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Tuned In: 'Sabrina' episode sneaks pilot in the 'back door'

Thursday, April 05, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

OK TV fans, Professor Tuned In is here today with a brief lesson on the wacky world of television. Take a look at tomorrow night's episode of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (8 p.m., WCWB). Seriously, it's educational if you're a student of television.

I'm not suggesting you watch "Sabrina" because it's a great show, but because tomorrow's episode is an example of a back-door pilot.

A what, you ask? It's an episode of "Sabrina" that stands on its own just fine, but spends a lot of time on new characters who may be spun off into their own series. That makes it a back-door pilot, a cheap way to film a pilot for a new series and bury the costs by making it an episode of an existing show.

Back-door pilots are nothing new. An episode of the original "Star Trek" was a back-door pilot. It featured the Enterprise crew going back in time to Earth circa 1968 and meeting up with alien-trained, antinuclear war oddball Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), his secretary (Teri Garr) and a black cat.

This "Sabrina" episode keeps it all in the family with Emily Hart, younger sister of "Sabrina" star Melissa Joan Hart, returning as Sabrina's bratty cousin Amanda. Sabrina helps get her into Witchright Hall, a school for teens with supernatural powers.

Quicker than you can say "Harry Potter," this episode sets up the potential spinoff series, complete with a talking dog and Charles Shaughnessy ("The Nanny") as the school's headmaster.

Voila, a classic back-door pilot that The WB may or may not put on its schedule. Smart money says they will pick it up and put it on immediately following "Sabrina" on Friday night.

Class dismissed.

CLASSIC "RAYMOND": Next Monday's episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" (9 p.m., KDKA) offers one more example of why the comedy is one of TV's best. In "The Canister," Marie (Doris Roberts) accuses Debra (Patricia Heaton) of not returning her mother's canister, a prized possession.

Debra politely explains she already returned it, which Marie won't accept. So she pushes Debra until Debra yells at Marie, leading Ray's mom to do the unthinkable: Apologize.

What happens next is predictable -- turns out Marie was right and Debra hadn't returned the canister -- but the humor comes when Debra must decide how to atone for her mistake.

"There's a way to fix this," Ray (Ray Romano) suggests, nodding at the canister. "Just return this to her with your heart in it."

It's humor borne out of familial relations at its best. No wonder so many viewers love "Raymond."

THE "FIRST" SHALL BE LAST: In the ratings, that is. NBC yanked the legal drama "First Years" off its schedule this week after just three low-rated broadcasts.

Next week a "Law & Order" rerun will take its place; the following week "Dateline NBC" moves to 9 p.m. to make way for new game show "Weakest Link" at 8 p.m.

KATIE'S ANNIVERSARY: Pittsburgh viewers continue to defy the national ratings (and good taste) by regularly choosing ABC's "Good Morning America" over NBC's superior "Today." But it's still worth noting "Today" anchor Katie Couric marks 10 years with the top-rated morning show on today's broadcast, 7 to 10 a.m.

Clips of her decade -- light moments and hard news situations -- will be shown as part of the anniversary show. Couric joined "Today" in June 1990 as national correspondent, became substitute anchor in February 1991 and permanent anchor in April 1991.

Now the big question is whether she'll stay with "Today." Her contract is up next year and speculation is running rampant that she might leave "Today" to host a talk show. I'd hate to see that happen.

Couric has a rare talent that allows her to shine in both hard news interviews and lighter moments of joshing with her co-stars. A talk show would waste her considerable skills and could damage "Today," which, in its first half hour, offers the best daily dose of national news on a commercial network.

THE TIMMY SHOW: Before there was "Survivor" star Amber Brkich, Pittsburgh had another reality TV celebrity, Timmy Beggy, a cast member in the second season of MTV's "Road Rules."

Beggy may be back on TV soon if a pilot he's making for UPN gets picked up for fall. In a phone interview last week from Los Angeles, Beggy said he's had a development deal with UPN for more than a year. He shot a reality show pilot for the network last spring that didn't get picked up. In a few weeks he'll take another whack at it.

What the new pilot will be is still up in the air.

"It's really tough to describe or narrow down what we're doing," Beggy said. "It changes every week. At this point it's very game showish, man on the run, Tom Green-style game show mixed with some pied piper antics and 'Let's Make a Deal'-type elements."

That narrows it down.

"It's anything from 'Could you hold a moth in your mouth for a minute?' to racing a poodle in a 40-yard dash with a hoagie strapped to your leg," Beggy added by way of explanation.

He said UPN executives weren't happy with the structure of the reality show pilot he filmed last year, but they liked him.

After thinking about his description of the new show -- possibly titled "Beggy's Booty" -- he amended the Tom Green reference.

"It's really more David Letterman," he said. "I don't do much with dead animals and poop. That's not my bag."

Beggy's Fox Sports Network show "The Slant" will return during football season if he's not too busy with a series on UPN. If the UPN show doesn't make it to air, Beggy, 28, has ideas for other series, including one called "Drop Everything" that's a reverse "Survivor." He would travel from town to town on a bus, voting people on the bus, but they have to drop everything to join the cross-country trek.

Beggy said he was approached about hosting ABC's "The Mole," made by a former "Road Rules" producer, but because of his deal with UPN he was unavailable.

With pending strikes by writers and actors, Beggy might be in a better position than most in Hollywood. According to one trade magazine, his pilot is one of the few reality shows in development at UPN.

"I'm not part of the writer's guild or any guild," Beggy said. "I did that on purpose. I can go anywhere, do anything."

NEW LOCAL SHOW ON WCWB: An hour-long, locally produced show called "Nitelife" premieres on WCWB after midnight tomorrow at 12:30 a.m.

The program, executive produced by WCWB owner Eddie Edwards, visits area clubs, restaurants and shops.

Edwards sees the 13-week series as a pilot for a potential national program similar to the old "Evening Magazine."


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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