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Tuned In: You won't smile if you're on 'Spy TV'

Thursday, June 21, 2001

Perhaps you've heard about the lawsuit CBS filed recently against Fox, claiming Fox's "Boot Camp" infringes on CBS's "Survivor" copyright. Along those lines, lawyers for the old "Candid Camera" would be smart to set their sights on NBC's "Spy TV," a "Candid Camera" update that's more down and dirty than the original.

Previewing tonight at 8:30 (the show will air regularly Tuesdays at 8 p.m. starting next week), "Spy TV" ups the ante by putting its unsuspecting victims in extreme situations. The first bit features a fast driver who gets his comeuppance when he's trapped in a car with a stunt driver who almost runs over a bicyclist and gets chased by the police.

"Dude, let me out!" he says, the first of multiple exhortations to the "dude" driving the car.

Michael Ian Black, who plays scheming bowling alley employee Phil on NBC's "Ed," hosts "Spy TV." I suppose it's one way to spend your summer vacation, but it sure seems as if he's slumming, especially after the "Ed" season finale mocked the genre when Phil auditioned to host a series similar to "Spy TV."

Black has little to do beyond setting up clips, but his Phil-like facial expressions get a workout after a segment with a woman who is tricked into believing she has psychic powers.

"Spy TV" is occasionally funny, just as "Candid Camera" was sometimes funny. But this new show, based on a European hidden camera series (so that's how they'll avoid the "Candid Camera" lawsuit), is most notable for adding a mean streak to hidden camera television.

To set up one segment, Black asks, "Imagine you're walking out of a mall when some creepy guy in a wheelchair asks you for help. What do you do?"

For starters, I hope I wouldn't reinforce stereotypes by calling someone in a wheelchair "creepy."

Another segment gets no explanation other than that it's from Seoul, South Korea, and features a man walking when the path in front of him explodes. He moves backwards. Then there's another explosion. Are these land mines? When did land mines become funny? "Spy TV" seems to think they're a laugh riot.

The show is produced by Endemol Entertainment, the same company that foisted the first "Big Brother" upon viewers last summer. More recently, Endemol emptied its garbage cans and out tumbled NBC's "Fear Factor."

In a teleconference last week, Endemol president David Goldberg didn't seem to know much about the Korean land mine bit, except to say, "sometimes you can get away with things in other countries you might not get away with here. Those were not live explosives. That guy wasn't in danger of being hurt. We wouldn't do anything where people really got hurt."

Certainly not like the people dragged by a horse on "Fear Factor." Oh, wait, that's his show too.

"The mandate of ['Spy TV'] is to make it the next step in hidden camera shows," Goldberg said. "To do something significantly different, we needed to make it extreme."

"Extreme." That's the new television buzz word. A few years ago producers were touting their shows as "edgy" and "full of attitude."

Too bad so few are willing or able to brag about "quality."

Touched by an urban legend

A reader called recently, concerned about a full-page ad that ran in The Green Sheet, a free newspaper distributed at area grocery stores. The ad states: "CBS will be forced to discontinue 'Touched by an Angel' for using the word 'God' in every program." It goes on to claim the late atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair petitioned the FCC to prevent discussion of God and religion on TV.

The FCC says this is not true. It's an urban legend that's existed since 1975, first circulating as a chain letter and later turning up on the Internet (the "Touched by an Angel" element is obviously newer).

In 1974 there was a petition filed asking the FCC to look into the practices of stations licensed to religious organizations. The same petition requested that no new licenses to noncommercial, educational stations be granted until the inquiry was complete. O'Hair, however, was not among the petitioners.

The petition was denied in August 1975 with the FCC explaining it is required by the First Amendment "to observe a stance of neutrality toward religion, acting neither to promote nor to inhibit religion."

Green Sheet owner Milton Hammond would not say who placed the ad, nor would he attempt to contact the person or organization that created the ad.

Leaving WTAE

WTAE Washington County bureau reporter Kristine Sorensen, who joined the station about two years ago, will leave Channel 4 next week.

She's moving to Dallas to be with her boyfriend, former KDKA reporter Marty Griffin, who hosts a consumer talk radio show there. Former WTAE reporter Nina Pineda set them up (it's a small, small TV news world).

Sorensen said she plans to take a few months off to explore all her options inside and outside of television before seeking employment in Dallas.

WTAE has begun the search for her replacement and for a weekend morning anchor/reporter to take the place of the rotating fill-ins who have anchored since Ellen Gamble returned to weekday morning traffic duty earlier this year.

Channel 4 also will need a new executive producer at the end of the summer to replace KDKA alum Rich Cook, who is leaving the TV news business, according to WTAE news director Bob Longo.

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

Thursday, June 21, 2001

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