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ABC hopes to arrest ratings slump with Wolf's "Dragnet"

Thursday, January 16, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- ABC's goal for the 2002-03 season was to stop its ratings decline. The network did better than most observers expected, thanks to its Tuesday comedies and "The Bachelor," but ABC would still rather look forward than back, proclaiming "the best is yet to come" in its presentation to TV critics.

ABC's biggest hope for midseason is a remake of "Dragnet," premiering at 10 p.m. Feb. 2. Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Law & Order," is behind the new series, which stars Ed O'Neill ("Married... With Children") as Joe Friday and Ethan Embry ("That Thing You Do!") as his young partner, Frank Smith.

"Just the facts, ma'am" isn't part of the first episode's dialogue, but it does include Friday's sober narration and a variation on the show's classic theme music. Wolf said the new show is a "re-conceptualization" of the original, but it remains a procedural show that's more about story than characters.

"You don't have those wonderful why-can't-somebody-die-in-my-arms-so-I-can-get-nominated-for-an-Emmy scenes," Wolf said. "What that means is you have more scenes that are shorter so the pace keeps up that staccato tempo. ... You have to keep the story moving or else it dies."

Embry, in his 20s, said he'd never seen an episode of the original "Dragnet," but he was familiar with its trappings.

"I knew Joe Friday, I knew his badge number was 714, I'd heard the song a hundred times, but I didn't tie it to 'Dragnet,' I thought it was 'Mission: Impossible' or something," Embry said. "I've never seen it, but I know all the key elements."

Wolf is particularly fond of the voice-over from Friday that comments on the action taking place.

"To me, that is a unique storytelling opportunity," Wolf said. "It is a totally unique point of view that to me doesn't exist on other shows."

The show also sports a new look by using a radio-controlled miniature helicopter called the Flying-Cam. Wolf said it was handy for a scene where the helicopter camera follows police cars through a tunnel, a look that couldn't be achieved any other way.

In a battle of highly promoted new series, "Dragnet" premieres opposite NBC's heralded drug dealers drama "Kingpin." But Wolf said he's not worried about the competition.

"I think it's a clear choice," he said. "In the long haul, I think people would prefer watching Ed as Joe Friday than drug dealers who are selling drugs to all our children."

Facing reality

Moments after announcing the return of "The Bachelor" (9 p.m. March 26) and "Extreme Makeover" (9 p.m. April 3) and premiere dates for beauty pageant series "All American Girl" (9 p.m. March 12) and "Are You Hot: The Search for America's Sexiest People" (9 p.m. Feb. 13), ABC executives said they really weren't adding a lot of reality programs to the schedule.

Like so many addicts, ABC executives are in denial. Only a few days after a judge blocked CBS's efforts to stop ABC from airing "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here" (CBS contends that it infringes on "Survivor"), ABC chairman Lloyd Braun said the key to creating new reality shows is "to keep these shows original and [make sure they] are not shamelessly derivative of other shows. ... We're desperately trying to find concepts that are new and fresh, not find something that's working somewhere else and tweak it and put it on our schedule."

Hello? Even though ABC has the OK to go forward with "I'm a Celebrity," it still sounds a lot like "Survivor."

ABC has gone the quick-fix route before, using "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" four nights a week and quickly running that franchise into the ground. Braun said ABC will resist that urge this time around, and ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne pointed out that ABC's reality shows are being kept to time slots on just two nights, Wednesday and Thursday (although it is expanding from one hour on Wednesday to two). She also said ABC would not extend reality series "into multiple nights, unlike some of our competitors are doing," which would be fine if it were true, but "I'm a Celebrity" will air for 15 consecutive nights, almost half of them at the end of February sweeps.

Lyne and Braun swore up and down that their real goal is to get a ratings bump out of reality programs while they develop new scripted series. Does Lyne worry that it's the reality shows that are getting all the attention?

"That's the fault of the people covering what's on the networks," she said before an audience of 200 people who cover what's on the networks. Realizing this, she quickly backtracked. "That's not what I mean; sorry, that was the wrong way to put it. What I mean here is we have a mix of programs on our network, and if there is not attention being paid to 'Life with Bonnie' or to the other comedies we launched this year or the new dramas, that's not because we're not giving them equal or more promo time, [or] that we are not as interested in making those shows a success."

More midseason on ABC

"I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here" (10 p.m. Feb. 19): Celebrities essentially play "Survivor." Not available for review.

"Lost at Home" (No premiere date): Workaholic husband is threatened with divorce if he doesn't spend more time with his family. Not available for review.

"Miracles" (10 p.m. Jan. 27): A young priest investigates miracles in this sometimes gruesome series.

"Regular Joe" (No premiere date): Daniel Stern stars as a widower raising a son, a daughter and the daughter's child. Not available for review.

"Veritas" (8 p.m. Jan. 27): A sullen teen travels the world with his archaeologist father, sulking all the way. Call it "Indiana Jones" meets "Everwood."

Going 'Home' again

A one-hour ABC special titled "Tim Allen Presents a User's Guide to Home Improvement" will reunite Allen and former "Home Improvement" co-stars Richard Karn and Debbe Dunning. There's no air date yet (some sweeps period would seem a good bet), but the hour will include Allen's favorite clips from the show, bloopers, reflections and a question-and-answer session with a live audience.

Update your TV lexicon

We all know a comedy series with drama is a dramedy. But UPN has added a new term to the TV lexicon: Dramality.

I'll use it in a sentence: A mix of drama and reality, UPN says its new series "America's Next Top Model" is a dramality.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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