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Tuned In:What I did on my summer press tour

Thursday, July 31, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After attending a portion of the three-week marathon that is the Television Critics Association summer press tour, I returned home Saturday and got to thinking about it in terms of those elementary school essays, the "what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation" variety.

Press tour -- a series of press conferences staged by the broadcast and cable networks to tout their new series -- is not a vacation. But it is informative, offering an overview of the upcoming season, its trends and likely hits and misses.

Here's some of what I learned at this year's summer press tour:

Hollywood loves the Coldplay song "Clocks." It was featured in at least a third of the pilot episodes produced for fall, but viewers probably won't hear it that often when those episodes air.

Pilots are sales tools used to hook networks into buying a show as a series. To help ensure a pickup, producers often use popular music they can't get the rights to or are unwilling to pay a high price for and end up replacing songs before the pilot airs.

If it programs the show correctly, Fox will have a hit in the half-hou, seven-episode comedy "The Simple Life," a reality version of "Green Acres." The show sends so-called "celebutants" Paris Hilton (granddaughter of the founder of the Hilton Hotels chain) and Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel Richie) to live on a farm in Arkansas.

The first episode, which showed the women traveling to their new home and getting an education about small-town life, was a scream.

"Simple Life" was supposed to premiere this month, but Fox, in an obvious sop to TV critics peeved because many planned to make it an Aug. 10 TV book cover and were left to scramble, said the show will be delayed because of the enthusiastic response at TCA.

No new air date or time slot has been announced, but it seems as though it could be a good bet to replace the low-rated "American Juniors," which had been scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesdays this fall.

Why did NBC move "Ed" from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 9 p.m. Friday nights earlier this year? Because NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker believes soft serial dramas such as "Ed" don't do well in the ratings once spring arrives.

Thirtysomething parents, the "Ed" core audience, are especially likely to be unavailable because they're out of the house attending their kids' baseball and soccer games. By moving the show to a later time slot, those viewers were more likely to be home to see "Ed," and its ratings did improve at 9 Friday.

"Ed" will be back at 8 Wednesdays this fall, but, Zucker said, the show will likely move to a later time slot again come spring.

Hearing from the producers of the new shows shouldn't influence opinions of the pilot episodes, but it can alter impressions about potential future success.

For instance, NBC's "Las Vegas" had a stylish pilot, but at the show's press conference, producers refused to answer questions about what the show would be like going forward. When producers say, "You'll have to watch the show to see," TV critics hear, "We don't have any idea."

I had the opposite reaction to the panel for NBC's "Whoopi," a universally reviled sitcom pilot. But the press conference went well, and both producers and star Whoopi Goldberg articulated a solid vision for the show.

Oops, they weren't prepped for this question. At a press conference for NBC's "The Tracy Morgan Show," one critic noticed that the series had more than 15 producers. When he asked why that was necessary, no one on the panel had a good answer. The session for a sitcom with an easy-to-like pilot went down the drain from there.

Keep an eye out for CBS's "Joan of Arcadia" (8 p.m. Fridays this fall), about a teenage girl to whom God speaks directly. The show's creator, Barbara Hall ("Judging Amy"), is an intelligent woman with a firm grasp on how her series will develop.

Oh, 'Brother'

Western Pennsylvanians Alison Irwin and Justin Giovinco, who used to date, are at each other's throats on the CBS reality show "Big Brother 4." Irwin was spared being up for eviction by her new bedmate, this week's Head of Household Nathan Marlow, but she's angry at Giovinco and Dana Varela for plotting against her.

"They want to get together," she said on Tuesday's show. "They'll probably have the ugliest babies ever to walk the face of the Earth."

Irwin's latest plan: "I'm going to win Head of Household next week, and then I'm going to sink my fangs into Dana's leg and Justin's face."

Good luck with that.

'R' is now 'N'

We had this in the paper a month ago, but I'm still getting calls on it.

In the TV listings, the "R" symbol, for "repeat," has been replaced with "N," for "new." The listing service that provides TV show information to newspapers across the country, including the Post-Gazette, made the switch because networks had become less forthcoming about labeling repeats.

So unless you see the "N," it's fair to assume the program is a repeat (an exception: some half-hour blocks on cable networks don't have space in the grids for any notation).

Whither WPGH's 11?

WPGH's plan to add an 11 p.m. newscast, delayed from June until late summer, is still without a premiere date.

Joe DeFeo, corporate news director for WPGH owner Sinclair, said the format of the broadcast, which will mix local news with national stories from Sinclair's News Central in suburban Baltimore, is being tested at the company's Baltimore station.

"We don't want to roll it out in another market until it's where we want it to be," DeFeo said yesterday. "It's not there yet in our opinion."

He said there's no date set for the Pittsburgh rollout, although he did say it will happen before the end of the year, probably by mid-fall.

Comcast survey

While I was away at press tour, Comcast ran print ads in the Post-Gazette asking customers to fill out a survey about possible channels they'd like to see added. Five channels were listed as choices: Do-It-Yourself, Fine Living, SoapNet, Comcast News 8 and Comcast Sports Net. It also asked which channels viewers watch often or never.

Comcast spokesman Brian Jeter said the informal survey was more an effort to gauge interest in cable customers' programming choices.

"We were trying to get a sense from our customers of what they like and don't like and maybe trend that way," Jeter said. "Of course, we have to do that in conjunction with the contracts we have with all our programmers."

Despite the inclusion of Comcast's Philadelphia-based regional news and sports channels, Jeter said there are no plans to add local versions of those networks.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or Post questions or comments to TV Forum.

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