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CBS defends its summer reality programs

Monday, July 24, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Oh "Brother. "Usually at this time of year network executives spend their press conferences answering questions about recasting or retooling in their new fall shows. That wasn't the case for CBS. Instead, CBS President Leslie Moonves and Entertainment President Nancy Tellem spent an hour defending their summer reality shows, particularly "Big Brother."

"We feel it was important that we take down the 'We're Closed for the Summer' sign," Moonves said. "We are experimenting."

Moonves acknowledged "Big Brother" is controversial, but he said his choices were to either put on something different and get criticized or put on nothing new and get criticized. Moonves said CBS spent more than $100,000 on background checks on the "Big Brother" house guests, but he admitted investigators failed to discover that William "Mega" Collins had once been a member of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, whose leader has espoused anti-semitic views. Collins was the first person voted out of the "Big Brother" house.

"He had resigned from that party. He did at no time -- and obviously we watched him very carefully -- espouse any hate or any political message while he was on that show," Moonves said. "We double, we triple check, but once again, we're dealing with a lot of people out there who do have skeletons, and I don't know what we would do differently, but obviously we would reexamine the process."

Last week the New York Daily News ran a photo of Collins toting a gun at a 1998 protest.

"You have seen me with my gun, but you haven't seen me with my God," Collins said, taking the stage at a press conference with a Bible, dictionary and book about power that he used to help him manipulate the other house guests.

Collins was asked whether he shares any of the views of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, but he didn't give a direct answer.

"I consider all people who are evil and unrighteous and against God my enemy," Collins said. "If white people or Jews fall in that category, then they would know. You would judge a tree by the fruit it bears. It would be in each individual to determine whether they participate in unrighteous actions."

Collins said his time in the "Big Brother" house was constructive because "a mindset like mine doesn't get an opportunity to be represented in national television. Issues were brought up that allow people to understand the black man and black people and our reality."

Collins was often confrontational when dealing with other house guests, including discussions of race issues. He said viewers who watched "Big Brother" on TV saw a very different version of him than those who watched the unedited house happenings online. He said producers edited out "nicer, more sympathetic" things he did. Collins said following confrontations with other house guests, they would later come to him to discuss the issues he brought up.

Collins predicted the three "Big Brother" finalists will be Cassandra ("because she's the smartest"), Eddie ("because he understands it's a contest) and Josh ("because he's an all-American white boy").

Moonves was also peppered with questions about "Big Brother" house guest Karen and her decision to gab about her broken marriage in public and the effect that might have on her four children. He said CBS bears no responsibility for what Karen chose to discuss on the network's airwaves.

"I've thought about the children," Moonves said. "This woman obviously had a need to do this. If it didn't happen on the air, my guess is it would happen some way, some shape or some form. She volunteered for the show; that's what the show is about."

At Fox's executive session last week, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said the embarrassment of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" and details about Rick Rockwell that emerged after the program aired have given him pause about future reality programs.

"There's a danger attendant to doing these things," Grushow said. "We've even brought in an outside risk management firm to help us assess every single one of these specials that are in development. It's a very challenging area."

ON THE RUN: CBS's "The Fugitive" may still run to Pittsburgh, but not during the first half of the season. Executive producer John McNamara ("Vengeance Unlimited") said the first 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., Philadelphia, Atlantic City, N.J., New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La. It is more expensive to film a series on location, McNamara said, "but it isn't substantially more expensive."

McNamara said shooting locations will usually be dictated by the story, often based on logical moves from one location to the next, week-to-week. Pittsburgh is under consideration, McNamara said, because it's "a very diverse location, and interesting location with a great underground subway. It can double for other cities if it has to." It's also being considered because Dr. Richard Kimble (Tim Daly) is from Pennsylvania, although probably closer to Philadelphia.

McNamara said about three episodes each season will be remakes of original "Fugitive" episodes, including one where Kimble goes home to be with his dying father.

"Both Kimble and Gerard know he will be at [Kimble's father's] death bed," McNamara said. "It's a cat and mouse game wrapped around an incredibly heartwrenching story of a father and son."

But McNamara insists this "Fugitive" is no retread. He's giving the show its own original mythology, and he'll slowly dole out bits of information about why the one-armed man killed Kimble's wife. He also promises to explore why Lt. Gerard (Mykelti Williamson) is right to think Kimble is the killer, and why Kimble is right that he is not.

"They're both right and there will be an explanation," McNamara said. "These two men are sharing one soul. They are the same guy. Each one never gives up. They have this core iron will to succeed against everyone saying to them they're wrong. If circumstances hadn't happened, they'd be best friends."

Gerard's boss will be introduced in episode No. 2. Planned episodes also tell the story from the one-armed man's point of view, and another details the life of Lt. Gerard's wife.

McNamara said he never considered changing any of the basic elements of "The Fugitive" story. It just wouldn't feel right.

"It would be like writing a James Bond movie and not writing M," he said. "Or if you did Tarzan, you want him swinging through the trees. There are certain iconographic images with 'The Fugitive' that exist in our subconscious that I don't think you need to mess with, because they work."

CBS NEWS BLUES: CBS News president Andrew Heyward continued to defend his decision to allow "Early Show" anchor Julie Chen to work for "Big Brother," a program produced by CBS's entertainment division.

"I don't believe her image will be tainted," Heyward said. "I certainly see the argument, but I think the audience does not confuse 'Big Brother' with anything Julie does in the context of 'The Early Show.' The fact that she's not under our control suggests a Svengali-like ability to control talent that I wish I did have. I really feel while there is some risk, it's a risk worth taking."

Heyward said morning shows have traditionally stretched the definition of standard network news, which I wouldn't argue, but he also compared Chen's role on "Big Brother" to the early days of broadcasting.

"If you look at the history of television news, if you look at its earliest days, there was a much, much looser standard about things like staging and what the so-called line between news and entertainment," Heyward said.

But shouldn't our standards today be higher than that?

Heyward said there's nothing sneaky about Chen's role in an entertainment show and a news program, that viewers understand the difference and don't see the roles as incompatible. I'm sure he's right that viewers don't care. But broadcast journalists and those who oversee them should see the difference and should care about issues of credibility and the difference between entertainment and news.

FRANKIE DOESN'T GO TO HOGWARTS: "Malcolm in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz revealed he was once in the running for the title role in the first "Harry Potter" film. That was when Steven Spielberg was attached to direct. Since Spielberg passed, Muniz is out of the running.

"I heard on 'Entertainment Tonight,' 'Sorry Halley Joel Osment and Frankie Muniz, but they're going for an unknown,' " Muniz said. "So that's what they're doing."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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