‘Ray’ without Romano?

Eye mulls launching a spinoff

HOLLYWOOD — CBS loves Ray Romano — but “Everybody Loves Raymond” just may go on without him and series creator Phil Rosenthal.

Eye’s hit laffer is set to begin its eighth season in September, with Romano and Rosenthal both on board. But both men have made clear that, as of now, they consider the upcoming season the show’s last and have no plans to return, citing a desire to go out while the skein is creatively still at the top of its game.

As a result, CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves said Sunday that his net has no choice but to leave open the option of bringing back “Raymond” for a ninth season in fall 2004 or launching a spinoff — even if Romano and Rosenthal opt against inking new deals.

“The show (with them) is an A-plus,” Moonves said during a conversation with reporters following his formal session with journos at the semiannual Television Critics Assn. Press tour. “Give me a B-plus, I’ll take it.”

As for possible spinoffs, “We’re talking about all sorts of permutations,” Eye exec said, including a skein starring Brad Garrett’s long-suffering character Robert. Moonves even joked about a scenario where Romano’s sportswriter character could end up covering “soccer in Europe.”

At the same time, Moonves — jokingly admitting he was “talking out of both sides of my mouth” — conceded “Raymond” does “sort of fall apart without them.” And he said it’s possible the show simply will go away after this season.

“It may very well be the last year for ‘Raymond,’ but we hope not,” Moonves said. “We’re working on Ray’s wife and kids.”

Players’ big payday

Romano’s and Rosenthal’s desire to ankle after the upcoming season appears to put them it odds with the rest of the skein’s cast, who have all reupped for a ninth season.

Other thesps don’t make nearly the coin Romano does as a thesp and producer and as a result have more of a financial incentive to stick around. Some industry insiders have even suggested Romano is being selfish to call it quits now and deny his co-stars the sort of payday they’ll likely never see again.

“I don’t know what’s going through their heads (for Romano and Rosenthal) to walk away (from the money they’d earn on a ninth season),” Moonves said. “When you get a show like ‘Raymond,’ they’re not going to get another shot (at making that kind of money).”

Moonves said he hoped the supporting actors would band together to convince Romano and Rosenthal to say. “The rest of the cast is dying to come back,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said he considered both men “personal friends” and would accept whatever decision they make.

“Obviously, they’ve put a lot of heart and soul into the show,” Moonves said. “Some people call it quits after a certain period of time. I don’t think it’s selfish. I don’t want them to do it, but I understand.”

No quick answer

CBS Entertainment prexy Nancy Tellem also said Romano “is very dedicated to the show…(and) to the other cast members” and as a result predicted he and Rosenthal won’t firmly reject a ninth season until the last possible moment.

“I having a feeling this could go a while, past January,” she said.

Tellem also dismissed comparisons to the situation NBC faces with the looming end of “Friends.”

While “Raymond” is a major hit, “Our schedule is solid. It’s not going to collapse without it,” she said.

‘Hillbillies’ brouhaha

On other matters, Moonves fielded a slew of questions on reality TV, including the matter of when (or if) he ever intends to greenlight “The Real Life Beverly Hillbillies.” Skein has been in the works for nearly a year (Daily Variety, Aug. 28).

Moonves said he still doesn’t know what he’ll do about the show but said he was “shocked” that Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) would take time on the Senate floor last spring, just before the start of the Iraq war, to blast him and CBS for developing the show.

“There’s been a lot more controversy about that show than I could imagine,” he said. “This was the first I knew of (Miller), when he made these remarks about me. I thought he went a little overboard, considering what was happening in the real world.”

Eye execs also took some heat about the editing of “Big Brother 4,” which last week featured the expulsion of a houseguest and the show’s apparent first-ever full-on act of sexual intercourse between cast members.

However, one reporter took execs to task for the broadcast not being more explicit by questioning evicted houseguest Amanda about her on-camera coitus or revealing that the expelled cast member had caused a stir in the house by admitting he suffered from genital warts.

“You could have actually seen everything you wanted to see on the 24/7 video streaming,” Tellem said. “We have certain obligations (as a broadcaster). You have to balance… taste and appropriateness (vs. telling the whole story on-air).”

In other matters:

  • The Eye became the first net to announce premiere dates for the 2003-04 season. As expected, net will stick to a very traditional premiere week rollout, with all but two of its fall skeins launching in pattern the week of Sept. 22.

    “Survivor: Pearl Islands” launches Thursday, Sept. 18 — just before the new season begins — while “Becker” will move into its new Wednesday slot Oct. 1. “The King of Queens” will air a one-hour sixth season premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 24.

  • Moonves said he’s talking to the team behind “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” about a second spinoff and seemed to hint that it may happen sooner rather than later. “If ‘Law & Order’ can do three (editions), we could do five,” Moonves said, at least partially in jest.

    However, speaking later at an informal press briefing, “CSI” creator and exec producer Anthony Zuiker said that a second spinoff is “way down the line,” perhaps two or three years away. He said that he and the other show producers want to focus solely on the hit franchise as is.

    “We are in a holding pattern,” Zuiker said.

    One net exec said there wasn’t a contradiction between what Moonves and Zuiker said, and that two or three seasons is nothing from the network’s perspective.

    Pinned on Lynch

  • Moonves admitted that a CBS News producer’s letter to former POW Jessica Lynch, which hinted at a wide variety of potential programming opportunities inside Viacom if she agreed to an Eye interview, overstepped boundaries.

    “As these companies become more vertically integrated, sometimes you go over the line,” he said.

    In particular, Moonves said CBS News’ Betsy West should not have mentioned the potential of developing a TV movie around Lynch’s life. In hindsight, she should have only pitched the net’s news programs, he said.

    “If I had to do it all over again, and she had to do it all over again, we wouldn’t have done it,” he said.

    Moonves compared the situation to NBC’s recent Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez interview on “Dateline NBC,” even though Lynch is a news figure, while the “Gigli” stars hail from the entertainment world.

    Nonetheless, Moonves pointed out that NBC plopped a “Dateline” tag on Pat O’Brien’s Affleck/Lopez chat, which was also shared with the Peacock’s syndicated “Access Hollywood.”

    “The line between news and entertainment has been getting erased for years,” he said. “They put Katie Couric in a Halloween costume. Is it a news or an entertainment program?”

  • CBS, which just celebrated its 50th birthday on-air in 1998, will throw another anniversary bash this November.

    “CBS at 75: A Primetime Celebration” airs live Sunday, Nov. 2, from New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Three-hour special will include the usual round of black-tie celebs and packages recounting the company’s history from radio to TV.

    “CBS at 75” will be handled by Cates-Doty Prods., with Gil Cates on board as exec producer. Louis J. Horvitz, the Emmy-winning director behind the Academy Awards, will direct the special.

    But just as ABC recently played it loose with the timeline for its 50th anniversary special, CBS is technically celebrating its 76th birthday this year.

    The Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Co. (as the radio network was then called) actually launched on Sept. 18, 1927, as a merger between nascent network United Independent Broadcasters and the Columbia Phonograph Co., according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

    CBS instead is recognizing January 1929 as its start date, when William Paley bought the company and renamed it the Columbia Broadcasting System.

  • Reunion-mania continues, as CBS — which first struck gold two years ago with a “Carol Burnett” gathering — next up brings together the cast of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

    The “Griffith” reunion will likely air in November, although the net’s not yet sure if the special will be packaged as part of a larger “CBS at 75” theme.

    Thursday challenge

  • Despite past objections from NBC, Moonves once again claimed that CBS’ Thursday night lineup was “the most profitable night in primetime.”

    The exec also predicted a fiercer battle in the night’s 10 p.m. time period this fall, pointing out that 26 million viewers watched “Without a Trace” for the first time this summer.

    “I’m not saying that ‘Without a Trace’ is going to beat ‘ER’ this fall,” he said. “But this is now going to be a very competitive time period and one that NBC no longer can dominate.”

  • If CBS’ “Survivor” and Fox’s “American Idol” are the Rolls Royces of reality TV, then “Amazing Race” is a Cadillac — and less critic-friendly “Big Brother” and “Cupid” are Chevy Impalas, Moonves quipped.

    ” ‘Idol’ and ‘Survivor’ are the two best reality shows,” he said. “I’m very happy to have a couple Chevy Impalas in my garage, too.”

  • Moonves said he expects the TV Academy to restructure its rules so the outstanding reality/competition category won’t offer up a confusing mix of series like “Survivor” and specials like “100 Years of Hope” next year (Daily Variety, July 18).

    “I think it’s silly to put Bob Hope in the same category as ‘Survivor,’ ” he said. “I think they’ll do better next year. I hope.”

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)

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