat. But even those are funnier than most other stuff on TV. [WNBC, 4, 12:35 A.M.]

Tuesday, Dec. 28

This spring, Comedy Central will launch its second prime-time sitcom. The first one was Strangers With Candy . The new one is called Strip Mall , which is a Melrose Place sendup. It was created by comedian Julie Brown and her partner Charles Coffey. “It’s really extreme. Julie plays a former child star who went on a PCP rampage and killed her co-stars and is trying to claw her way back into the spotlight,” Mr. Coffey told NYTV. “The most normal characters on the show is this really cranky lesbian Chinese food restaurant owner who refuses to serve, and instead they put on country-western karaoke strip shows.”

The show will also star Amy Hill, from All-American Girl , and Jennifer Coolidge from American Pie . Victoria Jackson, the old Saturday Night Live cast member, will also star.

Strip Mall will start airing in June. “We are writing our asses off,” Mr. Coffey said, then added, “Actually, no, we’re not. We’re starting Jan. 2.” Whatever.

Tonight on Comedy Central, catch the Daily Show , starring John Stewart. [Comedy Central, 45, 11 P.M.]

Wednesday, Dec. 29

Tonight, it’s the war of the Roswells. On Channel 11, the WB has the Roswell series, about teenage alien survivors of the 1947 Roswell U.F.O. crash just trying to fit in as best they can at their New Mexico high school. Over on the UPN, we have Roswell: The Aliens Attack , about survivors of the 1947 Roswell U.F.O. crash who want to destroy the Earth, until one of them falls in love. We have to go with the WB series, just because the guy who created it, Jason Katims, is a damned nice guy. [WPIX, 11, 9 P.M.]

Thursday, Dec. 30

This is the world in which we now live: The United Paramount Network, which made professional wrestling a prime-time smash on Thursday nights, is doing even more to hook the guns ‘n’ ammo crowd. During the February ratings sweeps period, the UPN will air an hour-long, monster-truck racing special, in which giant, building-size trucks will race across an auditorium. But there’s a catch. The network plans to make the sport more like wrestling. So, whereas in a normal monster truck event you just have a couple of a big old trucks knocking around, now you’ll have plot-driven characters behind the wheel. And if it draws good ratings and gets a good response from viewers, then the UPN will likely turn it into a regular, weekly series next fall.

“What we’re trying to do is reinvent a sport that’s been kind of dormant on cable and the arenas,” explained Tom Nunan, the UPN entertainment head. “We’re trying to build up the interpersonal relationships, rather than seeing how fast one of these huge trucks can move. I haven’t seen the characters yet, but it won’t be as much about ‘My truck’s faster than yours.’ It will be more about, ‘I can’t believe you went out with my sister.'” From there, we assume the line will go, “So, let’s race across this arena floor and see who’s got the faster truck!”

The problem, though, is that the guys who own the trucks and take these arena races seriously are only willing to go so far. “They still want to protect the integrity of the quote-unquote sport, which isn’t something we’re too concerned with. I mean, it isn’t exactly the World Series,” Mr. Nunan said.

Basically, the truck people have been told to put on a good show and get a shot at regular stardom or this is a one-shot deal.

Tonight, catch WWF Smackdown! [WWOR, 9, 8 P.M.]

Friday, Dec. 31

Millennium madness! Peter Jennings goes more than 24 straight hours on ABC 2000 . CNN starts five days of millennium coverage! Tom Brokaw to anchor the ball drop on NBC! Oh, yeah: Dick Clark to ring it in on ABC at midnight! The William Shatner-Patrick Stewart Star Trek movie on Fox, to precede millennium coverage anchored by Brit Hume and Paula Zahn! Ooooh! The excitement!

Start your New Year’s viewing with Mr. Jennings. [WABC, 7, 5 A.M .]

Saturday, Jan. 1

If the doomsayers are correct, then there will be no television today. So NYTV will list nothing for this day lest we get anybody’s hopes up for something that will never air–ever.

Sunday, Jan. 2

We’re assuming by now television has been restored. Phew! (Then again, the Second Coming could have happened, in which case there would be no television for about half the population. No. Wait. Actually, in hell, wouldn’t they make you watch reruns of Encore! Encore! for eternity? And what about that whole thing about the Jews getting a second chance to accept Jesus? We could go on and on. The bottom line is, we can’t tailor NYTV around all of these crazy theories.) Today, watch The Real World to convince yourself you’re still here. [MTV, 20, starting at noon, all day.]

Monday, Jan. 3

Everybody’s going game-show crazy!

First, you have Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC. Then you have Greed over on Fox. Then you have TwentyOne coming to NBC. And of course, there’s Winning Lines coming to CBS and starring Dick Clark as host. Now MTV is adding yet another game show to its crowded roster of dreck. This one has some promise, though. It’s being created by Jamie Greenberg, who hosts the public-access show Media Shower , a weekly collection of pirated videotape that is taped in his Upper West Side apartment. He couldn’t tell us too much about it since it’s still being developed. But, he said, it will basically test people’s video and rock knowledge and there will be some sort of physical component as well, like they’ll have to run around a bit while answering questions. Mr. Greenberg said it’s still unclear what winners will get, but it won’t be anywhere near the $1 million handed out on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire . In fact, it could wind up being just plain old promotional stuff.

For good, old-fashioned game-show fun tonight, catch Wheel of Fortune , one of New York’s most highly rated shows. [WABC, 7, 7:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, Jan. 4

So now ABC, CBS and the Fox News Channel are going to pool their resources on news stories–meaning whoever gets to a scene first will share footage with whatever network in the group didn’t make it there, and its affiliates. Notice there are two major news names not in this list: NBC and CNN. NBC executives said they were caught flatfooted by the announcement and aren’t too pleased about it. But it doesn’t hurt them as much as it hurts CNN. CNN makes millions of dollars supplying footage–CNN logo and all–to network-affiliated stations with few resources. Now those little guys affiliated with the three partners get a lot of the same stuff for free.

The deal also gives Fox News a leg up in its competition with CNN.

Tonight, on Fox News, catch Mr. Tough Guy himself, Bill O’Reilly on the O’Reilly Factor . [Fox News Channel, 46, 8 P.M.]

A Divine Comedy for Bette … Givebacks for Gumbel Backers