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On Air: New DeGeneres sitcom won't focus on gay life

Thursday, July 26, 2001

PASADENA, Calif. -- Ellen's back and, yep, she's still gay. But in CBS's new sitcom "The Ellen Show," the sexual identity of Ellen DeGeneres' character won't take center stage as it did on "Ellen," the groundbreaking ABC series on which both the actress and her character came out of the closet.

Ellen DeGeneres, star and executive producer of "The Ellen Show," answers questions from the media during the CBS Press Tour yesterday in Pasadena, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes, AP photo)

"I don't think we're focusing on it as much," DeGeneres said. "'Will & Grace' is about what that life is."

In "The Ellen Show," Ellen Richmond just happens to be gay and has been out of the closet for a while.

"We'll deal with it as much as the fact that she's a woman," DeGeneres said.

In the new sitcom, Ellen returns to her small hometown after the dot-com company she works for goes belly up. Cloris Leachman plays Ellen's mom, Jim Gaffigan ("Welcome to New York") plays her high school prom date and Martin Mull is cast as her old teacher. DeGeneres will take a job as a high school guidance counselor.

"Just me giving advice to kids should be enough to make you laugh," she said.

Proud as she is of the original "Ellen," DeGeneres acknowledged her last series ran aground in some ways after her character came out.

"The last show got to be too issue-oriented. I took responsibility for something I felt I needed to do," DeGeneres said. "I had a whole career before that place. I did stand-up, I did a show for four years and I did something that overshadowed everything else."

Now her goal is to simply make viewers laugh.

"It's very hard to do a sitcom and do very important political issues," she said. "I thought I could be educational and funny, and I don't think people want to see that. They want to sit at home and turn on the TV and just laugh. I understand that now. At the time I got caught up in something important to me, and it felt important to other people too from the letters I was getting. As I was becoming educated about gay bashings in high school and attempted suicides, it was a way to make something funny and put a face to something so I could help in some way. I think I've done that now."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing "The Ellen Show" is its time slot, 8 p.m. Friday. Adult comedies haven't worked successfully on Friday night in recent years.

"I'm thrilled," DeGeneres deadpanned. "I'm hoping we can move to Sunday mornings at 7 eventually, but for now this is great."

CBS steams ahead

Coming off a banner year in which the network stole dominance of Thursday night away from NBC with "Survivor 2" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," CBS has made a number of bold strategic programming moves, particularly Wednesday night.

The network's new 9 p.m. reality show "The Amazing Race" has a fair amount of positive buzz. It's expected to skew young, so following it with the humans-who-turn-into-wolves series "Wolf Lake" at 10 might work, although fantasy series rarely survive on CBS.

Mega-hit "Survivor" returns with its third edition set in Africa. It will premiere Oct. 11 and run through Jan. 10. This year the season finale will feature four contestants instead of just three, which made the "Survivor 2" finale a snoozefest.

CBS president Leslie Moonves said there will be some changes to game play in "Survivor 3," but he wouldn't specify what those will be. When asked if the tribes will no longer merge, he refused to comment. Moonves said this "Survivor" will include overweight contestants, older contestants ("north of 50") and "a lot of people who aren't gorgeous."

Moonves wouldn't comment on locations for "Survivor 4," but he said a location in the United States is possible.

"If Mark [Burnett] keeps pushing up the production budget like he is, we're going to force him to do it there," Moonves said with a laugh. "Mark, as you know, keeps looking to outdo himself. That's why he keeps looking for locations that are more and more exotic."

"Survivor" commandant Burnett, who lied to reporters in January when asked a direct question about game play in "Survivor 2," did not make an appearance due to filming of "Survivor 3" in Kenya.

A celebrity "Survivor" is still on the drawing boards, but it probably won't happen this season because Burnett is preparing "Survivor 4" to debut early next year after the Olympics.

Ray Romano has expressed sincere interest in participating in a celebrity edition, Moonves said. "It would be like 10 days [of filming] without their assistants, no room service, no showers, no cell phones, no fax machines. The idea is every two days you'd vote somebody off. That's what scares the heck out of them. To be rejected in front of 20 million people would be devastating for an actor."

CBS's less popular, more controversial "reality" show "Big Brother 2" was also a topic of questions directed at network executives, particularly following the expulsion of 26-year-old Justin Sebik for playfully pulling a knife on Krista, a fellow contestant.

After his dismissal, news organizations discovered Sebik, a bartender from Bayonne, N.J., had been arrested five times in his hometown, twice for minor robberies and three times for simple assault (The New York Times reported in all cases the charges were dismissed).

"We were as thorough as we could be [in doing his background check]," said CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem. "That's the risk you run."

Moonves characterized "Big Brother" as an experiment, and he said the sources who told CBS investigators Justin had a clean record, told reporters the truth about his past after the knife incident.

"Are we conscious of everything on the show? Absolutely. Are we concerned about what's on the show? Absolutely," Moonves said. "Clearly we did not expect that result from Justin. We had a clean psychological profile on him, a clean criminal background check.... We didn't think he'd have antisocial behavior. We were surprised by what happened."

In a comparatively minor "BB2" controversy, The Smoking Gun Web site revealed contestant Michael Carri was arrested in 1996 for sneaking onto the set of "Batman & Robin" and taking pictures. He was sentenced to three years probation. CBS officials said they knew of that arrest and didn't consider it a problem.

Tellem said so far 14,000 people have paid about $20 each to watch live Web feeds from the "BB2" house.

Ben who?

Brothers Gary and Dave Alan Johnson, who produce "Doc" for Pax TV, know about the Pax situation in Pittsburgh from their sister, Jean Doss, a US Airways flight attendant living in Coraopolis. She bought a direct broadcast satellite system so she could watch "Doc." (Pax is carried by DirecTV and Dish Network, but not area cable systems.)

The Johnson brothers also worked on the warm, too short-lived 1993 family drama "Against the Grain." On "Grain" they gave a young Ben Affleck his first prime-time series job, casting him as a reluctant high school football player.

"When we were casting that, the network didn't want him," Gary Johnson said. "It went down to the wire and the network finally said, 'All right, we'll do it.' What Warren Littlefield had said was, 'I just don't ever see this guy on the cover of a magazine.' "

Johnson said his brother sent NBC executives a copy of GQ years later when Affleck appeared on the cover.

Elected

Yours truly was elected secretary of the Television Critics Association Saturday at the organization's semi-annual business meeting after serving two years as a board member. Diane Werts of Newsday in Long Island was elected president, and Kay McFadden of The Seattle Times was elected vice president.

TCA was founded in 1978 "to maintain and improve professional standards of television criticism, reporting and editing; to increase the public's understanding of television; to improve television as an important element in American life and culture."

The organization is comprised of 200 professional journalists from the United States and Canada, representing newspapers, magazines, wire services and online publications.

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

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