Promises of new beginnings: a bridge to racial equality, a halt to senseless violence, and an end to embarrassing sexual high jinks. Al Gore’s campaign platform? No, just some of the vows made by network executives to the nation’s TV critics at the recently concluded summer press tour. For two weeks, television’s highest-ranking suits were relentlessly grilled about programming in the post-Columbine, post-Lewinsky, post…uh, Rosa Parks era. For the first time, it was almost possible to feel pity for a network president.
But only for a short while. After all, once their sessions were done, the execs got to go home. The press were forced to remain in Pasadena. Yes, the hotel was very nice, but how many macaroni-salad and corned-beef-on-white spreads (the actual menu for the ABC luncheon) can a reporter endure? Culinary tortures aside, here are some highlights.
OH, LORD CBS and NBC got caught up in a battle of biblical proportions over competing Messiah projects. CBS announced plans for a four-hour miniseries titled Jesus, while NBC countered with its November telefilm Jesus and Mary. After CBS reps accused NBC of ripping off the idea, NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa quipped, ”Did [CBS-TV CEO] Les Moonves tell you he invented the Bible?”
BOXERS OR BRIEFS? While defending a scene in the new comedy Malcolm in the Middle, in which a woman parades around her house half naked, Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog declared, ”Let the word go forth: I walk around the house in my underwear. I’m sorry it had to come out this way.” So are we.
COLOR TV NBC signed a deal with Keenen Ivory Wayans to produce and star in a sitcom about a black man with kids who marries a white woman with kids. Tentative title: Not the Bradys. Since new NBC Entertainment head Garth Ancier passed on this pitch from Wayans last year, when Ancier was at The WB, you have to wonder what makes it a good project now. (The ”diversity question,” probably the most invoked phrase at the press tour, wouldn’t have anything to do with it, would it?) Meanwhile, ABC sitcom star Norm Macdonald wryly chided his bosses about their lineup. Regarding the network’s recent live golfing showdown between David Duval and Tiger Woods, Macdonald noted, ”It’s nice that they got a black guy on the network once in a while.”
PARTY OF TWO Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, star of Fox’s Party of Five spin-off Time of Your Life, provided the floor show at the Fox party, dancing up a storm with That ’70s Show’s Wilmer Valderrama. She ended up drenched in sweat, as did all the gawking reporters — for different reasons.
NOTHING IN LIFE IS FREE… WELL, NOT ANYMORE For the first time, promotional freebies for the media were (horrors!) eliminated. Fearing an embarrassing article in Brill’s Content (one that was never published) about the graft routinely distributed to the press — ranging from T-shirts to expensive luggage sets — the Television Critics Association voted during last summer’s press tour to ban network gift giving. But this year CBS managed to sneak in a Shake, Rattle and Roll CD (promoting its November-sweeps miniseries of the same name). And NBC distributed a coupon for free pizza tucked into a Jay Leno box (”Jay delivers!” trumpeted the packaging). At least there were no Veronica’s Closet thongs.
A PRESS CONFERENCE IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE… Actress Farrah Fawcett knows how to clear a room: behave normally. When she took the stage to promote her upcoming CBS telepic Silk Hope, many of the reporters were half-hoping to see the actress give a repeat of her infamous loopy Letterman appearance. But 10 minutes into the session, a coherent and engaging Fawcett was happily chattering away about her film, her hair, and yes, Letterman. Unfortunately, by that point, much of the press had cleared out.