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Tuned In: Networks eager to air nostalgia specials

Thursday, January 17, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's nothing new about TV looking back at its history with nostalgia. Whether it's more recent shows like "Growing Pains" and "Facts of Life" or timeless classics such as "I Love Lucy," TV has visited the Wayback Machine frequently for cast reunion movies and retrospective specials.

Interest in these programs rose dramatically after CBS's reunion of cast members from "The Carol Burnett Show," which drew tremendous ratings in November sweeps. Because of that success, nostalgia is all the rage in the TV business.

A Fox reunion, too?

Even rowdy teen-age network Fox, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in April, wants to grab some programming from its vaults. Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said a "Married ... With Children" TV movie is in development.

Most reunion shows are being pitched to the Big Three networks, which have the history and the broad-based interest necessary to make such a show a ratings hit.

"I think what startled people about 'The Carol Burnett Show' is that when it was on the air, it was perceived as being [an age] 50-plus program," said ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne, "so the idea that it attracted such a broad range of people was interesting."

CBS president Leslie Moonves said the number of younger viewers who watched Burnett came as a shock.

"We probably expected the 15 million people over 40; we didn't expect the 15 million under 40," he said. "It was extraordinary."

ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun said Burnett's show was unique.

"People love those outtakes," Braun said. "When I used to watch Carol Burnett, there was nothing I enjoyed more than seeing Tim Conway crack up. ... That's really funny stuff and it had been so long since anyone had seen it. ... I think you have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from that."

Yet ABC executives admit they have specials devoted to past hits in development, though they wouldn't be specific.

NBC looks back

Before the success of Burnett, NBC had shows in development celebrating its 75 years of broadcasting. NBC will air a retrospective of "The Cosby Show" in May, and a new version of "Battle of the Network Stars" is in development. An "L.A. Law" reunion movie is in the works for spring along with a Bob Hope retrospective.

"The success of 'The Carol Burnett Show' reinforced in our minds, without a doubt, that it's something we should be doing," said NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker.

But he also sounded a cautionary note that's one of the truisms of television: Too much of a good thing and it won't last.

"As in all these things, once everyone starts going into their vault and everyone starts doing these clip shows and these reunion movies, it diminishes the impact of them," Zucker said.

In addition to "The Carol Burnett Show," CBS revisited "Gilligan's Island" and "I Love Lucy" in specials this fall. A revisiting of "M*A*S*H" may be in the works.

"Everybody has called everybody," said CBS's Moonves. "There was a feeding frenzy, as there normally is. Agents were calling up, old producers were calling up, old stars were calling up. You wouldn't believe some of the calls we've gotten. ..."

NBC will air a "Roots" reunion tomorrow night at 8, a surprise since "Roots" was a massive hit for ABC, which passed on the special. Reportedly, a young ABC executive turned down the show because she thought it would appeal only to older viewers.

Judy Leonard, executive producer of NBC's "Roots -- Celebrating 25 Years," said she was told by an ABC executive, "We don't think it's going to get an audience."

ABC's Braun would never admit that, of course, saying, "We just didn't feel creatively what we heard was very strong."

You have to wonder if ABC would have reacted differently had the pitch been made after the "Burnett" show struck ratings gold. Though some have characterized ABC's dismissal of "Roots" as a slap in the face to the show's legacy and what it meant to African-American viewers, there's another way to look at it: Most of these clip show retrospectives are about comedies, not dramas.

Moreover, there's probably no one at ABC now who understands the impact it had when "Roots" first aired and the importance of its legacy. Lack of diversity in the executive suites is also a problem. The bottom line: Chances are NBC's special could tank in the ratings or skew old, and in TV today, the bottom line matters most.

"Everybody has construed our failure to make that particular show as some kind of statement that we don't believe in supporting 'Roots,' " Braun said. "It's just not the case. We didn't believe in that particular show pitched by that particular producer."

Instead, ABC will run a three-part series of reports on "Roots" during "Good Morning America."

New Entertainment president Lyne, who previously was in charge of ABC's movies and miniseries, took the fall for her colleagues in the specials department.

"I probably should have thought [of doing a special]," Lyne said. She said one of the problems for a struggling, low-rated network is that there's no time to sit back, brainstorm and realize the anniversary of "Roots" is coming up. "If anybody should have suggested that to the network, fought for it, it's probably me, and I didn't think to do it."

For Burnett, at least, the successful marketing of nostalgia may pave the way for more TV projects. There's talk of her appearing in a remake of "Once Upon a Mattress" or hosting another reunion special.

"She is a beloved figure in this country," said CBS's Moonves. "Anything Carol wants to do, she has a place on CBS to do it."

This is CNN

The brouhaha over CNN's promo that touted "American Morning" anchor Paula Zahn as "sexy" won't die down, but Zahn and "NewsNight" anchor Aaron Brown think it's time.

"The truth is it's just one really bad promo," Zahn said.

Brown was more blunt.

"Dumb is dumb," he said. "It was dumb, but it's misdemeanor dumb. It wasn't as if we made a journalistic gaffe. We didn't try to manipulate the audience, didn't commit a journalistic sin. ... I'd like to think the sentence for such stupidity runs about 10 days and then probation and house arrest."

The issue of resurgence in international news coverage is clearly more important. CNN's Christiane Amanpour, taking questions via satellite from Mogadishu, stressed the importance of such coverage.

"We heard over and over again Americans in the street asking, 'Why do they hate us?' " Amanpour said. "It's up to us to bring all the information in areas which are of concern to our audience. ..."

Last week an executive from MSNBC said there wasn't as much need for foreign news bureaus anymore because reporters can get to where news breaks quickly. Amanpour said relying on video from foreign news agencies is useful, "but it is not a substitute for having your own reporters on the ground in key important, ongoing stories. ... It's worth it to invest in being ahead of the curve. I do not believe there is any real 100 percent substitute for the credibility a news organization can expect from its own tried and true and trusted correspondents."

Testimony from the working stiffs is one thing, but Turner Broadcasting chairman Jamie Kellner declared last summer he would concentrate on hiring star personalities for CNN, putting to rest CNN's longtime mantra that "news is the star." Just this week, CNN hired former MTV News correspondent Serena Altschul.

Kellner sought to clarify his earlier statements.

"I think we're confusing the term 'star' from entertainment to the news portion of television," Kellner said. "A 'star' to me in the news business is about credibility, someone you want to spend time with."

Those two goals can sometimes be at odds. Larry King, who just signed a new four-year contract, would be a prime example.

Walter Isaacson, chairman of CNN News Group, said international news "is the core of what we do." He acknowledged that less weighty news stories -- shark attacks, for example -- will return as part of the news mix but won't overtake it.

"Sept. 11 changed things. People care about things happening in this world because of Sept. 11," Isaacson said. "In our mix we should deliver and will deliver [international news] not just to satisfy ratings, but because it's at the core of why CNN exists."

Reinventing 'Roswell'

Once again the sci-fi drama "Roswell" is on the fence for renewal, getting lower ratings than UPN executives or executive producer Jason Katims expected.

The show may take a break in March to make way for two new comedy series, but Katims promises whenever the remaining episodes air, the story involving the infant son of alien teen-ager Max will be resolved. And yes, Tess, the child's mother, who kidnapped him in last May's season finale, will be back for the resolution.

Katims said he feels all the stories relating to the teen aliens in high school have been exhausted, and a two-hour season finale will set the show up for a new direction.

"The finale will act as a satisfactory and emotional ending and also act as a pilot if the show returns," Katims said. He wouldn't specify what those changes will be but said it could involve cast changes.

Deal with it

"Star Trek" fans who hate the admittedly '80s throwback power ballad that's the theme song to UPN's "Enterprise" will have to get used to it. Executive producer Rick Berman likes the song, as do I, and he has no plans to change it.

"Sometimes people just have to have something to complain about," Berman said at a UPN party.

Channel surfing

As expected, ABC has yanked "Once and Again" off the schedule for the duration of February sweeps. It will return March 4 in the 10 p.m. Monday time slot ... Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have left their ABC Family series "So Little Time" to make movies ... Daytime talk show "Iyanla" has been canceled ... HBO is producing a documentary about Sept. 11 titled "In Memoriam: September 11, 2001, New York City." Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was expected to meet with TV critics last night to discuss the project.

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

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