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Tuned In: What's in the box this holiday season for lovers of tube?

Thursday, December 09, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The malls are jammed, TV is overflowing with commercials for dot-com companies and all you want to do is find the perfect gift for the TV addict in your life. Well, you've come to the right column.

As in years past, there are plenty of fan books for gift-giving this holiday season, including the official guide to "Ally McBeal" ($18.95, HarperPerennial). And there are new albums from "The Simpsons" ("Simpsonic" on Rhino Records) and "South Park" ("Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" on American).

Those are well and good, but more original options abound.

Acorn Video (www.acornmedia.com or 800-474-2277) sells tapes of "The Newsroom" ($19.95 each, $59.95 for a boxed set of four tapes), a dark 1996 Canadian comedy series that takes its cues from "The Larry Sanders Show" (single camera production, no laugh track). Rather than goosing Hollywood, "The Newsroom" directs its slings and arrows at the TV news business.

Ken Finkleman, who wrote and directed "The Newsroom," stars as Toronto news director George Findlay, a petty, self-centered womanizer more concerned with his morning bran muffin and his troublesome BMW than the news of the day.

Like "Larry Sanders," "The Newsroom" contains profanity, much of it occurring in conversations filmed with a hand-held camera as characters hustle down a hallway. That it resembles "Sanders" does nothing to diminish the impact of "The Newsroom."

In the fourth of 13 episodes, the news team finds a man who plans to commit suicide and turns him into a week-long sweeps series with hopes it'll end in his death. Only problem: Findlay thinks the man's rants are "too philosophical" for TV.

"I want this punched up," Findlay says.

"Punch up a suicide?" an incredulous producer replies. He ends up writing jokes for the suicidal man to use during his interview.

Later in the same episode, Findlay commands a news meeting where a story about a new killer virus in Zaire is discussed. There's no video to illustrate the story, so Findlay OKs running Ebola virus footage from a year earlier. An intern objects, worrying it could create a "credibility gap."

"Listen," Findlay says. "I don't think we have to paint ourselves into a factual corner over some footage from Africa."

In the same news meeting he explains, "There's a big difference between saying 'sources speculate' and lying. One is lying, and one is journalism."

For satiric effect, "The Newsroom" overstates its case against TV news -- but only a little.

Books on tape have become popular in recent years for lengthy car trips, so why not TV shows on audio tape? Acorn Audio offers three different collections with built-in appeal to PBS fans.

Mysteries featuring "Inspector Morse" ($14.95 each, $59.80 for a boxed set of four stories) and "Brother Cadfael" ($9.95 each, $39.80 for a boxed set of four) and an audio version of the "Masterpiece Theatre" production of "Rebecca" ($24.95) are available with "Enhanced AudioTrack." (Basically Acorn takes the dialogue from TV and adds narration.)

The sound quality varies, but the two "Inspector Morse" stories I listened to each offered a coherent narrative.

The book "Showrunners" ($25, HarperCollins) explores the inner workings of the TV industry by following the progress of multiple producers through the 1998-1999 television season. Written by Rolling Stone TV critic David Wild, "Showrunners" tunes in to behind-the-scenes doings at established hits (NBC's "Friends") and struggling newcomers (ABC's "Cupid").

Wild's book contains few revelations for regular readers of, say, Entertainment Weekly, but he illuminates the mindset of several of the showrunners, especially Paul Simms, creator of "NewsRadio."

But Wild drops the ball in several places. He writes about Simms' failed pilot, "OverSeas," but fails to tell readers who was in the cast beyond the leads. He mentions a "NewsRadio" scene shot last spring and intended for use this season, but the show was canceled. What was in that scene? Wild doesn't say.

A new edition of the TV-watcher's bible, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" (Ballantine, $24.95), arrived in bookstores earlier this week. This seventh edition includes listings and descriptions of more than 5,500 TV and cable shows by authors Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh.

If watching TV isn't enough, perhaps Mark Bennett's "How to Live a Sitcom Life" ($23.95, TV Books) would give the TV addict you know tips on how to conduct himself in ways worthy of Nick at Nite.

Bennett suggests people call their mates "co-star," their siblings or children "supporting cast" and grandparents should be billed as "special guest stars."

This book's title is no goof -- Bennett conjures images from thousands of hours of TV watching to concoct spoofing advice on how to live up (or down) to characters on TV. As such, it's a little scary.

For anyone who has ever uttered the phrase, "I'm the kiss of death. Any TV show I like automatically gets canceled," a membership in Viewers for Quality Television makes an ideal gift (www.vqt.org).

An advocacy group that supports good TV and encourages networks to keep the smart shows on the air, VQT doesn't engage in boycotts. Its members vote on what they consider "quality." Current favorites include "The West Wing," "Once and Again," "The Sopranos," "Will & Grace," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Dorothy Swanson, a former school teacher, runs VQT out of her Virginia home as she has for 15 years. The group operates on donations, which cover the cost of newsletter mailing and conducting write-in campaigns on behalf of low-rated shows.

Donations of $30 or more get the newsletter mailed first-class. If you donate less, the newsletter is shipped bulk rate. For details write to VQT, Box 195, Fairfax Station, VA 22039 or send e-mail to info@vqt.org.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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