Sunday, August 3, 2003

America thinks lists are tops

Influenced by TV and magazines, we've become obsessed with countdowns

By Gil Kaufman
Enquirer contributor

Everyone makes lists: grocery lists, to do lists, questions to ask the pediatrician. Chances are your crumpled-up lists don't count off the most outrageous vacation spots in the world, or include names like J.Lo, Jennifer Aniston and Tobey Maguire

For those kinds of tabulations we turn to places such as Entertainment Weekly, VH1 and E! Television, which lately have turned list making into a national obsession.

Whether its counting down the sexiest stars, hottest places to live, best desserts or most outrageous pop culture moments, the countdown list has become a surefire way to elicit Survivor-like water cooler conversation, not to mention an easy ratings and newsstand booster.

With new list programs popping up almost weekly, the countdown is fast becoming the next reality craze.

"It's popcorn, the red meat of entertainment junkies," said Peter Bonventre, editorial director of Entertainment Weekly, which has made list issues a staple of its pages for more than a decade.

From the annual "IT list" to last year's "100 Greatest Moments Snubbed By Oscar," EW long ago figured out that lists are fun for readers, and, more importantly, they spark a lot of debate.

"People respond in a visceral way," Bonventre said. "They share it with friends and debate them. Plus, we really enjoy doing them."

Last month, the magazine was flooded with hundreds of letters when it ran a list of the greatest cult films of all time (No. 1 This is Spinal Tap). The letters were so passionate that EW ran a second list of movies that readers insisted should have been on the list to begin with (No. 1 Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Hyde Park's L.V. Semona said he's hooked.

"It's like a train wreck - once you flip it on, you have to watch," said Semona, co-founder of Advertising Vehicles. "I'll watch one of these countdowns before I get wrapped up in a reality show because I know I won't watch a show every week, but if I can get that gratification in a half hour, then I'm done."

Though programmers and editors are acting like it, countdowns are not new. They have been around in one form or another for decades, from Casey Kasem's weekly top 40 radio showcase to author Irving Wallace's 1977 The Book of Lists and David Letterman's nightly Top 10.

But the explosion of more irreverent, "event" countdowns mirrors the increase in the circulation of weekly tabloids such as Us and In Touch, a desire to find refuge from the troubling news of the world and a general blurring of the line between editorial and entertainment, according to New Yorker magazine media writer, Ken Auletta.

Gossip becomes fact

"You can be much more opinionated and freer in your editorial comments on these shows (and print pieces) than you can when you're reporting something for a news piece," said Auletta. "It's an invitation to use gossip as fact because when you talk about the '100 Most Powerful' or 'Most Beautiful,' it's not provable in any way."

More importantly, Auletta thinks that in a world saturated with hundreds of cable channels, the Internet and a constant stream of information from all sides, lists offer nice, bite-sized bits of information that are easy to digest and a quick sell, thanks to their outrageous titles or subjects.

Outrageous was exactly what the folks at E! had in mind when on July 13 they unveiled the 101 Most Shocking Moments in Entertainment (No. 1 O.J. Simpson trial). The five-night special was an offshoot of an established E! list series, Rank, which counts down everything from the sexiest male stars to the scariest movies.

Not surprisingly, 101 helped deliver the biggest weekly ratings in the channel's history in its key 18-49 demographic, according to series executive producer Betsy Rott.

The ratings bonanza guarantees that you will see another 101 countdown on E! in October, and possibly another as soon as December, according to Rott, who wouldn't reveal the topics for fear of having them poached by a competitor.

Lists have not only become tentpole events for established networks, but they are also being used to launch new ones. When the National Network relaunched on June 30, the first network aimed specifically at men did so with, what else, a one-hour show called 100 Most Irresistible Women.

The countdown (which will be repeated on the station's official relaunch on Aug. 11) was hosted by rapper Ice-T and included everyone from model Laeticia Casta (No. 97), to Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell (No. 85), actresses Marisa Tomei (No. 68), Michelle Pfeiffer (No. 55), Heather Graham (No. 46) and Jada Pinkett-Smith (No. 35), tennis champ Serena Williams (No. 6) and top vote-getter, Halle Berry. The show was a smash for the fledgling network, earning a 2 rating, according to spokesperson Debra Fazio.

The National Network already has a follow-up to the Irresistible Women countdown in the works for 2004. Top 10 Things Every Guy Should Experience will air between shows and feature the network's experts counting down the top sporting events men should experience once in their lifetime. Viewers will then be picked to attend each event and report back to the network.

At VH1, when producers of the recent 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons (No. 1 Oprah Winfrey) began compiling names for what they thought would be a top 100 special eight months ago, they found themselves with more than 600 options.

"It quickly became clear to us that the world of pop culture yearned for a bigger list," said Robert Weiss, executive producer.

An emotional connection

"Our society is fascinated with famous people and when you add a sense of competition, there's an emotional connection there to the real people and the fictional characters on the list that is irresistible."

Yet, despite strong ratings, Weiss said the pop icons show may signal a tapering off of the torrent of countdown shows for VH1 in light of the proliferation of copycat offerings from competitors.

Upcoming list shows

No one, it seems, is immune to countdown fever. Even the Food Network is in on the action, with a show debuted last fall called Top 5. Hosted by Bobby Rivers, the three times a week program recently ranked everything from Food Fads of the '60s to Deep Fried Treats. Some others:

Five Perfect Summer Parties (Noon today, Fine Living channel)

The Ten Most Amazing Homes, which includes a high-tech, 27,000 square foot English manor in Carmel, Ind. (9 p.m. today, HGTV)

100 Greatest Songs of Country Music (twice nightly on Wednesday and Thursday) with an all-star concert on Friday.

America's Dream 18: The Front Nine, and The Back Nine, featuring commentary from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Vijay Singh. (Aug. 16 and 17, Fine Living)

Top 10 Most Beautiful Homes (Aug. 24, HGTV)

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