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On the Tube: The ratings dropped with her golden locks - WB says grow it back

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. - It's a show about hair. Or so you might think given the number of questions about "Felicity" star Keri Russell's shearing at a press conference on the set of The WB college drama.

Star Keri Russell said she thought Felicity's haircut last fall was a good idea.

"I think it was a brave, crazy, sudden, extreme thing to do, but those are all things a girl in college are, and I think it was quite appropriate," Russell said. "It was a good thing for me as a person as well. That long hair is how I was identified."

But WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels isn't so sure.

"Looking back on it, Keri Russell as Felicity was becoming an icon in television culture, and part of the icon was her hair," Daniels said during The WB's portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. "Part of that strong image of Felicity was the shot of Felicity's profile by the window in her dorm room talking into [a tape recorder]. When they cut the hair off, and I couldn't foresee this, then you diluted that image. You diluted that icon."

Daniels said Felicity's haircut was one element that led to ratings declines this season.

"I think it turned some audience away, in particular men and some women," Daniels said.

But the cast of "Felicity" doesn't understand the reaction.

"I'm shocked it's that big of a deal," said Scott Speedman, who plays Ben on "Felicity." "I know she had beautiful hair, but she looks really good."

The whole haircut came about after Russell played a joke on the show's producers last summer, sending them a photo of herself wearing a short-haired wig. After a few days of freaking out, the producers discovered she was kidding, but by then they'd decided a new 'do would be appropriate for the character.

Concerns over a new hairstyle may seem superficial, but Daniels said such details matter to WB viewers.

"Our audience of teen girls and women 18 to 34 don't just look at the hair, they look at the fashions," she said. "Our heads of marketing told us that they read a quote from the clothing buyer of Target who said she looks at our shows and decides what to put in stores in terms of clothing. Professionals are looking at the styles of our actors, what they wear, where they live. What they do with their hair is very much what the audience looks to in our shows. It's not just the storylines."

But the stories and a new time slot also contributed to the "Felicity" ratings decline this season.

"There's a crucial period of four or five episodes where we told stories that were a little unfocused and it didn't feel as compelling as it should have," said executive producer J.J. Abrams. "And I think we fixed it. We're really back on track."

Abrams said the show got off course when the Ben-Felicity attraction was resolved too quickly and the Felicity-David romance didn't work. The series also became less about college, but Abrams said some of the show's indirection was realistic.

"When we realized the stories weren't quite gelling, we went to UCLA and wandered around and talked to college students and asked what it's like to be a sophomore, and they were all going through what we were writing about," Abrams said. "They were lost, they didn't quite know what they were doing, they were having sex with people they didn't want to have sex with, they were cutting their hair and felt ugly."

Realistic or not, it didn't make for great TV. Abrams said Felicity will become more directed again.

Daniels said part of the show's efforts to right itself include bringing Felicity back into the fold. She'll move into the loft where Ben lives and become friends with Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) again. And Felicity and Ben may take another stab at romance.

On Sunday's episode, "Felicity" departs from its norm by presenting a black and white episode inspired by "The Twilight Zone." Though the show's target audience may not understand the reference, Abrams said he's happy the show is taking risks.

"People might just reject it, but the exciting thing is we're trying to do something different," Abrams said. "If it was the same show every week, it would become incredibly predictable."

The one predictable element "Felicity" will embrace in the future is Russell's hair, which is growing back. At one point executives considered putting hair extensions or a wig on Russell, but the actress rejected those ideas.

So what happens the next time a WB star considers a hairstyle change?

"I think it's going to be given more thought at the network than it previously would have," Daniels said. It airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on WCWB.

CLEO AND JACK: It takes two shows to fill the void left by the syndicated adventure-drama "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys."

Rob Tapert, creator and executive producer of "Hercules," co-created the new "Cleopatra 2525" and executive produces its companion series, "Jack of All Trades."

Both shows premiere tomorrow on WCWB, with "Cleopatra" at 1 and "Jack" at 1:30 p.m.

Bruce Campbell, who appeared on both "Hercules" and "Xena: Warrior Princess" as the scheming Autolycus, stars in "Jack of All Trades" as an American spy dispatched to the East Indies by President Thomas Jefferson.

To conceal his true identity, Jack serves as personal attache to Emilia Rothschild (Angela Dotchin), a wealthy widow and secret agent for Britain. Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," will appear during February sweeps as Napoleon.

The futuristic "Cleopatra" follows the adventures of its title character, an aspiring actress who awakens from cryogenic freezing after she lapsed into a coma while getting breast implants in 2001. Out of sorts but still feisty, Cleopatra (Jennifer Sky) teams with Hel (Gina Torres) and Sarge (Victoria Pratt), who live underground because evil machines have taken over the Earth.

Tapert said it's more expensive to make two shows instead of one, but he wanted to work with Bruce Campbell again and take science fiction in a different direction.

"We thought a common link for doing that was by making them just entertaining as opposed to big, dramatic series," Tapert said. "So we ended up with two half-hours that are totally similar, but visually different."

Like Tapert's past efforts, both of his new shows are filmed in New Zealand. He attributes the far-flung location to both economics and the infrastructure established by "Hercules" and "Xena."

"When I grew up in Detroit in the '70s when the car companies ran away to everywhere else and it just seemed like economic survival," Tapert said. "There's a whole business aspect to television that is just below the surface and it's all about getting the most on screen for the least amount of money. Leaving America afforded us the opportunity to create more entertainment for the audience."

For the actresses, "Cleopatra" features a multitude of special effects, including flying through underground shafts while dressed in skimpy outfits.

"The first time we had to fake flying on the blue screen, that was really hard," Pratt said. "It took a lot of trial and error to look like we were actually flying."

Because Cleopatra is a newcomer to 2525, Sky had an easier job.

"I was lucky because it was all discovery," Sky said. "Cleopatra wasn't supposed to know what she was doing, so it was great."

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