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This week CBS executives are counting on the launch of "Survivor II" to follow the success of the series which made Richard Hatch the biggest TV star since... well Darva Conger. But who comes up with the TV shows we see? And how do they make the transition from longshot pilot to our screens? And most importantly - what will be the hot new shows we see this fall?
In search of those answers I traveled this week to Las Vegas to the television industry's annual trade show "NATPE" (National Association of Television Producers & Executives) This convention has been held in the US for the past 38 years as a marketplace where the producers, studios and distributors of programming can hang their shingle from which to shill their TV shows to prospective purchasers - who mill round glitzy stands like bargain hunters at an Arab bazaar.
It was there that I discovered a relentless campaign to bring us the ultimate dating show "Who Wants To Date A Hooters Girl?" and a frenzied effort to sell Andrew "Dice" Clay transported back in time to ancient Rome to be the talent booker for "Colosseum" (Note: Throughout this article there will appear show titles and concepts that may sound like a satirist's take on the television industry. I regret to inform you that they are all real. I don't have the imagination to invent the bizarre shows I saw pitched.)
This year's convention was almost universally pronounced as a disappointment by seasoned attendees . Attendance appeared to be reduced from previous years and there was a tangible air of gloom. The big problem has been the radical changes in the way television shows have been sold in recent years. The big market has always been in what the industry refers to as "syndicated" product. Those are the shows such as "Wheel Of Fortune," "Jeopardy" and "Oprah." While the big networks make or acquire programs for the primetime of 8pm-11pm - there are many lucrative additional hours to fill on a 24 hour TV schedule. The talk shows, game shows and dating games that proliferate in daytime and late-night. And there used to be a large number of local independent TV stations hungry for product.
That's all changed. The original big three networks of ABC, CBS and NBC have become six with the addition of Fox, UPN and WB - which has sharply reduced the number of independent stations in the hunt for shows. And those local stations that aren't part of the six networks are now less likely to be independently owned. They are usually part of massive media conglomerates. So where show buying was once done on a city-by-city, station-by-station basis - acquisition decisions are now primarily made by a few high-powered centralized buyers. And they certainly don't need to travel to an annual market to make those purchases.
But the trade show carries on anyway - transmuted into a place where the big companies simply promote their assets to the industry - and search for additional sales to international buyers and new media such as the Internet.
"Miami Vice" lives!
So one wanders around two vast convention halls which resemble aircraft hangars decorated by a team of demented TV junkies. There are massive stands taken by the major TV producers such as Paramount, Columbia, Warner Bros. etc. - and these boast massive billboards of their stars. There are talk-show hosts flashing blindingly-white capped teeth and hopeful slogans such as "cleared in 80% of the country" ("cleared" means sold - and loosely translated the sign challenges the other 20% to jump on the bandwagon.) Also looming are giant images of refurbished game shows from the '60s, complete with refurbished game show hosts. The three keys to making-over an aging game show host seem to be a deep tan, heavy airbrushing round the jowls and removing that fuddy-duddy tie and sports coat and replacing it with a "modern-look" tee-shirt and dark jacket. (If that seems a touch "Miami Vice" - it's intentional. Most TV game shows operate in a time-lag land that is exactly 15 years behind the real world.)
These stands are slickly-run machines dispensing food, drink and hype in equal doses. The most popular stand to visit is easily Columbia-TriStar (owned by Sony.) Perhaps visitors are attracted by a chance to buy "Pyramid" starring Donny Osmond. Perhaps its the gourmet food on tap daily from Wolfgang Puck who personally serves guests his signature pizzas - and simultaneously adds his signature to a free copy of his latest recipe book. (Rival celebrity chef Emeril couldn't serve food on this stand as he usually does one of the convention days every year because he was "busy shooting his TV show" - an occupational hazard for cooks these days.)
Paramount is traditionally tighter with its entertainment budget and it only dispenses hot dogs as it pitches "Hot Ticket" its new show featuring film critic Leonard Maltin. "It's Siskel & Ebert meets Politically Incorrect" offers a helpful sales rep "would you like some chili on your dog?" It's an irresistible offer and I go for the chili. I feel guilty that I'm unable to buy the show.
All erotic - all the time
Nestled around the big stands are a slew of small time operators and hopefuls. They don't have the budgets to match the big boys - so they have to promote their wares in ways that resemble used car lots and low-rent circuses. Some stands have bikini-clad girls draped over cut-outs of show stars as though they were the latest Ford Thunderbird (though some are undoubtedly Edsels.) Other stands touting wildlife programs offered you the exciting opportunity to be photographed with a small mammal and a show host - usually clad in what looked like a jungle outfit from The Gap.
It is on those smaller stands operated by independents and visitors from overseas that one encounters the rarer delights of TV programming. Such as Surrender Productions' "Flesh TV."
Allow me to quote from the promotional blurb: "Jenna and Gina - two sexy sisters - and the daughters of a wealthy entrepreneur - decide that television programming is their true calling. So with daddy's bank check they take over a fledgling public access channel, uplink it to a satellite and turn it into Flesh TV. All erotic. All the time." By the time I leave on Thursday they had surprisingly still not sold their show. I figure that the blurb was too intellectual. It should have just said: "Wayne's World - but with two hot chicks running a porno channel." Buyers are funny that way.
An L.A.-based company called PowerSports-PowerDocs offered me an intriguing package of three shows. "Bugvaders" is a state-of-the-art computer animated series about a swarm of giant mutant insects trying to take over Earth "at the dawn of the 21st century." (I am alarmed to realize that we already are at the dawn of the century. Fortunately these bugs don't arrive till 2005 - and they are thwarted in their attempt at world domination by the "Verminators.") The company also offers a documentary series about prostitutes - coyly titled "Ladies Of The Night" - though the promotional poster makes them look like convent girls. And it may have been that chaste image that enticed the host of the third show to team up with this company. No lesser soul than Deepak Chopra hosts a show called "How To Know God." Or perhaps the spiritual guru was impressed with another of the company's offerings - "Hardcore Crashes" ("fuel-injected carnage... caught on video.")
Those not enticed by Tokyo Broadcasting's "Muscle Ranking" in which the world's leading body builders do disgusting things (including "sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups") to prove their strength - might instead opt for "Single Girls" a reality series from Australia in which four successful career girls go on the prowl for four Mr. Right's - from a luxury penthouse helpfully provided by the TV production company.
Reality won't be what it used to be
So-called "reality" shows are of course big now - though when I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on TV's future hosted by top Hollywood TV agent Pat Quinn - I heard several warnings from the industry experts. "Reality isn't what it used to be" said one producer. (I suspect that he's right. Reality didn't used to include 16 telegenic kids with firm abs and multiple camera crews filming them 24/7 for two months as they fight to make a million dollars and get signed up for sponsorship deals.) But another expert offers reassuring words for those of us concerned about the future of life on our planet. "I think reality's going to be a round for a long time." (Whew!)
After the inhabitants of the mini-booths come the convention's real bottom-feeders. Wandering the convention halls alongside the buyers are hustlers who can't afford a booth - but who attend to pitch their wares. I encounter a wild-dressed Rod Stewart lookalike in imitation snakeskin pants and a boating hat. Velcroed to his arm is a drop-dead gorgeous, svelte young Asian girl poured into a minuscule shiny black rubber dress that almost obscures some of her body. He introduces himself as "Flashman" (though when I encounter him a few hours and several beers later he 'fesses up to being Michael Schwartz from New York.) His young charge is called "Mirage" and she is apparently a big star on a women's wrestling program called "Thunderbox." Or she would be if only he could get them to sign the contract. Pending this, he is on the prowl to get her "exposed."
Maury Povich gets mauled
I follow this odd couple's progress for a few minutes. Flashman trawls Mirage with him to the Studios USA stand (formerly Universal TV.) There Flashman spots Maury Povich posing for cameras and offering pithy soundbites about the art of TV. Flashman sees the opportunity. He pushes Mirage towards the leathery-faced host and bellows out "Hey Maury! You like Asian women - whatcha think of her?!" Povich, who is, of course, married to TV anchor Connie Chung, shudders and moves away as rapidly as he can. I ask Flashman if his approach had perhaps lacked subtlety. "You gotta hustle in this business" he explains to me.
After a couple of days wandering the show, and incidents like this, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. You encounter folks such as Carole Lieberman - self-styled "Media Psychiatrist." Clearly aiming at the Dr. Laura market she is touting several "reality" programs including "Dr. Carole's Couch" in which "you're a fly on the wall watching real therapy." She proudly announces that her patients include "faces from hit television shows "Survivor" "Big Brother" and "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?" It's a relief to know that people from reality shows can have a soft-landing back to real reality by appearing on a show with a reality shrink.
A tough sale
One's heart aches for forty-something Susan Russell from Chicago who has spent a small fortune taking a booth to sell her public access show "Expose" in which she "interviews celebrities while dressed in go-go boots, short skirt and Flashdance-homage crop-top." Billing herself as " a hot blonde with a Masters degree and a mini-skirt" she explains that her "groupie girl wardrobe" belies her intellect. I peruse the list of "stars" she has interviewed so far and recognize just one. Kevin Cronin - lead singer of REO Speedwagon - who last had a hit in 1982. This show will be a tough sale.
After hours the better-funded show producers tap into the delights of Vegas by hosting ritzy parties for the would-be buyers. I attend one bash given by Pearson TV at the MGM-Grand Hotel's reincarnation of Studio 54. The distributor thoughtfully provides a shuttle bus to take guests from the Las Vegas Convention Center to the hotel. However as one boards the bus one is greeted by a stand-up comic who introduces himself as "your bus comedian." Evidently the studio were fearful that travelers might not survive the 6-minute bus ride without entertainment. It's not an easy gig for the comedian - but he manages to make it worse. On my bus he elicits the fact that most of the travelers are buyers from Chile, France and Cleveland. Plus a few showgirls in feather head-dresses sent to keep the guests happy. However he is undoubtedly the worst comedian of all time. The bus trip seems to last for hours and the guests tumble out swiftly in relief. Matched only by the comedian's relief that his embarrassing gig is over. "They paid me" he offers by way of mitigation.
Inside the party is a rugger-scrum full of polyester-suited local TV buyers eying the go-go dancers and the stars of the Pearson shows. The entire party seems designed to be one of those occasional corrections of global history. This ersatz Studio 54 is filled with exactly the people who were always refused entry in the real Studio 54. John O"Hurley (Mr. Peterman from "Seinfeld") bravely emcees the stage presentation - touting his own show "To Tell The Truth" and bringing on cast-mates such as Paula Poundstone - and Louie Anderson who is the host of another Pearson show "Family Feud." It is a tough crowd. The guests are there to booze and party. Afterwards I chat with Paula Poundstone about her seemingly uncomfortable experience on stage - and I happen to mention my earlier encounter with the bus comedian. "So there WAS a worse gig in Vegas tonight!" she chortles. In truth the stars know that these parties are all part of the promotional game. Even an inattentive audience at least goes home knowing that it has seen the stars.
Shooters with the Hooters
On the last main night of the convention I go to a party thrown by Lion's Gate Productions to boost its big hopeful - "Who Wants To Date A Hooters Girl?" The promotional literature proudly announces that it is "the only branded dating show in television." By this it means that it hopes to tap into the huge patronage of America's Hooters restaurants. To boost sales of the show (sample segments: "Stud or Dud?" "Know Your Hooters") the producers have shipped in a clubload of the identically-clad gals from the Vegas branch. In the course of my investigation I chat to several of these girls in their tangerine hotpants and tight white crop-tops - which bear the legend "Delightfully tacky yet unrefined." (Tough work, but I can take it).
Did they feel demeaned by the TV show? "No way!" explained 24-year old Julie Luste from New York. Her three-year employment at Hooters has paid for her to earn a BA in Psychology (albeit from the University of Nevada) and she can't wait to be on the TV show. He view was shared by 27-year-old Amy McNair who has ambitions to travel - and feels that the show could give her a leg up in this goal.
And maybe it will. Though there didn't seem to be too many show buyers there, the girls did catch the attention of a representative from a respected Hollywood talent firm. Chris Coelen - an agent at top notch United Talent Agency (clients include Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Barry Levinson and Charlize Theron) was most enthused by the ladies. He danced energetically with Amy and assured her that if she appeared on the Hooters TV show - he would be willing to try and get her a hosting slot on the Travel Channel.
As the agent smoothly charmed the young ladies and posed for photographs with his prospective new clients I felt I had now seen enough of Vegas, the Hooter girls and the entire TV industry. Though as I was leaving I did suddenly get an idea for a show. "Who Wants To Date A Hollywood Agent?" Now all I have to do is find a TV packager and come back to the convention next year to pitch it. It can't miss. As long as I can get Wolfgang Puck to cater my booth and I avoid hiring a bus comedian to accompany buyers to the launch party...