Monday, May 21, 2001

The year that was in TV

We watched reality shows and heard about hanging chads, and the weakest links didn't survive

        Another year down the tubes. A TV year that will be remembered as the season of Kentucky Joe, hanging chads, Dr. Laura, Jackass and the Weakest Link.

        Before the 2000-01 TV season officially ends Wednesday, with the culmination of May sweeps, let's rewind the tape and look back at the not-too-memorable moments.

        Many of these were the weakest links. Goodbye!

        Big flops: The biggest names had the biggest flops in the 2000-01 TV year: The Michael Richards Show; The Geena Davis Show; Bette Midler (Bette); John Goodman (Normal, Ohio); Christine Baranski (Welcome to New York);Delta Burke and David Alan Grier (DAG).

        Will Richard Dreyfuss, Sally Field, Reba McEntire, Emeril Lagasse or Seinfeld veteransJason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have better luck next season?

        Not a trace: Nobody looking at the evidence last fall guessed that the hottest new drama would be CBS' C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation starring William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger (and produced by Loveland's Ann Donahue).

        CBS also had the surprise hit sitcom: Yes, Dear, starring Mike O'Malley, whose self-titled NBC sitcom was the first show canceled the previous fall.

        Down under: NBC had to give away free commercials to Summer Olympics advertisers when ratings for the Sydney games failed to meet the network's guarantee. NBC's telecasts drew the lowest Olympics ratings since 1968, tumbling 36 percent from the 1996 Atlanta games.

        It wasn't a championship season for TV sports — with record low World Series ratings and a near low for Super Bowl XXXV. But those numbers looked huge compared to the miniscule audience for the XFL, which gave NBC its lowest-rated Saturday night in history.

        As the chad turns: The fall's longest-running soap opera was the presidential election recount in Florida. Reporters whose overnight trip to Tallahassee turned into a six-week assignment became overnight celebrities. Elder High School graduate Bill Hemmer was dubbed CNN's “Chad Lad” — and rewarded with a prime-time job as host of CNN Tonight (10 p.m.) before George W. Bush was sworn into office.

        Rather nutty: Election night was rather remarkable for another reason: Dan Rather's wacky Texas expressions, or “Dan-isms,” as they're called. Mr. Rather told viewers that the “ding-dong battle” between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore was “as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford.” So “don't bet the trailer money on it.”

        Oh, doctor: Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio popularity didn't translate to television. Her Dr. Laura daytime talk show was canceled before Christmas. A loud protest by gays, offended by her homosexuality remarks, scared off most major advertisers, including Procter & Gamble. P&G withdrew as a co-producer and sponsor before her TV debut.

        Missing in action: In each of the past three years, Fox has announced a fall TV series that never aired. But Fox hit an all-time low this season with two phantom fall series — a Robert Schimmel sitcom and an anthology called Night Visions, plus a midseason drama never written by Michael Crichton (ER, Jurassic Park). For the record, Fox failed to air Rewind (1997-98), Hollyweird (1998-99) and Manchester Prep (1999-2000). Will the streak continue next season?

        TV's new reality: Our insatiable appetite for reality and game shows changed the TV picture this year. Survivor: The Australian Outback, the No. 1 series this season, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire (No. 3, 4 and 6) spawned such imitators as Temptation Island (No. 15), Weakest Link (No. 33), The Mole (No. 37) and Boot Camp (No. 49).

        More are coming: The Amazing Race, The Runner, Fear Factor, Lost in the USA, Big Brother 2, The Mole II and Survivor 3.

        Call me “Mister”: Paramount Television announced on Feb. 9 that Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as Star Trek's “infamous Dr. Spock,” would tape an episode of Ted Danson's Becker sitcom. Hours later Paramount sent out an advisory saying that “all references of "Dr. Spock' should read "Mr. Spock'.”

        Stupid human tricks: David Letterman had two more reasons to poke fun at CBS Television President Les Moonves. CBS rejected Mr. Letterman's light-hearted Ed series,which NBC has renewed for a second season. Instead Mr. Moonves put on Mr. Letterman's Welcome to New York sitcom about an Indiana weatherman — then canceled it in February.

        It's TV, not reality: Now we know why Survivor creator Mark Burnett calls his show “unscripted drama,” not “reality” TV. The producer admitted in early May that he faked scenes in Survivor: The Australian Outback. Helicopter aerial shots of Survivors swimming across a river were done with “body doubles” after cast members left the area, so viewers wouldn't see camera and sound crews filming close-ups.

        Mr. Burnett also was sued in February by Stacey Stillman, a contestant in last summer's Survivor, who claims the producer rigged the results to have her voted off so that Rudy Boesch could stay in the game. CBS and Mr. Burnett have countersued.

        Up and Downey: Robert Downey Jr. won Ally McBeal's heart — and millions of fans — then lost his job after drug possession and probation violation charges in November and April.

        A regular Joe: The oldest contestant on Survivor: The Australian Outback — 53-year-old Grant County High School industrial arts teacher Rodger Bingham — did better than many players half his age. Mr. Bingham, dubbed “Kentucky Joe” by teammates, lasted 36 of 42 days, becoming the 12th of 16 people voted out of the game. (And he didn't break his collar bone, as reported by the New York Post.) “To finish No. 5 out of 49,000 applicants is not too bad,” he says. Not bad at all.

        Cable Nudes Network: Two months after original anchor Bernard Shaw retired, CNN hired former NYPD Blue star Andrea Thompson as a CNN Headline News anchor. Within a week, nude photos of the actress were posted on the Internet. That was never a problem for Mr. Shaw.

        Who's the jackass?: Inspired by MTV's Jackass daredevils, two Northern Kentucky teens were charged with felonies in April for videotaping a 16-year-old Independence boy trying to jump over an oncoming Honda. Reebok swiftly pulled a commercial showing NBA star Steve Francis leaping over a car; a Kenton County judge pulled the drivers' licenses of four teens involved with the incident for a year. The kids' car-jumping video got more exposure on the national networks than anything on MTV's Jackass.

        The tribe has spoken: CBS' Survivor and CSI; Crime Scene Investigation became Thursday's “Must See TV” this year, beating NBC's Friends and Will & Grace. The May 3 Survivor reunion show, following the live broadcast naming Knoxville nurse Tina Wesson the $1 million winner, was the first program to beat an original ER since 1994.

        Passages: The 2000-01 TV season also will be remembered as the year Star Trek: Voyager and 3rd Rock from the Sun ceased to orbit ... That Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger), Kim Delaney and James McDaniel (NYPD Blue) turned in their badges ... Angie Harmon declared a recess from Law & Order ... and UPN stole Buffy the Vampire Slayer from rival WB.

        The networks last week also pulled the plug on Dick Van Dyke's Diagnosis Murder, Don Johnson's Nash Bridges, Andre Braugher's Gideon's Crossing; Norm Macdonald's Norm; and The Fugitive.

        One down, one to go: In a surprise announcement May 4, the Writers Guild of America announced a settlement with the TV studios and networks four days after the contract expired. The news guaranteed that fall drama and comedy scripts would be written — but the shows won't go on if Screen Actors Guild members strike when their contract expires June 30.

        Stay tuned.

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