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Rubbing shoulders with network executives and stars gives insights into TV's slick culture

Saturday, May 20, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

NEW YORK -- They're called the network "upfronts," but not much of the talk is up front. None of the television executives admit, "Yeah, we really blew it with these new shows we've developed." They wait until the following year, and then make jokes about their mistakes (Mike O'Malley -- of the late, unlamented "Mike O'Malley Show" -- turned up in a funny filmed bit at NBC's presentation).

Mostly network executives use their presentations to woo ad buyers and attempt to placate affiliate general managers, promising their new shows will perform better than the last crop of series that flopped.

Want honesty? Dislike hype? Go somewhere else. These presentations are all about selling the networks' new shows. Even if the product looks shoddy, the presentation is sleek.

This past week I attended four of the six presentations and got a sneak peek at the strategies of ABC, CBS, NBC and The WB. Buzz was high for The WB's new lineup, low for NBC's shows, distinctive only for their lack of distinction.

Here's a rundown:

ABC

Date: May 16

Location: Radio City Music Hall

Entertainment: The cast of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" performed improv sketches. Regis Philbin gladly accepted applause ("Here I am, the guy who saved the ABC television network. I would have done it a lot sooner, but nobody asked me."). Hank Williams Jr. sang the theme to "Monday Night Football," and Al Michaels conducted an interview with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair.

Theme: "Our Time Has Come"

Memorable quotes: "I like how executives with four hours of 'Millionaire' started with a picture of them looking through scripts," Carey said, tweaking ABC's reliance on a game show over scripted series.

He also sent a message to television critics who panned "Geppetto," saying, "I plan to do a Disney musical every year for the rest of my life until you all commit suicide. That will be my sweet revenge."

Show with the best response: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" continues to top the ratings, which is what the advertising community cares about most.

Giveaways: None that I saw.

News: Michael J. Fox will continue to executive-produce "Spin City" next season. He'll also direct some episodes and make a few guest appearances.

Party: Plenty of food at the Bryant Park Grill.

At most parties, ad buyers and affiliate general managers get the chance to have their pictures taken with network stars. "Spin City's" Heather Locklear drew the longest line in the early going at ABC's party. Geena Davis, star of the new sitcom "Geena," also attracted a crowd, and so did cast members from "The Practice."

CBS

Date: May 17

Location: Carnegie Hall

Entertainment: Illusionist David Copperfield transformed a beautiful woman into the guy who heads up CBS's sales department. CBS Television President Leslie Moonves starred in a minimovie as Moses (CBS top dog Mel Karmazin played God) with cameos by Ray Romano, Roma Downey and scenes from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with Regis referred to as Satan.

Theme: "It's All Here"

Memorable quotes: David Letterman showed up to crack a few jokes, including an addition to The 10 Commandments: "Thou shalt not schedule eight nights of 'Falcone.' "

News: The CBS-Viacom merger is barely two weeks old, but already there's a billboard in Times Square with a picture of CBS's Dan Rather surrounded by Viacom's "Rugrats" characters. Moonves touted the conglomerate as one-stop shopping for ad buyers who can reach viewers from the cradle (Nickelodeon) to the grave (CBS), although I don't think he put it quite that bluntly. A highlight reel of the properties owned by the company featured a split-second clip from a B94 commercial with JohnDaveBubbaShelley.

Party: Held at Tavern on the Green, but I had to catch a plane back to Pittsburgh, so I left an hour into the presentation.

NBC

Date: May 15

Location: Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center

Entertainment: The cast of "Will & Grace" sang opera-style on an Italian village stage set. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ("Late Night With Conan O'Brien") said NBC teases viewers on Thursday night with dreck like "Stark Raving Mad" preceding the hit "ER." "Hey folks, we've got Alpo supreme for you," Triumph said, "but first you have to drink out of a toilet."

Theme: "The Quality Shows"

Memorable quotes: "Quality is intertwined in NBC's DNA," NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa said. I guess that makes "Daddio" a genetic mutant.

Show with the best response: Certainly none of NBC's new offerings. Ad buyers went wild for "The West Wing," despite its tendency to attract older viewers (ad buyers generally prefer younger viewers).

Giveaways: A copy of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

News: Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," said despite the tease of a cast purge in last night's season finale, he won't be firing anyone. Instead, he'll add actress Stephanie March to the cast as a sex crimes prosecutor.

Party: Under a crowded tent. Food consisted of appetizers -- sushi, shrimp and miniburgers. Does NBC stand for NoBody's Cheaper?

The WB

Date: May 16

Location: Sheraton Hotel and Towers

Entertainment: None, unless you count stars of WB series forgetting what network their shows are on (Melissa Joan Hart said "Sabrina" was moving to Fox before correcting herself), showing up late (Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz) or the dance moves of programming executive Jordan Levin (vamping while waiting for Gellar and Boreanaz).

Theme: "Oh, What a Night"

Memorable quotes: Scott Foley ("Felicity") assured ad buyers the ratings for his show will improve next season along with star Keri Russell's hairdo. "With Keri's hair growing like a weed, we know our ratings next season will be our best ever."

Holly Marie Combs ("Charmed") told the audience her show also will deliver great ratings "while we continue to vanquish evil and wear really cute clothes."

Steve Harvey ("The Steve Harvey Show") complained about the way his series gets labeled: "I really wish America was at the point where we could just be a show, not a black show, just a good show."

Show with the best response: "90210" parody "Grosse Pointe" and the sketch comedy "Hype."

Giveaways: A hard cover book featuring photos of The WB's beautiful stars and a few statistics about WB's ratings.

News: Next season "Roswell" will be more of an action-adventure series than a teen angst drama, according to WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels. "It will be more in 'The X-Files' vein and less in high school."

Meanwhile, two stars of new WB shows are newcomers to series television. Nick von Esmarch stars as a wrestler married to a Las Vegas dancer on the sitcom "Nikki" and Frank Caliendo is a master impressionist on "Hype." Von Esmarch, 23, was selling video games at the Glendale Galleria just a few months ago before getting the role on "Nikki."

"It was my first audition and my first [professional] gig," he said.

Caliendo, 26, has done stand-up comedy on "The View" and "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn." He's toured colleges across the country performing comedy routines for the past four years, including a stop at La Roche College. So far he's mastered between 80 and 100 celebrity impressions.

"I'm obsessive-compulsive," Caliendo said. "I was going to learn to do five and I just kept going."

Party: A nice breakfast spread before the presentation with a few celebs (James Van Der Beek) mingling with the advertising folks.



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