“Fame, makes a man take things over … puts you there where things are hollow.”— David Bowie THE ANNUAL SETTING of primetime schedules inevitably kicks off a hunt for trends, with none stranger than TV’s new version of the billionaire boys club. Succumbing to “The Apprentice”-mania, other networks have responded with their own shows built around billionaires. Annoying Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (try signing a real center, bozo) will thus dole out cash on ABC’s “The Benefactor,” while Fox counters with “The Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best,” at first glance a “The Amazing Race”-meets-“The Apprentice” double rip-off featuring adventurer-entrepreneur Richard Branson. For the networks, I suppose, there’s a perverse logic to this strategy. Instead of taking unknowns and, in success, transforming them into greedy, demanding monsters, get into business with guys who are greedy, demanding monsters to begin with. If nothing else, the arrangement removes surprises from the process of managing a hit. Who’s going to argue about the length of their trailer when they already own a yacht that’s twice as long? In addition, studio moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone will finally have something to talk about when introduced to the “talent” — tax incentives, reelecting Bush, whatever — instead of those awkward “Thanks for another great season of ‘That ’70s Show'” exchanges. THE TRULY PERPLEXING aspect of these shows is rather that this many billionaires (and tens-of-millionaires, if you throw in Paris Hilton and now her mom) are willing to thrust themselves into TV, becoming little more than glorified reality-show contestants. I mean, shouldn’t captains of industry have something better to do with their time? Granted, there’s a high level of ego gratification involved, regardless of income. Trump clearly derives considerable pleasure from conquering this strange new world, as well he should. Heck, NBC devoted so much time to kissing his ass during its upfront show-and-tell that the presentation ran slightly longer than “Troy.” There are nevertheless legitimate reasons to resent this new reality, not the least among them that these camera-hungry billionaires are taking jobs away from needy millionaires who used to write sitcoms, many of whom have first wives to support. Indeed, while studios continue to haggle with the Writers Guild over such matters as health benefits and DVD royalties, they’re simultaneously handing time periods to chaps who achieved their own champagne wishes and caviar dreams long ago. Perhaps foremost, nothing better defines our media-obsessed age than the idea that even people who don’t need the money are so covetous of primetime exposure. Cuban has long since enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame simply by yelling at referees. Branson jets and balloons around the globe, and Trump — when he isn’t bankrupting casinos — is Trump. None of them, however, could resist TV’s siren song, in the same way upstanding citizens attending a basketball game turn into arm-waving idiots once a camera swivels toward them. Fame might not make you live forever, but it provides a sense of validation like nothing else quite can. Just ask Ross Perot, the floppy-eared Texan who parlayed his billions and down-home witticisms on “Larry King” into a significant third party presidential bid. SO SUDDENLY, merely knowing when to “buy low” or “sell high” doesn’t cut it anymore. The two words moguls seemingly most admire are “You’re fired.” Honestly, though, what’s next? Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett inviting 16 hungry souls to Omaha to vie for his fortune, with the winners earning T-bills and the losers settling for T-bones? Bill Gates hosting the new gameshow “Microsoft Monopoly,” just to thumb his nose at the Justice Dept.? What about a May-December dating show where one septuagenarian is bloody rich, the rest live off their Social Security and thirtysomething femme contestants have to guess which is which? (Can you imagine some Fox or CBS exec having the cojones to pitch that one?) Being a billionaire might sound swell, but apparently big bucks alone can’t fill the void if not everybody knows your name. SYNERGY, MEET IRONY: From the “D’oh!” files, an ad for “Nip/Tuck” — the acerbic FX drama that pointedly skewers the cult of plastic surgery — ran during Monday’s finale of “The Swan,” sibling Fox’s reality show/pageant that breathlessly glamorizes going under the knife. What’s next, “Kerry for President” ads during Rush Limbaugh? Eligibility forms for “The Swan 2″ are now posted on Fox’s Web site, by the way, informing aspiring swans that they “must be in excellent mental and physical health,” possess insurance and never have been convicted of a felony. “Nip/Tuck” viewers not recommended, but billionaires welcome.
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