The decision to air a special West Wing episode tonight dealing with a terrorist attack represents, in the words of today's Boston Globe, "a major test of the public's willingness to embrace artistic, fictionalized responses to a very real national trauma."
The newspaper quoted former West Wing writer/producer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., whose father was a key figure in the Kennedy White House, as saying, "Doing a drama that is set in the place where now a war on terror is being managed and launched, it just would have been impossible to go into the third season without some reference to what life in the real West Wing is like now. ... Up to now, The West Wing has been able to preserve its parallel-universe status. But this event is just too large to ignore."
On the other hand, University of Texas communications professor Roderick Hart told the Globe: "It is dangerous. It could certainly backfire. There's just so much tragedy associated with this, and it's a living, ongoing tragedy to the American people."
In today's New York Post, politically conservative TV writer Adam Buckman wondered whether "the liberal powers-that-be behind the series ... will use their primetime pulpit to offer a Bartlet plan for combating terrorism that will fly in the face of the tactics being adopted by the real-life Bush administration."
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the episode will begin with Martin Sheen and fellow cast members directly addressing the audience about the content of the episode, titled "Isaac and Ishmael." Details of the plot were not disclosed, but NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told AP that it would not refer specifically to the WTC and Pentagon attacks.
Executives of the major television networks appeared to agree Tuesday that
the Sept. 11th attacks will profoundly affect television programming.
Responding to a comment from ABC Entertainment co-chairman Lloyd Braun that
each of the networks is developing a western series, Jordan Levin, president
of entertainment at the WB, commented, "Any genre that allows you to deal
metaphorically with what has happened will work."
The executives, appearing
on a panel (hosted by Bill Maher) at a meeting of the Hollywood Radio and
Television Society, suggested that what may not work is the plethora
of reality series they all have in the works.
"I'm not sure people will
watch them after the current crisis," NBC Entertainment President Jeff
"I'm not sure the country is going to be as accepting of
these shows as they were in the past," Braun agreed. "I don't know that
people won't say, 'No more.'"
Jerry Zucker, who made his mark in Hollywood with the Airplane! movies is getting a bumpy ride from critics with his latest film, Rat Race. With some, he flies high. Richard Schickel in Time magazine, for example, writes that he resists going "all cosmic about an agreeably funny, well-made comedy designed for nothing grander than relief from the August heat." But, he writes, for the most part "it's a fine madness." Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times writes that the film is "the most old-fashioned, live-action comedy of the summer, and if you've seen its competition, you know that has to be a good thing." Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News gives the film four stars and concludes: "The movie is over in a breezy 112 minutes, but it may be another half-hour before your sides quit aching." Fittingly, Dave Kehr, Mathews' predecessor at the Daily News, who reportedly was fired for writing too many negative reviews, writes a perfunctorily negative review of Rat Race for the online CitySearch website. "This is one nasty movie," Kehr writes, "driven by a sadistic spirit and a complete contempt for its characters." Like most critics, Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal compares the movie -- unfavorably -- to Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy extravaganza It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. "This ripoff ... has a few funny moments," he remarks, "but it's a sad sad sad sad example of what Hollywood is currently serving up ... as summer entertainment." Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film "a true and scary dud," while Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal concludes: "Most of the movie is more obnoxious than funny with jokes that are too broad or too stale or both."
Television executives are concerned about the near collapse of ratings for television reruns this summer, which have been overtaken by game and reality shows. As Monday's New York Times observed, the executives are worried that viewers' rejection of reruns may affect the economic model for network television, that is, getting at least two runs out of every series episode each year. "We have to address it," NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker told the newspaper. "We may have to go to an economic model where second runs of some of these programs, particularly dramas, are on cable or elsewhere and not on network television in the summer. I think this is going to force a lot of thinking like that." Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment, which clobbered reruns with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire last year and thereby helped give rise to the plethora of nighttime game and reality shows this season, remarked: "We've created an expectation that didn't exist before, and it has made the job of getting the audience to watch reruns much more difficult."
Although advertisers are questioning whether NBC's summer reality shows Fear Factor and Spy TV are drawing upscale audiences, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa maintains that viewership is "consistent with the kind of audience we've had." As reported by Friday's Wall Street Journal, Sassa told reporters Thursday at the semiannual critics tour in Pasadena that, although the two shows have performed well with high-income viewers, "It is not as easy as selling The West Wing and Law & Order." NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who appeared with Sassa, and, as a joke, wore a bulletproof vest, also suggested that the two reality series appeal primarily to 18- to 34-year-olds. "I'm not sure that that segment of the audience is necessarily represented in this room," he remarked. Lisa de Moraes, the Washington Post TV critic who was present, asked Sassa how old the top execs were at NBC in Burbank, and when he replied that he didn't know, de Moraes took it upon herself to research the matter herself. In Friday's column she publishes the ages of each of the top NBC execs, noting that only one, primetimes series development chief Karey Burke, falls into the demo at age 34. The average age of the others is 45.
Following strong ratings for the debut of Spy TV last Thursday, NBC has scheduled a second weekly airing of the show, described by numerous critics as an "extreme" Candid Camera. In a statement, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said, "We've heard the viewers loud and clear, and [we] want to give them as much original comedy during the summer as we can. This is a funny show, and the viewers got that. Now they'll get even more." The series, hosted by Michael Ian Black, a regular on NBC's Ed, is produced by Endemol Entertainment, the company responsible for Big Brother and Chains of Love.
CBS CEO Les Moonves predicted Monday that the network would score its first ratings victory in the May sweeps since 1983. He particularly credited the recently completed Survivor: The Australian Outback and the new drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, both of which aired on Thursday night against NBC's ordinarily unbeatable Must-See TV lineup. "The month of May clearly demonstrates the shift in power," Moonves told reporters. But NBC quickly responded that it had won the month among adults 18-49, the demographic group most prized by advertisers. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker remarked that had it not been for the XFL ratings disaster, its numbers would have been unchanged from a year ago.
Jonathan Wald, executive producer of NBC Nightly News, has been named the new exec producer of the Today show. He replaces Jeff Zucker, who left in January to become president of NBC Entertainment and Michael Bass, who has been acting exec producer since Zucker's departure. Steve Capus, who has exec produced MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams, will replace Wald at Nightly News.
As expected, Dateline NBC exec producer Neal Shapiro has been named president of NBC News, succeeding Andrew Lack who earlier in the week was appointed NBC president and COO. "I think I'm lucky," Shapiro told the New York Daily News Thursday. "NBC News is in such a terrific position that there's nothing I need to immediately deal with. Longterm, I have to try to grow the business -- that's our biggest challenge." In a telephone news conference, Shapiro indicated that no decision had been made about his successor at Dateline, saying that an announcement would be made in the next couple of weeks. "The key word here is gradual, orderly transition," he remarked. Several publications indicated that NBC News exec David Corvo has the inside track on landing the job. Shapiro also must appoint an executive producer of the Today show, a post that was left open when Jeff Zucker was named president of NBC's entertainment division last year. Meanwhile, the New York Post, citing unnamed insiders, reported Friday that NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa may be close to getting the boot.
After initially vowing to run NBC's new quiz show The Weakest Link no more than once a week, the network's entertainment president, Jeff Zucker, said Monday that he "chickened out" and decided to air it twice a week -- on Sundays and Mondays -- beginning next season. During a telephone press conference, Zucker acknowledged that he had made the decision to get the most out of the show while he could because he had no idea what the life expectancy of Link might be. Zucker also maintained that he was not worried about reported plans by ABC to air Who Wants to Be a Millionaire opposite the Monday edition of Link. "'All I would say is we would welcome the challenge," he said. However, several analysts predicted that Link was likely to take a big hit from Millionaire. Mark Berman of Mediaweek.com predicted in an interview with the New York Post that the ABC show will come out ahead. "I think Millionaire will have the advantage over Link," he said. Referring to the hosts of the two shows, he added, "If you had to pick Regis over Anne Robinson, it's going to be Regis." But industry analyst Paul Schulman of Schulman/Advanswers told the New York Post: "It's an interesting battle, but if those two shows end up going head-to-head, they're certainly going to hurt each other."