What’s new in TV? Read between the lines

COMEDY CENTRAL may have had the right idea with the presidential debates, running smart-alecky subtitles while the candidates spoke, in an effort to spice up an otherwise drab affair.

So how would the news of the television business look with an ongoing, subtextual commentary? Peruse the following news tidbits from just the past few weeks:

Item: A representative for Bill Cosby confirmed last week that the very wealthy comedian wants to buy NBC. Both Paramount and Barry Diller are also said to be interested in buying the network.

Comment: Small wonder Cosby is tempted to return to the scene of his greatest success, particularly with “You Bet Your Life” bringing to mind a duck … one named Howard. Then again, someone who can attract those ratings would feel right at home programming NBC’s Friday night lineup.

As for Paramount, it’s believed the first story about the studio combining with NBC was written some time during the Bronze Age. All parties of course insist that the rumors aren’t true, which they probably aren’t, until inevitably one of them is.

Item: Ross Perot goes on “60 Minutes” for an interview with a very skeptical Lesley Stahl about pulling out of the presidential campaign because he feared that Bush-Quayle operatives planned to embarrass his daughter.

Comment: You mean, they could have done something more embarrassing than having her father look paranoid and delusional on national television?

Item: Toronto wins the World Series in six games. The series finishes as the second lowest-rated since it moved to prime time, though CBS maintained at the outset that having a Canadian team in the Fall Classic wouldn’t hurt its ratings.

Comment: CBS Sports’ publicity wing insisted they weren’t concerned at all about Toronto being in the Series, with all the credibility of the Bush administration t outing the imminent end of the recession.

Even so, after CBS’ sensational luck with last year’s World Series, the pendulum was probably due to swing back a bit in the other direction. If the sports gods actually rewarded those who are needy, then NBC deserves a seven-game New York Knicks-L.A. Lakers NBA Final next spring.

Item: ABC makes good on its promise to Roseanne Arnold and schedules “The Jackie Thomas Show,” starring Tom Arnold, at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays after “Roseanne” beginning Dec. 1.

Comment: Another television show about a television show. For ABC’s sake, let’s hope this one is more like “Home Improvement” in the ratings than “On the Air.”

Item: Brandon Tartikoff says in his book that he probably would have allocated “The Tonight Show” time period to disgruntled late night host David Letterman. Tartikoff’s promotional appearances in touting the book included interviews on “PrimeTime Live” and “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

Comment: On the first point, if NBC had moved Letterman up an hour, what then? Do you try and put Jay Leno behind Letterman or bring in a more questionable commodity like Dana Carvey? If so, you risk cutting the late night franchise in half, with no assurance that Letterman’s brand of humor will play as broadly as Carson’s or even the more vanilla-flavored Leno.

NBC may have mishandled how it notified Letterman about the decision. Still, from this Monday-morning quarterback’s vantage-point, the network made the only decision it could have made.

Regarding point two, the chairman of Paramount Pictures ends up as a guest on a Paramount-distributed syndicated talkshow? Golly, what are the odds of a coincidence like that?

Item: NBC moves “A Different World” back to its old time period of 8:30 p.m. Thursdays after it finishes behind “The Simpsons” during their first five head-to-head original airings, putting a freshman comedy, “Out All Night,” at 8 p.m.

Comment: Who would have thought two years ago, when Fox announced its audacious gambit of scheduling “The Simpsons” opposite “The Cosby Show,” that before 1992 was over Bart would be the baddest dude on that block?

Item: Mariel Hemingway poses semi-nude on an episode of ABC’s “Civil Wars.” The show’s ratings surge for the week but soon fall back to unimpressive levels.

Comment: Maybe ABC should re-develop the series, focus exclusively on sex and call it “Lawyers Without Briefs.”

Item: “L.A. Law” premieres on Oct. 22 with an episode about the April 29-May 1 Los Angeles riots. The show returns against Game Five of the World Series (instead of vs. League Championship Series, as it did last year), and does 26% worse in the ratings.

Comment: Nothing like timely scheduling to give a returning show a real boost. After last year’s creative slump, and with “PrimeTime Live” solidifying its audience against repeats and specials, “Law” has its work cut out for it this season.

Item: The presidential election is now less than a week away, meaning television will soon be devoid of all those paid political ads and half-hour specials.

Comment: Thankfully, “American Gladiators” and “World Wrestling Federation” will be around to ensure a continued supply of thought-provoking, high-quality programming.

Item: Finally, five weeks ago it was suggested here that Fox should delay its Tuesday lineup so it can focus on the rest of its schedule, and that ABC should bring back “FBI: The Untold Stories” and “American Detective” in place of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” Both have subsequently come to pass.

Comment: If this were KCBS-TV, we’d probably start running obnoxious promos like “Changing Channels: For get-it-first, before-it-happens reporting.”

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