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Tuned In: 'Twenty One' returns as TV goes crazy for quizzes

Monday, January 10, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- The game show gauntlet has been thrown down.

On Saturday, CBS premiered "Winning Lines." Last night, NBC unveiled its revamped "Twenty One" at 8, and ABC brought back "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" at 9.

At a press conference yesterday, "Twenty One" producers and NBC executives discussed the game show craze and their reasons for bringing back a program that was plagued by scandal.

The original "Twenty-One" was rigged when Charles Van Doren was given answers because the producers grew tired of contestant Herb Stempel, as depicted in the film "Quiz Show."

"We decided there was one major difference [between the old version and the new version]," executive producer Fred Silverman said. "We weren't going to fix the show."

"That was an early decision," echoed NBC Studios president Ted Harbert.

There are other differences. The old "Twenty-One" featured showdowns between erudite intellectuals answering difficult strings of questions. The new "Twenty One" is easier.

"We said let's do a show with enormous play-along so people sitting at home could join in," Silverman said. "I think our questions are much more diverse and range from easy to extremely difficult. There's a lot more variety to the questions."

Just don't look for a sweeps month rematch between Stempel and Van Doren. Silverman said he didn't think Van Doren would agree to it, but the producers aren't interested regardless.

"We've had some internal discussions about that, but I think there's something cheap about that," he said. "It's better to bring it back and make it or not make it on its own merits."

Host Maury Povich said "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" was the first show in a long time to bring parents and children together to watch the same show. He defended the decision to simplify the questions on the new "Twenty One."

"In the '50s you could get away with [harder questions] because there were only two-and-a-half networks and people would watch anything," Povich said.

Harbert, former president of ABC, said the current popularity of game shows is an over-correction for years of too many sitcoms. And unlike "Millionaire," whose contestants are predominantly white and male, NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said the first "Twenty One" featured women and minorities.

"On 'Twenty One' our studio audience picks the next contestant, and we found when taping our first show last night there was a propensity on the part of the audience for women to continue and minorities to continue, for whatever reason," Ancier said.

He cautioned against broadcast networks becoming overly reliant on game shows.

"It's like crack; once you're on it, it's wonderful and it gets giant ratings, but nobody believes it's going to work forever," Ancier said. "Television networks are organisms that can very easily be hooked on an addictive substance that gives you high ratings, but in the long term it might not be good for you. Hopefully we won't get addicted."

If NBC had "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," Ancier said, he wouldn't schedule it more than three nights a week. ("Twenty One" will air Jan 16, 19 and 26 at 8 p.m., replacing "Dateline NBC" each time.)

"The difference between us and ABC is we have more franchise programming on our network than ABC does," Ancier said. "They don't have as many individual successful series as we do, and that's a fortunate thing for us, but ABC can find an hour a night to put on 'Millionaire.'"

Silverman, a former president of the NBC and ABC networks, said the game-show cycle could last for a few years.

"I think there will probably be a couple more shows like this on the air, and in the end we'll end up with two or three successful shows that will remain on quite a while," Silverman said. " 'Gunsmoke' was part of the Westerns cycle and it was on for 20 years."

Silverman predicted some form of the variety show will be next to re-emerge from TV's past.

"I think it's well overdue," he said. "There's an appetite for comedy, so I think some kind of form that's a variety, if done right, probably will be the next big cycle."

WITHER 'FREAKS': Both Ancier and NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa expressed support for the low-rated "Freaks and Geeks," which returns tonight at 8. Ancier said there was "a very high probability" NBC will order more episodes of the critically acclaimed series, although tonight's "Millionaire" won't give NBC a true reading of "Freaks and Geeks'" performance in its new time slot.

So far NBC has only aired five episodes of the series, with nine more in the can. Ancier said the unusual decision to order only one additional episode after the first eight instead of the usual "back nine" was done to keep the series in continuous production.

NBC's "Third Watch" also premieres in its new time slot tonight at 10. "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" moved to 10 p.m. Friday last week and helped NBC win the night in adults 18 to 49. "L&O: SVU" got the best ratings for a regular series in that time slot among adults 18 to 49 since November 1997.

STILL LOOKING: PBS is still in search of a new president after the resignation of Ervin Duggan last year. John F. Swope, formerly a director of New Hampshire Public Television, is serving as president while a search inside and outside the PBS system looks for his replacement. His short-timer status may explain his surprising forthrightness compared to most television executives.

Swope said the FCC's decision to approve WQED's sale of WQEX was necessary.

"I think in some ways it's unfortunate, but we supported it because we thought it was very important for the financial health of WQED," Swope said. "Ordinarily we don't like to see the bandwidth that is dedicated to public uses go out of that, but in this case QED had gotten into some serious financial problems and this was about the only way out."

He also conceded that PBS pledge drives which push regular programming off the schedule may not always appeal to typical PBS viewers.

"We've gotten ourselves into a situation where during pledging the local stations appeal to a different audience to bring in new dollars, and the reason they keep doing it is it's effective," Swope said.

"As a viewer and lay person you either get the self-help programs, which leave me somewhat cold, or you have the nostalgia. Then we also have things like concerts with John Tesh."

He recalled answering phones in New Hampshire during a self-help show.

"I thought it was terrible, but the people calling in thought it was the most wonderful thing they ever saw," Swope said. "It's not my cup of tea, but there's a legitimate audience for it. I think most stations wouldn't mind if they could replace the revenue, reducing or eliminating those pledges."

When asked if it was fair to seduce new viewers with atypical programming, Swope replied, "It is a rather strange system, isn't it?"

PBS KIDS: PBS announced several new children's shows -- but first an update on old favorites.

There's still no news on new episodes of the critical hit "Wishbone." Executives gave the same answer this press tour as they gave the past couple of years: They need to find a sponsor willing to pony up the bucks.

"Bill Nye the Science Guy" has also ended its PBS run of original episodes. Disney owned the rights to the character and opted not to produce further installments.

"Clifford the Big Red Dog," based on the Scholastic books by Norman Birdwell, will come to PBS this fall as an animated series, with John Ritter ("Three's Company") giving voice to the title character. The 40 half-hour episodes will air weekdays, emphasizing good citizenship and the importance of community.

"Poor Richard's Almanac," an animated series devoted to history and civics at the time of the American Revolution for school-age children, is in production for future broadcast. The show follows the adventures of two apprentices in the print shop of Benjamin Franklin who attempt to get scoops for the newspaper.

NEW TO PBS: The public broadcaster will slap the label "PBS Showcase" on a night's programming that links arts and performance programs around specific themes. "Great Performances" will offer the first "PBS Showcase" with a night devoted to the religiously themed works of Andrew Lloyd Webber on April 5.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," recently filmed in London and starring Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Sir Richard Attenborough and Joan Collins, will be the night's main event. Webber will offer commentary on the program and discuss how he's inspired by religion in his work. "Joseph" will be followed by a repeat of Webber's "Requiem."

The second "PBS Showcase" will feature the Buena Vista Social Club and another program yet to be determined.

British art historian Sister Wendy Beckett will return in a new program, "Sister Wendy's American Collection," scheduled for broadcast in spring 2001. The six one-hour programs will explore the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

PBS Home Video will expand to produce DVDs, and the system has formed a strategic alliance with Internet service provider America Online. No money changes hands, but AOL will promote PBS programming and PBS will add on-air branding. Instead of giving only the PBS Web address at the conclusion of some PBS programs, viewers will also be directed to the AOL keyword: PBS.

FIRST LADY: Tonight at 9, PBS's "The American Experience" premieres "Eleanor Roosevelt," a two-and-a-half hour portrait of the former first lady, narrated by Alfre Woodard.

Roosevelt was the first president's wife to testify before a Congressional committee, hold press conferences and write a syndicated column. She also went on to have a career as a commercial spokeswoman.

"She was on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' 'The Frank Sinatra Show,' she was paid for all that," writer/director Sue Williams said. "But I guess the sort of classic take is her 'Good Luck Margarine' commercial where she talks about there's poverty in the world and how we could really end poverty. So she's really still putting forward her social agenda, but at the same time she's saying, 'You know, years ago people didn't eat margarine, but things have changed and now I really enjoy Good Luck.' I gather it caused quite a lot of consternation in the family, who were like, there are limits."

Roosevelt's niece, who was named Eleanor after her, remembered spending summers with her aunt after the death of F.D.R.

"It was fun just to be with her, and she loved being where nobody knew where she was for about three hours," Roosevelt said. "She became a really good reporter in a way, because if she saw you for 15 minutes, she found out absolutely everything she wanted to know."

Roosevelt said she didn't realize for some time that her aunt would become such a noted historical figure.

"In the '20s she was just an aunt, Aunt Eleanor," she said. "And then as the years went by, especially after '32, it seemed to me that my aunt was making my name famous."

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