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Tuned In: NBC's Zucker defends summer programming of 'Fear Factor' and 'Spy TV'

Friday, July 20, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- The fear factor among NBC executives must have been pretty high yesterday as they prepared to meet the press at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

The network, previously known for smart series like "Frasier" and "The West Wing," has taken its share of knocks this summer for moving into the "reality" genre with the odious "Fear Factor" and the mean-spirited "Spy TV."

Last year, NBC programming executives came under fire from their bosses for failing to develop reality hits in the wake of CBS's "Survivor." With ratings up, the bigwigs are probably satisfied, but most TV critics think NBC is damaging its legacy as the network where "the quality shows."

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker walked onto the stage to the tune of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and took off his blazer to reveal a white bulletproof vest emblazoned with the peacock logo.

"We have to appeal to the widest audience possible," Zucker said. "Last summer there was a lot of heat for not developing in this genre. You wanted to know why we had not come to the party and now we've come to the party and you don't like the gifts we've brought. That's fine. We'd still like to stay at the party, if you'll have us."

Zucker defended the addition of "Fear Factor," "Spy TV" and "Weakest Link" to the network's schedule, saying it helped stem the tide of audience erosion and gives NBC a better outlet to promote its new fall series than low-rated reruns of comedies and dramas. "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV" both received orders for 13 additional episodes for use when NBC's new fall shows begin to fail.

Zucker and NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa emphasized that this new turn does not mean NBC will abandon its heritage.

"I don't buy the notion that we're known as the network of sleazy summer programming," Zucker said. "NBC will still be the home of scripted sitcoms and dramas, but you have to remember we're a network and we have to appeal to the widest audience possible with diverse tastes. Not everyone will be a fan of 'The West Wing.' The audience has spoken in regards to these [reality] programs and a huge segment of the audience is telling us they want to watch 'Fear Factor.'"

Zucker said the reality shows on NBC replaced a fourth hour of "Dateline" (admittedly, that's no great loss) and a failed sitcom. "It's not as if these have replaced any of the quality programs," Zucker said. "I can't emphasize that enough."

But, he acknowledged, they pale in comparison to NBC's scripted series.

" 'Fear Factor' and 'Spy TV' are not in the same league as 'West Wing' and 'Will & Grace,' " Zucker said. "We're not here to convince you they are. But they play a role in growing the network. As we go forward, if we ignore that part of our audience under the age of 35, in five years no one under 20 and 25 will be watching NBC."

Zucker said journalists who have been critical of the network's strategy "are not necessarily representative of Americans under the age of 35 ... [who are] looking for something different."

Well, there are at least a few TV critics who fit NBC's target demo. While I don't mind the network experimenting with shows in this genre (I love "Survivor), I do object when the programs they experiment with are mean, gross and tawdry, appealing to the basest, most puerile instincts of any generation.

More from NBC

Another reality show, the global adventure "Lost," is set to premiere Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. This six-episode series sounds far less objectionable than "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV." Three pairs of strangers are dropped off in a secret location and must find their way back to the Statue of Liberty to collect $200,000 in cash.

Shelley Long and Bebe Neuwirth reprise their "Cheers" characters of Diane and Lilith on the one-hour season premiere of "Frasier" this fall. The pair help Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) resolve the May cliffhanger in which the good doctor found himself torn between bossy Lana (guest star Jean Smart) and serene Claire (guest star Patricia Clarkson).

If you don't like the widescreen look of "ER," you won't be happy to hear this news. Come fall, "The West Wing" will be shown in widescreen, too, with black bars across the top and bottom of the screen to give the show a more cinematic feel.

Conan O'Brien will host "50 Years of NBC Late Night," a prime-time special airing Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. "50 Years" will focus on former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson and also will include clips from "Late Night with David Letterman," "Tomorrow with Tom Snyder," "Later with Bob Costas" and current late-night programming.

'Titus' travels

The comedy series "Titus" moves to Wednesday night this fall, anchoring the 9 p.m. hour of a Fox sitcom block, but many viewers are still surprised by the dark turn taken in the show's season finale. Like most of the material in "Titus," it was based on lead actor Christopher Titus and his own life.

"The true part is my mom actually shot and killed her last husband," Titus said. "The fake part is that it didn't happen at our wedding."

Titus and girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) were trying to tie the knot when the murder took place in another room.

Many of the stories for the show come from the relationship between Titus and his father, Ken, played on the show by Stacy Keach. Titus' real father died in January of a heart attack at age 58.

"Dad hasn't really died, he's just moved to Wednesday nights. You know, my initial reaction was to fire Stacy, but I decided against it," Titus joked. "Two weeks after Dad died, I went back and Stacy and I did an episode ... and that was a hard week. There are moments when I'll go back behind the set and tear up a little bit. It's weird to write my own life and then have my dad not be there because when I write words that he actually said and then Stacy says them, it's tough sometimes. But we always get to funny. We don't use that take where I'm crying. Not funny. Let's do it again."

This season Titus and Erin take in Erin's teen-age niece, Amy (Rachel Roth), a wild child. Titus also promised viewers will learn more about his best friend, Tommy (David Shatraw).

Blue over 'Blues'

The WB announced it renewed the animated comedy "Baby Blues" almost a year ago, but now it turns out the show is dead. WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin said animated comedies are hard to schedule because it requires so much time to make the episodes. The WB has moved away from animated series and made a more serious commitment to live-action comedies.

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

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