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Get the most TV experience for your time in N.Y.

Sunday, June 04, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

NEW YORK -- Let a TV fanatic loose in Manhattan, and what happens? He could flock to one of the many talk shows taping here. He might opt to stand in line for hours to be in the same room where Regis Philbin asks "Final answer?" on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Or maybe he'd slink through the streets looking for on-location filming of "Law & Order."

But I only had a weekend, so my options were limited. I picked three TV-centric encounters: The NBC Experience, "Total Request Live" and the Museum of Television & Radio.

What did I learn? Not all things TV are created equal.

NBC Experience

Easily the oldest and best-known TV tourist trap in New York, the NBC Studio store/tour was expanded to become -- read the next three words in a loud, booming voice -- THE NBC EXPERIENCE!

But like a wolf in sheep's clothing, it's really not much different on the inside.

The store is bigger and offers more merchandise, but the tour is still led by NBC pages, which makes it hit or miss. And certainly not worth the $17.50 NBC charges adults ($15 for children 6-16).

Teens watch "Total Request Live" host Carson Daly interview pop princess Britney Spears and her mother during a live Mother's Day concert at the MTV studio in Times Square. For this special event, MTV programming aired on the giant TV screen above the studio that houses ABC's "Good Morning America." (Rob Owen, Post-Gazette) 

On the Saturday afternoon I visited, our tour guide was able to get us into only three studios: "Dateline NBC," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "Later Today." With "Saturday Night Live" in production, that studio was off-limits, and so was "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." We didn't see the "NBC Nightly News" studio or even cross the street to visit "Today," which was definitely not in production.

"Dateline" was probably the most interesting set. Our guide pointed out the silver that looks like metal on TV is actually paint or silver duct tape. The hardwood floor is a fake (pressed wood with black magic marker drawn in to delineate planks) and the show doesn't air live. Only one anchor is allowed to stand on the set's second-floor library set because it's not sturdy.

"Jane [Pauley] usually goes up there," our guide said. "She's lighter than Stone [Phillips]."

Interestingly, the "Dateline" studio is smaller than WPXI's main studio.

Of all the sets, Conan O'Brien's is the smallest in real life compared to the way it looks on TV. And soon-to-be-canceled "Later Today" (official nickname: "Lamer Today") actually has a hip, coffee house-feel to its set, which is a lot more inviting than the show itself.

The tour concludes with a visit to the new HDTV Theater, where the group gets to see promotions for NBC shows in high definition, including the canceled "Profiler," "Pretender," "Suddenly Susan" and "Veronica's Closet." If tourists have to sit through those clips, NBC should pay them $17.50.

The new NBC store has a much better selection than the old store, which was tiny. In addition to a second-floor "sweet shop" (mix your own M&Ms for $1.99 per quarter pound), there's a ton of merchandise tied to NBC shows, old ("Seinfeld") and new ("Will & Grace").

A "Providence" T-shirt can be had for $20, a "Saturday Night Live" sweatshirt costs $36 and a "Friends" latte mug sells for $16.

"Today" show umbrellas cost $24, a piece of cardboard with marker (to be used as a sign when attending "Today") was marked down from the ridiculous $5 to a more reasonable90 cents. The strangest trinket: A framed page of a "Today" script alongside a photo of Katie, Matt, Al and Ann.

The NBC Experience is located at the corner of Rockefeller Plaza and 49th Street (between Fifth and Sixth avenues) across from the Today studio. NBC Store hours through Nov. 17, 2000, are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Tour hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

For more information on the NBC Experience, call 212-664-3700 or visit www.nbc.com/store.

'Total Request Live'

I didn't gawk at a "TRL" taping, rather, it was a special Mother's Day Britney Spears concert, similar in format to the live "TRL" broadcasts that begin at 3:30 p.m. weekdays.

Anything MTV attracts teens, and this was no exception. Actually, there were a lot of pre-teens with their families, too, and a few twentysomethings scattered about. Like at "Today," the MTV crowd can get pretty boisterous, but in a congenial way (i.e. no fights broke out).

"We left R moms today just to see you, Britney," read a sign from one of the many teen-age fans hoping to get on television.

The best view of the MTV studio, located at Broadway and 45th Street, was from across the street. Legions of Britney fans lined up behind police barricades between the sidewalk and lanes of traffic, directly below the studio windows. I had a better line of sight into the studio from the other side of Broadway. I also avoided getting a crick in my neck.

An MTV camera crew usually descends to the street directly below the studio or sometimes to a traffic island in the middle of Times Square. Sometimes fans from the crowd -- usually those with the craziest wardrobe or the wildest message on a sign -- are selected to watch host Carson Daly and whoever his guest-of-the-day is in the MTV studio.

There's a better way to attempt to get inside: Call 212-398-8549 for details about standby tickets. Audience members must be between the ages of 18 and 24.

Throughout the summer "TRL" will alternate between its Times Square home base and location shooting in San Diego, Calif. For further details and the "TRL" schedule, visit www.mtv.com.

Museum of Television & Radio

For fans of television, this is nirvana.

It's not a typical museum with artifacts hidden under glass. Instead, visitors choose among various screenings to attend, or better yet, they set up their own.

The museum's library houses thousands of hours of TV programs, and it's the only place to see unaired episodes of beloved shows that were canceled in their prime.

Want to catch the Easter episode of ABC's "Nothing Sacred" that featured a priest with AIDS? MT&R has it. Visitors to a fourth-floor library use computers to select programs to watch on consoles that fill the third floor.

On my visit, I opted to watch three never-televised episodes of NBC's "Freaks and Geeks." It was televisual bliss -- until a rude docent told me to leave because I exceeded the two-hour viewing limit, which no one mentioned to me. A kinder docent allowed me to continue my viewing since the console room was almost empty.

MT&R is located at 25 West 52nd St., just half a block from CBS's Black Rock headquarters, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

MT&R is closed Monday and open Tuesday through Sunday, 12 to 6 p.m., except Thursday, when the museum stays open until 8 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students and senior citizens.

For further details and screening updates, call 212-621-6800 or visit www.mtr.org.

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