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Tuned In: Networks are gearing up for new fall season

Thursday, July 15, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

By now you've probably seen promos for one or more of the new fall TV shows. If you turn on the TV, how could you miss them? Monday night on CBS there were spots for at least four new shows.

This summer, TV executives have taken a cue from the movie industry -- begin the hype early.

NBC aired its first spot for "The West Wing" during May sweeps, ditto for Fox and its first promotion for Chris Carter's "Harsh Realm."

It's a smart strategy and a necessary one. With 37 new shows premiering, networks need to build buzz before the crush of premieres overwhelms viewers. It even gets confusing for those of us who cover TV: Is ABC's "Once and Again" the show about divorced people dating or is that CBS's "Now & Again"?

Today I head to Pasadena, Calif., for the summer Television Critics Association press tour, where the networks will introduce the casts and producers of the new fall shows. The trip gives me access to people I couldn't get on the phone from Pittsburgh (e.g. network executives, some stars, etc.) and helps make clear the trends in the upcoming TV year.

One of the big topics is likely to be the dearth of minorities on those upcoming series. Sadly, it's not a new issue. Earlier this week national NAACP president Kweisi Mfume called this fall's prime-time schedule "a virtual whitewash in programming."

He's right, at least in terms of leading characters. But minorities do have supporting roles in some new programs, including ABC's "Snoops" and NBC's "Third Watch." African-American actor Dennis Haysbert has a prominent role in CBS's "Now & Again," an update of "The Six Million Dollar Man." However, sitcoms remain predominantly segregated with either all-white or all-black casts.

Perhaps the most outrageous oversight is ABC's "Wasteland," a drama from the creator of "Dawson's Creek" about twentysomethings in New York City. The original pilot featured no minority characters despite its melting pot setting. ABC has announced an African-American character will be added before the show airs.

While minorities on TV shows should not be subject to a quota system, their addition makes a show more realistic. We're a diverse nation; our TV programs ought to reflect that.

The lack of minorities isn't overt racism, so much as error of omission. It comes from a lack of perspective. While women have made strides in network executive suites (advances echoed in the shows we see), minorities are still trying to get a foothold. The greater diversity behind the scenes, the more viewers will see multicultural casts on TV.

Network reactions to the NAACP charges were what you'd expect. They all pointed to what they're doing right and acknowledged the need for further improvements.

Executives are predictable that way.

Other things they're sure to say during the upcoming press tour: "It was our best development season ever" and "We're really excited by this show." Of course, even as they're praising the new programs they're already planning for shows to replace them. History shows they have to think ahead. Failures ("Encore! Encore!," "The Brian Benben Show," "Legacy," "Fantasy Island," "Vengeance Unlimited," "Mercy Point," etc.) far outdistance successes ("Will & Grace," "The Hughleys," "Martial Law," "The King of Queens").

Having watched pilots from almost every new series, I'd say NBC is in the best position for success. That's surprising given the network's arrogance about being No. 1 for so long and recent shake-ups in the top ranks. But "The West Wing," "Cold Feet" and "Freaks and Geeks" are strong shows. Whether or not viewers will find them is another story.

Fox pushes the envelope a little too much with its new programs, but "Action" and "Get Real" are distinctive.

CBS has a winner with "Ladies Guy," and "Judging Amy" will appeal to "Providence" fans.

There are no new ABC shows I'm as excited about this year as I was last year after watching the pilots for "Cupid" and "Sports Night." "Once and Again" -- it is the one about the divorced man (Bill Campbell) and woman (Sela Ward) who get together -- comes from the makers of "thirtysomething," but it only has a temporary time slot until "NYPD Blue" returns.

The WB doesn't have a critic's darling this year like last fall's "Felicity." If the glut of high school shows doesn't smother it, "Popular" will be the out-of-nowhere show that draws a "Charmed"-like audience.

Poor UPN. Few of its pilots were complete and the ones that were left a lot to be desired. And who in the world would schedule a show titled "Shasta McNasty"? I haven't watched it yet, but even the name sounds unappealing.

SIGNING OFF: KDKA noon anchor Ray Tannehill retires July 27, ending 23 years at the station.

Tannehill, who worked at Channel 11 in the early 1970s when it was still WIIC, began with KDKA in April 1976 as a special projects coordinator and was soon promoted to anchor.

During his years at the station, Tannehill reported from inside the Soviet Union, covered the invasion of Grenada and even appeared as a character (a news anchor, of course) in a mid-1980s Marvel Comic book.

Tannehill suffered a mild stroke in 1991, but he was back on the air after just five weeks of recuperation. He anchored alongside Patti Burns on KDKA at noon and for the past year worked two days a week with Jennifer Antkowiak as his co-anchor.

Stacy Smith will exit the 11 p.m. newscast and take Tannehill's spot at noon.

DOGGONE GOOD: Ratings for WQED's "A Hot Dog Program" are in, and it turns out viewers across the country were hungry for a food retrospective.

"A Hot Dog Program" was the fifth-highest-rated program on PBS in June, beaten only by a few episodes of "Antiques Roadshow." Rick Sebak's latest production aired in just 34 markets (Chicago and Los Angeles played the program more recently) and garnered a 2.8 rating, beating the highly promoted "Bill Moyers: Free Speech for Sale," "Stealing Time: The New Science of Aging" and "Prostate Cancer: A Journey of Hope."

Locally, "A Hot Dog Program" drew a 4 rating.

"It did well for WQED, but the neighborhood-type shows collect a bigger audience, usually an 8 or 9 rating," said WQED promotion coordinator John Seekings. "As Rick has said many times, people in Pittsburgh love to watch their town."

Next week Sebak will talk about his recent programs on "The Charlie Rose Show" (midnight weekdays on WQED). The segment is expected to air on the program late night Monday or Tuesday.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com

Thursday, July 15, 1999

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