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Tuned In: 'Freaks and Geeks' needs vocal viewer support

Thursday, November 04, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The best new show of the season is in danger of cancellation. It's time to mobilize.

NBC's "Freaks and Geeks" (8 p.m. Saturday) deserves and needs your support.

Before you dismiss it as yet another teen show, understand this: Not all teen shows are created equal. "Freaks and Geeks" is the best of the bunch, and truthfully, it's not aimed at teen-agers. Set at a Michigan high school in 1980, its target audience is people who grew up in the '70s and '80s.

Viewers love to call or write to me about how trashy TV has gotten, and I agree, but then they do nothing to support an inoffensive -- dare I say, moral -- show like "Freaks and Geeks."

In the second episode, freak wannabe Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) got roped into hosting a beer bash when her parents went out of town for the weekend. Her younger geek brother Sam (John Daley) got so concerned he replaced the real beer with non-alcoholic beer. When was the last time you saw that kind of realistic, sincere concern between teen-agers on TV?

In this week's episode Lindsay helps the freak she likes to cheat on a test, only to have it all unravel with her realizing how she's been used. Sam and the geeks take sex ed ("What the hell is that?" Bill says when he sees a diagram of the female reproductive system. "It looks like it's from outer space!") and end up with more questions than answers.

NBC muffed its "Freaks and Geeks" roll-out by airing only two episodes and then pre-empting the show for three weeks of baseball. Now it's back with scant promotion to help draw viewers to the tube.

What to do? Letters (not e-mail) are always helpful. Bombard NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier with pleas for mercy at 3000 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank, CA 91523.

If you already watch and love the show, check out www.freaksandgeeks.com, a Web site that appears to be administered by the show's creators.

Most importantly, watch "Freaks and Geeks" Saturday night, especially if you have a Nielsen meter or a ratings diary in your home. If not for yourself or for the show, do it for this geek.

"EARLY" RISING: CBS's "The Early Show," starring Bryant Gumbel and featuring Jane Clayson (and I do mean starring and featuring), got off to a decent start Monday. Though it brings scant innovation to the morning TV format, "The Early Show" is a solid effort, albeit a work in progress.

"The Early Show" has more of a male bent, with regular sports and business segments, which the other morning shows downplay.

In the newsy first half-hour, Gumbel and Clayson don't toss to Julie Chen at the news desk until 7:20 a.m., which seems a little late for viewers who are headline hogs. KDKA's decision to shrink the screen to fit in the weather forecast, time and temperature just adds more graphic clutter to "The Early Show's" oversized red-orange-yellow identification bars at the bottom of the screen.

So far, the street-side studio is a bust. It's right on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, unlike NBC's more-secluded "Today" show, which makes for an overabundance of New York noise (sirens, honking horns, etc.). The ambient sound seemed diminished Tuesday, but so was the crowd. If you're going to New York and want to get on TV, there's plenty of gawker space at the rails in the background of "The Early Show." And hey, they're offering free coffee, just like when Channel 11 broadcast from Downtown Pittsburgh.

So far Clayson is a plain Jane (a.k.a. Lisa McRee syndrome). When Gumbel was in Pittsburgh a few weeks back he compared Clayson to his former sidekick, Jane Pauley. I don't see the similarity, but Clayson deserves time to grow into her role.

It's good to have Gumbel back in the morning. Though he often comes across as a jerk in the press and shows a remarkable lack of smarts when it comes to combating his arrogant image, I've always liked him as a morning host. His repartée with Martha Stewart on Tuesday was particularly fun to watch. They clearly like one another, but he's not afraid to tease, saying, "I'm scared of what you do in your free time."

The conservative Media Research Center has been running an anti-Gumbel campaign, calling him a "liberal activist-anchor." Well, duh. The biggest lie in journalism is that most journalists are not liberally biased. Of course they are. It's part of the breed. Katie Couric is unabashedly liberal, too. She's just better at hiding it.

Gumbel all but slobbered over President Clinton Monday, even intimating he'd invite him to go golfing, which seemed too chummy even coming at the end of a morning show interview.

But darn it, even as a moderate who can't stand extremists at either end of the political spectrum, I still like Bryant. And I'd certainly rather watch "The Early Show" than "Good Morning America," although "Today" is still tops in my book.

ELECTION COVERAGE: It was quite the nail-biter in the county executive race Tuesday night, and that always makes for better TV coverage than a blowout.

From what I saw -- flipping from channel to channel -- WPXI and WTAE took the lead in getting results on the screen quickly and updating them often throughout prime time. During the 11 p.m. news KDKA offered the best analysis thanks to smart questions anchor Stacy Smith put to analyst John Delano.

How lucky for local stations that the turning point in the race came during the late news when Jim Roddey overtook Cyril Wecht.

At 11:30 p.m. the stations had to make a tough call: Stick with local programming, even though they had no idea how long it would be before the Wecht concession and Roddey victory speeches, or go to the network and then cut in.

WPXI was the only station to go to the network. I can't say what I would have done. On the one hand, you don't want to miss a big story. On the other hand, you don't want to stay with local news if your anchors are blabbering to fill time.

WPGH tried its best during the 10 p.m. news, but having two analysts and two anchors at the same news desk was a train wreck.

"We're stepping all over each other here," John Huck said to Sheila Hyland.

Indeed they were. Next time, put a reporter or anchor with the analysts in another location so they can't butt in and offer commentary as the anchors try to go through returns quickly.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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