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Tuned In: Networks play 'sue you' game over 'Chamber' and 'Chair'

Monday, January 14, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- La-la land lawyers are getting a workout in a battle of similarly themed game shows airing on ABC and Fox. Last month, ABC announced plans to air "The Chair," which hooks a contestant up to a heart monitor and forces the poor soul to answer questions while being distracted by "environmental stimulants" (e.g. flames, fog, sparks, an alligator lowered from the ceiling toward the contestant's lap). If the person's heart rate gets above a certain level, the person is "defeated by The Chair."

Soon after, Fox announced plans for "The Chamber," which has contestants answer questions while being pestered by "environmental distractions."

Producers of "The Chair" sued Fox. On Friday, Fox filed a countersuit and claimed "Chair" producers trespassed on the "Chamber" soundstage to spy on the set. Fox also moved up the air date of "The Chamber" so it would premiere last night, beating "The Chair" by two days.

That both shows are potentially worthless doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone involved. They're more interested in playing a round of my game show is bigger than your game show.

At a press conference yesterday, "The Chair" host and tennis legend John McEnroe said this latest competition doesn't bother him.

"I really have no idea what their show is about and don't know anything about the specifics of the lawsuits," McEnroe said. "I know the show we're doing is a damn good show ... and hopefully people will see it. I want it to be the toughest show in town. I don't want it to be too hokey. I have some reservations about throwing the alligator down and how that will be viewed by some people, but the show itself is very, very strong."

"Chair" executive producer Julie Christie said contestants are run through a variety of medical tests and screened for drugs. Doctors are also on the set.

"We don't want them to die on the set," McEnroe joked.

"We don't torture them," Christie assured.

McEnroe said he was looking to do something different for a while ("As they say in sports, the older you get, the better you used to be."). He's waiting to see whether he'll be hired to host a sports radio show, but he likes the idea of hosting "The Chair."

"I see my role as being more supportive and hoping they actually win," McEnroe said. "But I know [another] option is always available. I still have enough energy to get under the skin if necessary."

He already has a dream scenario for a very special sweeps episode of "The Chair."

"I want to do a special show with all the umpires I yelled at," he said. "So I get a chance to be nicer and give them a chance to win $250,000."

Alex Trebek, venerable host of "Jeopardy!," said the public will ultimately decide whether it likes its game shows traditional or newly aggressive. Though "Jeopardy!" has made adjustments over the years, most recently adding a "Clue Crew," Trebek has no interest in putting his contestants under any environmental stress.

"A rule we followed for 18 years is we don't take cheap shots at people, celebrities in trouble with the law or in a marital situation," Trebek said Saturday at a Game Show Network party. "Just as I would not want to take cheap shots at people in the business, I don't like the thought of taking cheap shots at contestants. I'd rather the game were more positive than negative."

Aching ABC

With its ratings in a free fall following the inevitable collapse of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and no new hits to speak of, ABC is clearly in turmoil.

After signing a new contract with the company last summer, ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg got the boot just last week. Several other key executives also departed the company.

Left holding the bag are ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun and newly installed Entertainment president Susan Lyne.

Though she's only been on the job four days, Lyne, a former magazine editor, made an excellent first impression, answering questions candidly and with seeming honesty. She even took the blame for not thinking to produce a "Roots" anniversary special in her previous role as executive in charge of ABC's movies and miniseries.

Lyne's poise made Braun's corporate marionette evasiveness look worse than usual, although he was wise enough to own up to ABC's failings.

"Clearly we are in the midst of a very disappointing season," Braun said. "We made mistakes, most notably our failure to develop new hits behind 'Millionaire' when it was blazing hot."

Braun and Lyne said they're determined to get back to ABC's roots as a home for family comedies, such as "My Wife and Kids" and "According to Jim." Braun announced both those shows and the new drama "Alias" have been renewed for next season. Braun also gave a vote of confidence to the improving "Philly."

But there was no such encouragement regarding the future of low-rated "Once and Again."

"I wish it were doing better," Braun said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful show."

Braun wouldn't speculate on its chances of renewal, but he acknowledged only 17 episodes of the Friday night drama will be produced this season instead of the regular 22 episodes. "That's not a sign of anything except, as a network, that's the number of episodes we need."

The network's goal going forward will be to do quality shows that are also commercially viable.

"We really believe we can do both, but it's hard to do programs that are both great and are going to be broad," Braun said. "We are a broadcaster and ultimately [our shows] have to be broad. We really don't want one without the other. We really want to try to do both."

Braun did backpedal on earlier statements about the future of "Millionaire" in which he said he could not guarantee the show a slot on the fall schedule.

"Clearly I miscalculated the effect of those statements," Braun said. "The show has meant an enormous amount to us.... We expect it to have a presence on our network in one form or another for quite a while."

Lyne said the ratings downturn for "Millionaire" may have resulted from too many installments with celebrity contestants that supplanted regular Joes and Janes.

Upcoming midseason series airing on ABC include:

"The Chair" (premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m.): Contestants get hooked to a heart monitor and have to answer questions without getting too excited. Not available for review.

"The Web" (premiere date not determined): A Midwesterner (Ivan Sergei) lands the top job at a low-rated television network -- not ABC -- where he learns to swim with the sharks. Often rude and frequently funny, "The Web" is probably too inside for most of America, but its portrayal of life in the television industry is as cutting as it is accurate.

"The Court" (premiere date not determined): In the second Supreme Court drama of the year, Sally Field plays a liberal justice. Not available for review.

"The George Lopez Show" (premiere date not determined): Comedian George Lopez headlines a new sitcom about an assembly line worker whose life is "complicated by the presence of his stubborn, insensitive mother." Not available for review.

Outta there

Dean Valentine, embattled president of UPN, was given his walking papers Friday to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Last year Valentine sued his employer, Viacom, seeking bonuses he claimed he was owed, a pretty sure sign he wasn't going to have a long run with the company. Compounding that, Viacom announced last month that CBS president Leslie Moonves had assumed control of UPN as it merged into the CBS Television Unit. After that, it was just a matter of time.

Moonves will meet with reporters today during UPN's portion of the press tour, but last week at a CBS press conference he said it was too early to discuss what changes may happen as a result of this latest bit of Viacom synergy.

Give her a hand

Actress Kathy Baker has made an impression this season on Fox's "Boston Public" as creepy ice queen Mrs. Peters. She first appeared last season as the mother of a high school student, and she had an unorthodox approach to discipline.

When the show returned this fall, Mrs. Peters had lost her hand. In addition to more stories with her son, Mrs. Peters has begun dating clench-teethed administrator Scott Guber (Anthony Heald). Their courtship is weirdly sweet, but you still can't help but feel Mrs. Peters is sometimes lying. But since actors don't know what turns their characters may take farther down the road, Baker often flies blind. Surprisingly, perhaps, she doesn't mind.

"I actually find it very freeing," Baker said. "If I want to decide I'm lying, then I have to make sure I make that choice clear. Whatever choice you make in acting, you've got to just make that choice. Unless you're playing someone who can't make a decision, and then you've got to make that choice."

This is Baker's second tour of duty as a series regular in a David E. Kelley series. She starred in the late '80s CBS drama "Picket Fences" as a doctor and mother in a small Wisconsin town.

"I felt the first time that David was kind of writing my own life in a weird way," Baker said. "Family life and kids is something I could relate to exactly as me, and as [Mrs. Peters] it's completely the opposite. They're both challenging. It's challenging to make someone like you interesting, and it's a challenge to make somebody so different likeable. I have trouble finding the likeable in [Mrs. Peters] sometimes."

Baker said now that Mrs. Peters has a prosthetic hand, she wears a tight-fitting glove to make her hand look unnatural. In last week's episode, she was worried she'd lose the fake limb. After a fight with Guber, who gave her the hand as a gift, Mrs. Peters exclaimed, "You're going to take my hand away!"

"When you read a line like that, it's got to be said with the most sincerity," Baker said. "At that particular moment, that's what she's worried about. You've got to go with that."

Sept. 11 sitcom?

A few months ago, reports surfaced that CBS was considering a series about a widow and widower who meet cute after losing their spouses in the World Trade Center collapse of Sept. 11.

At the time, I wasn't as appalled as most people because even though I know TV executives can make some tacky decisions, I really didn't believe CBS president Leslie Moonves would ever put such a show into production. Moonves likes to talk off the cuff, and sometimes that can get you in trouble.

"Obviously the story got taken that by the following week it was on the air for three seasons," Moonves said. "It wasn't even in a script."

CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem said the show in question was pitched to CBS by Chuck Lorre ("Dharma & Greg," "Cybill," "Roseanne"). It's still in development and could air as a series at some point, but the whole Sept. 11 element has been dropped.

Fox's virtual ads

Remember those annoying virtual ads that popped up in the background during Fox's coverage of the World Series last fall? You weren't the only one who disliked them.

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow wasn't a fan of the initial spots either.

"We all went home and watched those virtual ads the first night, and it was pretty clear to anybody who was watching that having the image of Calista Flockhart didn't exactly feel appropriate," Grushow said. "Had I been able to make it go away as I was sitting in my own living room, I certainly would have. It was one of those cringe moments."

Grushow said that reaction caused the network to reel in the spots and replace the cast photos with logos. He has no regrets about the logo version of the virtual ads.

"Do we think it was effective? Absolutely," Grushow said. "Every little bit helps. It didn't hurt."

But Grushow said there will probably be no opportunity to place those virtual ads in the background during Fox's coverage of the Super Bowl next month.

Can't 'Imagine' a future

If you laughed at NBC's new Hank Azaria sitcom "Imagine That" last week -- and honestly I can't imagine it generating too many chuckles -- prepare to be disappointed. NBC shuttered production after five episodes, and NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker didn't exactly give "Imagine That" a vote of confidence.

"It premiered last night in a very difficult time slot," Zucker said the day after its premiere. "It didn't do as well as we would have liked. It was three-tenths [of a ratings point] behind 'Dharma & Greg.' We expected to beat 'Dharma & Greg.' Being within three-tenths is OK, but it's not going to be good enough. It needs to do better."

On the 'Wing'

This season's "The West Wing" has been a mixed bag, although the two most recent episodes -- Leo testifying last month, the abrupt resolution of the investigation into Bartlet's obfuscation about his multiple sclerosis -- have shown marked improvement.

But that's just my opinion. Star Martin Sheen thinks this is the show's best year.

"We stayed the course; we didn't play it safe," Sheen said. "[Series creator Aaron Sorkin] has just thrown caution to the wind and really taken it to an extraordinary level. He's constantly challenging us."

Sorkin said the new relationship between Josh (Bradley Whitford) and a women's rights leader played by guest star Mary Louise Parker will continue. Middle Bartlet daughter Ellie will return, and viewers may finally see the eldest Bartlet daughter. Youngest daughter Zoe will be back -- she and Charlie (Dule Hill) are still dating, Sorkin said -- and Republican staffer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) is in an episode that was filmed last week. By the end of the season, Sorkin promised, we'll meet the Republican challenger who will compete with Bartlet for the presidency.

Though the resolution to the Bartlet scandal last week may have surprised some, Sorkin said he'd gotten everything he'd wanted from the story.

Perhaps the most polarizing episode was the season premiere, filmed in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Some felt it was too much of a lecture, others appreciated the experiment.

"I wasn't really looking at it the way I look at an episode ordinarily," Sorkin said. "None of us, least of all me, felt we could do an episode at that time where we were flying through hallways and there's a lot of banter. It just wasn't right. Respect needed to be paid to the moment, and that was the only thing I could think to do."

Sorkin said the quick production time was talked up in the press, but even as it was in production, the script kept changing.

"Every day I was rewriting the entire thing from the beginning," Sorkin said. "My feelings were evolving. It began just being a hate-filled diatribe against Islam, and each day we got further from [Sept. 11], it settled down a little bit. It's a very unusual episode. I'm very proud we took a chance and did it. People are going to like it or not like it."

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

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