March Madness goes past hoops

THE NCAA BASKETBALL tournament has earned the nickname “March Madness,” thanks to its annual array of upsets, buzzer-beaters and improbable finishes. Still, compared to what else has been spilling from TVs and newspapers, college hoops should be dubbed “March Mildly Eccentric.”

In the past month, another network exec has exited smack dab in the midst of development season, an agent was caught telling the truth and Congress waded into two irresistible media stories about life’s biggest issues — namely, death and baseball.

The month’s not over, but based on this partial recap, April can’t get here soon enough:

Celebrity Justice: Martha Stewart is a convict, and Robert Blake isn’t. Then again, she has two TV shows in the works, and he doesn’t. Talk about making a killing on the market.

Then again, Blake’s not likely to find steady employment so long as he keeps saying things like, “I’m crazy as an outhouse rat right now,” as he told a sickeningly attentive Barbara Walters last week. On the plus side, he didn’t appear in pajama bottoms, which is more than can be said of Michael Jackson.

Help Wanted: Robert Iger won the trip to Disneyland in the “replace Michael Eisner as CEO” sweepstakes. Yet what’s truly remarkable about the studio’s succession drama is that virtually no one else was willing to interview for the job.

Silly me, I would have thought this to be a rather plum position. Nice pay and perks. Good benefits. Hell, I’d have taken the meeting just for the free passes to the theme parks, “The Lion King” house seats and an employee discount at the Disney stores.

Congress Attacks: Perhaps sensing — what, apathy? — about war and Social Security reform, Congress went bonkers over steroids in baseball and the right-to-life dispute surrounding Terri Schiavo, yielding a predictable media feeding frenzy. A special undistinguished service award goes to talkradio, which quickly recognized the latter story’s morbid emotional appeal and milked that for all it’s worth.

Speaking of the national pastime, NBC Universal sales & marketing chief Keith Turner introduced the network’s development presentation by promising that his network is “swinging for the fences” with its series prototypes. If that’s true, I suggest someone bone up on what steroids can do to programmers, because lately the Peacock gang has had difficulty clearing the infield. I have heard that NBC Entertainment prez Kevin Reilly has a 19-inch neck now and can tear a phonebook in half.

Divorce, Conglomerate Style: After years of trumpeting the merits of synergy and cross-platforming, Viacom announces that it’s contemplating a plan to split in two, allowing co-COO/co-prexies Tom Freston and Leslie Moonves to each independently run their respective units.

Sympathetic as I am regarding the company’s sluggish stock price, it’s unclear how the breakup actually works to its operating benefit. It’s hell being trapped in a loveless marriage, but it’s worth trying to work things out — you know, for the kids.

Fewer Envelopes, Please: Faced with the daunting challenge of improving ratings for the Emmy Awards, an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences committee determined that the big viewer turnoff is, in fact, the awards themselves. So the panel came back with a recommendation to boot several categories out of the primary telecast, creating more room for variety-show elements.

Of course, among the awards that would be relocated are those for writing and directing variety shows, but as everyone knows in Hollywood, you can’t make an omelet without egg whites, because eggs themselves, when broken, are full of bad cholesterol.

Not-so-secret Agent: In an extensive New Yorker interview, William Morris Agency prexy David Wirtschafter spoke imprudently about Sarah Michelle Gellar (whom he called “nothing at all” before she starred in “The Grudge”) and Halle Berry. Both promptly sought new representation — establishing the dubious precedent of punishing an agent for honesty.

Apparently, the truth will set your clients free.

Conspiracy Theory: Amid CBS’ coverage of the NCAA tournament, scant mention was given to the surprising first-round victory by Bucknell, the alma mater of aforementioned Viacom bigwig and CBS chairman Moonves.

No one’s calling for an investigation yet, but if Iger’s old school, Ithaca College, receives a spot in ABC’s Bowl Championship Series, then something’s definitely up.

Head in the Sand: Political commentator Susan Estrich transformed a Museum of Television & Radio seminar for the WB’s “Jack & Bobby” into a near-riot. Although the atmosphere is normally festive at such events, those who attended say Estrich badgered panelists about poor ratings for the show, and the audience responded by booing her.

Then again, Estrich spent election night on Fox News insisting that John Kerry would carry Ohio, so she probably thought the evening was a resounding success.

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