If it was death that kept "ER" at the top of the primetime ratings heap for the third consecutive week, it was life -- after a close call with the grim reaper -- that brought record ratings to David Letterman's "Late Show" on Monday.
While "ER" once again managed to fend off "Millionaire" mania, perhaps with a little help from Fox's Romanesque "Multimillionaire" debacle, the return of Letterman to late night had America tuned in, if only for now.
Letterman drew a 9.3 preliminary overnight rating -- some 19 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research -- as he walked on stage at New York's Ed Sullivan Theatre to host the show for the first time since he underwent open-heart surgery five weeks ago. (The show, broadcast Monday, was taped last Friday.) Letterman's brush with death delivered his third-biggest audience since his 1993 CBS debut. Even the self-proclaimed King of All Media, CBS's own Howard Stern, wasn't enough to spare Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" on NBC. With the bankable Stern making his first appearance on the "Tonight Show" in three years, Letterman still buried Leno. In the nation's 47 biggest markets, Letterman trounced his late-night rival by an unheard-of 98 percent.
So, CBS had its Monday, and NBC will always have its bloody Thursday. Last week's stabbed-dying-and-dead storyline on "ER" (the second in a two-part saga) fueled the show to an impressive 25.0 rating. (Each rating point represents a little more than 1 million TV homes.)
The expected death of Kellie Martin's popular "ER" character kept the show at No. 1 and floating above "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- though ABC's tribute to our darker impulses remained entrenched in the Top Five, nabbing the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 spots last week.
While the stampede is on for "Millionaire"-like shows, Fox rode its train wreck of a seven-figure special into the Top 20. At No. 17, "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire [And Then Quickly Have It Annulled Just to Show Us You're Not a Complete Idiot]" caught the attention of 16 million viewers -- many of whom were just the type of folks you'd think would be outraged by this kind of thing, namely women ages 18 to 34.
"A lot of women want to marry someone rich," one female commentator told Newsweek. (Really? Well that explains it then.)
Since the gag is up and groom Rick Rockwell's restraining order is out, Fox says it's out of the nuptial-exploitation trade -- presumably until it realizes some desperate people out there will allow the network to video the honeymoon, as well.
Overall, ABC narrowly bested NBC for the weekly ratings crown. CBS ran third. NBC placed the most shows in the Top 10. In addition to "ER," it had the reliable "Friends" (No. 5) and double-barrel postings by both "Frasier" (No. 6 and 9) and "Law & Order" (No. 8 and 10).
Minus "Multimillionaire," Fox barely cracked the Top 20. Meanwhile, network wannabes UPN and the WB remained firmly in the middle of nowhere. Consider that "7th Heaven" was the WB's highest-charting show -- at a scorching No. 82, which meant it was tied with the UPN's progressive "WWF Smackdown."
Here's a complete rundown of the Top 10 for the TV week of Feb. 14-20, according to statistics compiled by Nielsen Media Research:
1. "ER," NBC 2. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Sun.), ABC 3. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Thurs.), ABC 4. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Tues.), ABC 5. "Friends," NBC 6. "Frasier," NBC 7. "The Practice," ABC 8. "Law & Order," (special) NBC 9. "Frasier," (special) NBC 10. "Law & Order," NBC
For better or for worse, Charlie Sheen will be stepping into Michael J. Fox's office on the set of ABC's "Spin City."
Charlie Sheen At least that's what today's trade papers say. According to the reports, the 34-year-old former bad-boy actor has signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal to replace Fox, who last month announced he was leaving at the end of the season to spend more time on his battle with Parkinson's disease. An ABC publicist could not be reached for confirmation of the deal.
Sheen reportedly will receive around $125,000 per episode, which is healthy but not extravagant by television-star standards. Production also will shift from New York to Los Angeles per Sheen's request, industry insiders familiar with the terms of Sheen's pact tell Daily Variety.
Thus ends a courting dance that had the Sheen camp as late as a couple of weeks ago saying the actor wasn't sure he wanted to do "Spin City" -- apparently afraid he'd get pinned with the blame if the show tanks next season. It's amazing what a little money and promised primetime exposure can do for one's comfort zone.
The political-minded "Spin City," which debuted in 1996, currently stars Fox as the deputy mayor of New York City. The actor doubles as executive producer and is considered its anchor. For the season to date, the show -- ranked No. 38 -- is ABC's third-highest-rated comedy after "Dharma & Greg" and "The Drew Carey Show."
Despite the show's stability, Fox's stunning departure announcement threw the future of the show in doubt. (But only briefly. TV networks have a long history of never canceling anything, for any reason, if the thing gets decent ratings. Witness the final, Shirley-free season of "Laverne & Shirley.")
For Sheen, the "Spin City" gig could cement his return from the dark side. After a promising debut in the mid-1980s, Sheen's personal demons began overshadowing his career. Along with his infamous link to Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, Sheen's greatest hits include a six-month marriage and repeated arrests for battery and drug use. While a 1996 guest appearance on NBC's "Friends" was well-received, he continued to appear in a string of box-office bombs like "The Arrival" and "The Shadow Conspiracy." Finally, a drug overdose landed him in the hospital, then jail in 1998.
Sheen re-emerged at this year's Sundance Film Festival with "Rated X," which is not about his escapades with Fleiss' call girls but a Showtime biopic about the porn industry. (Brother Emilio Estevez directed and serves as Sheen's co-star).
While the "Spin City" thing looks like a good career move for Sheen, it also sets up an interesting family dynamic for the actor. The sitcom currently airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. -- opposite NBC's "The West Wing," which stars Sheen's father, Martin Sheen.
Let the fireworks begin.
REGIS' MILLIONS? Seeing all that cash around must make "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" host Regis Philbin a little antsy. He's letting it slip that he'd like a slice of the profitable pie.
On Monday's "Late Show With David Letterman" (Dave's first since heart surgery), Philbin was asked by the host: "How's your little quiz show doing? Are you making a lot of dough?"
Philbin replied, "No, I'm not." Undeterred, Letterman asked, "Those pantywaists at ABC are not paying you what you're worth?"
"I don't think so," Philbin said, then reportedly changed the subject back to Letterman's recent bypass operation.
Before "Millionaire" became a regular series and bulldozed everything but NBC's "ER" to top the Nielsen ratings, Philbin said he had signed a five-year contract to be host. He said he had not sought to renegotiate with ABC. Obviously, that's not his final answer.
SANTA MONICA, Calif., Feb. 9, 2000 -- The infectious bug that has been plaguing TV series of late -- you know, the "I feel that my time with the show is up and I've decided to move on" epidemic -- has claimed another victim.
The latest casualty is none other than "Veronica's Closet's" Kathy Najimy. Trade papers report today that the actress, who plays Olive, Veronica's (Kirstie Alley) trusted sidekick and confidant, will bid farewell to the NBC comedy at the end of this season.
Najimy tells Variety that her decision to leave the show is based purely on personal reasons. With "Veronica's Closet" behind, Najimy reportedly plans to spend more time with her 3-year-old daughter, not to mention more of the same said time on a would-be "feature career."
Of course, the concept of "leaving" "Veronica's Closet" might become a moot point. The unbeloved comedy series, now in its third season, was already benched once this season by NBC for low ratings. It is currently mired in 85th place among all shows and is considered a long shot for fall renewal.
SUPERHERO SAVES FOX: Patrick Warburton, the guy who played Elaine's mechanic beau Dave Puddy on "Seinfeld," will return to the tube in the form of a blue superhero in the Fox comedy pilot "The Tick."
Once a Saturday morning toon on Fox, "The Tick" follows the adventures of a dim-witted crime fighter and his ex-accountant sidekick as they battle bad guys with names such as Chairface Chippendale, El Seed and Breadmaster.
The new live-action half-hour pilot will be directed by the enthusiastic Barry Sonnenfeld ("Wild Wild West").
"I've been a huge fan of 'The Tick' for years," Sonnenfeld told the Hollywood trade papers. "I like it even more than my 6-year-old daughter. It's really up my alley. It doesn't feel like anything on television today."
(Let us guess -- Mr. Sonnenfeld doesn't have cable.)
Warburton, meanwhile, has handled superhero duties prior to "The Tick." Dig this, "Seinfeld" fiends, the actor was the voice of Superman in those American Express commercials starring Jerry Seinfeld.
'LEEZA' IS DEAD: No, not Leeza Gibbons, but her fast-sinking eponymous talk show. Cause of its likely death? Ultra-bad ratings.
Word on the street is that "Leeza" will not live to see a second season in syndication.
The daytime talk show went through various transformation and network shuffles in its (technically) 7-year history. It was first conceived by NBC in 1993 as "John & Leeza," the John, of course, being Gibbons' "Entertainment Tonight" co-hort John Tesh. The show downsized to simply "Leeza" in 1994 when the above-mentioned Tesh bailed. In September, NBC decided to sell the show to non-NBC outlets, thereby banishing the show to syndication.
"LIP" SERVICE: Oscar- and Emmy-winning director-producer James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "As Good As It Gets," "Jerry Maguire") is set to endow the tube with a live-action romantic comedy series for ABC.
The comedy, still untitled, will be based on a character from the 1988 radio series "Lip Schtick." Joan Cusack, whom Brooks collaborated with on the 1987 flick "Broadcast News," will stake the title role.
Slated for a slot in ABC's 2000-2001 lineup, the show will mark Cusack's prime-time debut and Brook's first TV gig since his stint as the executive producer of the animated series "The Critic" in 1994.
RANDOM BITS: NBC has picked up a half-hour comedy pilot starring David Alan Grier ("In Living Color"). Grier is slated to play a Secret Service man in charge of protecting the first lady. ...
... CBS has greenlit a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor") drama pilot for the new fall season. The project is said to be an hour-long drama called "CSI." Starring William Petersen, the series revolves around forensic crime-scene investigators working in Vegas. ...
THE COURT OF POPULAR OPINION: Democracy sometimes flourishes in the most unlikely places, just ask Judge Judy -- one of the many, many finalists chosen by TV viewers of America for the 2nd Annual TV Guide Awards.
More than 1.5 million viewers cast ballots to determine nominees in 22 categories. NBC led all networks in mentions with 20 finalists. Winners will be announced March 5 in a Fox broadcast.
Here's the complete list of the TV Guide Award nominees, as announced today:
Favorite Actor in a New Series David Boreanaz, "Angel" (WB) Billy Campbell, "Once and Again" (ABC) Dan Futterman, "Judging Amy" (CBS) Martin Sheen, "The West Wing" (NBC)
Favorite Actress in a New Series Amy Brenneman, "Judging Amy" (CBS) Tyne Daly, "Judging Amy" (CBS) Mariska Hargitay, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC) Sela Ward, "Once and Again" (ABC)
Favorite Actor in a Comedy Bill Cosby, "Cosby" (CBS) Michael J. Fox, "Spin City" (ABC) David Hyde Pierce, "Frasier" (NBC) Ray Romano, "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS)
Favorite Actress in a Comedy Jenna Elfman, "Dharma & Greg" (ABC) Calista Flockhart, "Ally McBeal" (FOX) Lisa Kudrow, "Friends" (NBC) Phylicia Rashad, "Cosby" (CBS)
Favorite Actor in a Drama David Duchovny, "The X-Files" (FOX) David James Elliott, "JAG" (CBS) Dennis Franz, "NYPD Blue" (ABC) Sam Waterston, "Law & Order" (NBC)
Favorite Actress in a Drama Gillian Anderson, "The X-Files" (FOX) Roma Downey, "Touched by an Angel" (CBS) Melina Kanakaredes, "Providence" (NBC) Julianna Margulies, "ER" (NBC)
Favorite New Series "Judging Amy" (CBS) "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC) "Once and Again" (ABC) "The West Wing" (NBC)
Favorite Comedy Series "Ally McBeal" (FOX) "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS) "Frasier" (NBC) "Friends" (NBC)
Favorite Drama Series "ER" (NBC) "Providence" (NBC) "The Practice" (ABC) "Touched by an Angel" (CBS)
Favorite Soap Opera "All My Children" (ABC) "Days of Our Lives" (NBC) "General Hospital" (ABC) "The Young and the Restless" (CBS)
Favorite Sportscaster Terry Bradshaw (FOX) Bob Costas (NBC) Howie Long (FOX) John Madden (FOX)
Favorite Daytime Talk Show "Judge Judy" (Syndicated) "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" (Syndicated) "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (Syndicated) "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" (Syndicated)
Favorite Game Show "Hollywood Squares" (Syndicated) "Jeopardy!" (Syndicated) "Wheel of Fortune" (Syndicated) "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (ABC)
Favorite News Personality Tom Brokaw (NBC) Katie Couric (NBC) Peter Jennings (ABC) Matt Lauer (NBC)
Favorite Late Night Show "Late Show With David Letterman" (CBS) "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" (ABC) "Saturday Night Live" (NBC) "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (NBC)
ONLINE NOMINEES Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (WB) "Charmed" (WB) "The X-Files" (FOX)
Favorite Reality TV "Biography" (A&E) "Behind the Music" (VH1) "The Real World" (MTV)
Favorite TV Pet Eddie, "Frasier" (NBC) Happy, "7th Heaven" (WB) Salem, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" (ABC)
Favorite TV Movie or Miniseries "Annie" (ABC) "Joan of Arc" (NBC) "Tuesdays with Morrie" (ABC)
Favorite News Program "Dateline NBC" (NBC) "Entertainment Tonight" (Syndicated) "20/20" (ABC)
Favorite Music Show "Behind the Music" (VH1) "Total Request Live" (MTV) "Pop-Up Video" (VH1)
Favorite Children's Show "Blue's Clues" (Nickelodeon) "Rugrats" (Nickelodeon) "Sesame Street" (PBS)
AOL KEYWORD: TV GUIDE EXCLUSIVE CATEGORY
Favorite Teen Show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (WB) "Dawson's Creek" (WB) "Popular" (WB)