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Columns
Tuned In: Behind-the-scenes look at 'Mary' sure to lure viewers

Thursday, April 19, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Like A&E's "Biography" or VH1's "Behind the Music," "Inside TV Land" takes a longing, wistful look back at TV shows, the reasons for their success and the conflicts that arose during production.

It's a formula, but it's one viewers lap up. That will surely be the case with tomorrow's "Inside TV Land" (9 p.m., TV Land), which looks at the beloved sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Taken simply as a retrospective, this "Inside TV Land" is pretty run of the mill, offering few revelations. The most meaningful tidbits will be inconsequential to many, but they show how the television industry has changed since "MTM" debuted in 1970.

The network hated the original back story of Mary's divorce (producers opted to make her single instead), and in a rehearsal the studio audience found Rhoda too abrasive. Simply put, the show had bad buzz.

Back then, bad buzz didn't get far beyond Hollywood, but with all the entertainment coverage today and with the Internet, bad buzz travels fast. It's conceivable that if "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" premiered today, it would have been branded a troubled show, destined for a short life, sort of like NBC's "The Weber Show."

The other factoid of note is how the show was scheduled. Once the first episode was taped and CBS executives realized they had a potential hit, they realigned their fall schedule, moving "MTM" from Tuesday to Saturday night.

Today, the move itself would be scrutinized. Plus a Saturday time slot could kill a show (ratings are notoriously low that night). Only CBS bothers to put scripted series on Saturday now, but 30 years ago Saturday was a big night for TV and that move assured the success of one of the best sitcoms of all time.

*

KEEP THEM GUESSING: Viewers are accustomed to the deaths of main characters on TV shows, but usually there's a reason: An actor wants out of a contract. The writers are bored.

But the recent evaporation of blue alien priestess Zhaan (Virginia Hey) on Sci Fi Channel's "Farscape" (9 p.m. tomorrow) made little sense.

In Internet posts, the actress seemed to love the character (perhaps a little too much). From a writer's perspective, as a deeply religious being, Zhaan was a counterpoint to the warrior instincts of the other characters. So why kill her?

In a phone call from Sydney, Australia, where "Farscape" is produced, executive producer David Kemper said viewers will have to stay tuned to see what happens.

"People are necessarily not dead for good in sci-fi," Kemper said. "We have killed people before and we have brought them back."

Hey is no longer in the show's opening credits, but that may not be permanent.

"Everything always can change, so I'm hesitant to say anything absolute at any time," Kemper said. "We are dealing with situations of actors and their availability and we have to work around that and live with what's given to us."

Kemper said unpredictability is key to the success of "Farscape."

"We try to steer it toward reality. In real life, best friends move away, people get divorced, serious accidents happen and people die suddenly," Kemper said. "If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew whether Zhaan was coming back or not, you wouldn't like our show so much."

He's right, but that answer might not satisfy die-hard fans.

"A television show is not a democracy," Kemper said. "You do not get to know what you want to know because essentially you're reading a brilliant novel, and you're asking me to tell you what happens at the end of the book, and I want you to read the whole book."

He compared watching "Farscape" to riding a roller coaster blindfolded.

"We don't want you knowing where the curves are, where the big drops are," Kemper said, "because if you know that, it's not as scary."

Fans can be frustrated waiting for answers, but with a series as well written and acted as "Farscape," it's easier to sit back and enjoy the ride.

*

WEAK "LINK": Despite high ratings for its first two telecasts, NBC's "Weakest Link" showed signs of tampering by nervous network executives.

In the British version of "Weakest Link," contestants look terrified, which makes the show funnier.

But in NBC's edition, it was clear contestants were coached to sass dominatrix-cum-host Anne Robinson and to have an attitude when they were voted off. The players protest too much, and that, combined with bad acting as they haughtily leave the stage, makes "Link" weaker than it should be.

*

LIAR, LIAR PANTS ON FIRE: It's one thing to protect your show. For that, I hold no grudge against "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett. When he creates false leads on the Internet, that too is fair play as part of what he enthusiastically calls "the game."

A bald-faced lie is another matter. Burnett got caught in one last week when CBS announced a vote for the winning "Survivor" was conducted, but the results of the balloting were not revealed to players and will be announced live during the May 3 season finale.

A rumor about this possible change in voting from the first "Survivor" turned up online late last year. But in January at the Television Critics Association press tour, Burnett was asked directly whether "Survivor: The Australian Outback" contestants knew who won, and he replied, "Yes, they know who won."

He could have dodged or refused to answer the question as he did with other queries he disliked, but he chose to lie.

It's not a shock that network executives lie to reporters, but producers are a different creature. They're the creative types and we tend to take what they say as the truth because they're usually pretty up front. There's an unspoken bond between TV critics and producers because so often we respect their work.

I've admired Burnett as a shrewd and creative producer who used smart editing to create a hit drama, but I can't tolerate a blatant lie that got passed on to readers. I may get a kick out of Burnett's shows, but any respect or admiration I had for him is pretty much gone.

*

WILL REDMOND ROCK RATINGS? This week's confirmation that former WTAE reporter/anchor Gina Redmond will return to Pittsburgh as co-anchor of WPXI's 11 p.m. newscast came just a week before the start of May sweeps. That's an important time for local stations because during sweeps months audience viewership is measured for the purpose of setting stations' future advertising rates.

Redmond will begin on the air seven days into the sweeps period on May 2. Will she have an impact on the ratings? Probably not right away. The influence of prime-time lead-ins are strong, and a new anchor may have little impact on the 11 p.m. ratings race.


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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