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Scraping the bottom of the TV barrel

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 10, 2002

The dog days of summer are never a pretty time for network TV; once a wasteland of reruns and "burn off" episodes of already canceled series, it's now a haven for cheapie reality TV shows calibrated to draw young eyeballs, and gussied up news specials.

There's a word for this: pandering.

And there are no two shows this summer that will embody that trend better than CBS's Big Brother 3, which starts at 9 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10 (it also airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays) and Fox's newsmagazine The Pulse, which debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

In Big Brother's case, that means hiring an award-winning documentarian (Scared Straight's Arnold Shapiro) to turn cabin fever into a game show.

The drill is familiar: Twelve strangers move into a makeshift house on a CBS studio lot crammed with 38 cameras and 62 microphones, surrendering their privacy for a chance to win $500,000 and a brief burst of fame.

Like last year, "houseguests" will vote one person out each Thursday. Early Show newsreader Julie Chen also hosts the show a third time. (Despite a casting call at the Ice Palace in March, there are no Floridians in the house this time.)

Big Brother entertains only when the "houseguests" are self-destructing, as when Justin Sebik held a knife to the throat of Krista Stegall last year. (She's now suing CBS, saying they should have known of Sebik's previous arrests for assault.)

Both previous Big Brother installments have been roundly criticized as demeaning, pointless television. But they also drew young viewers.

On Thursday, The Pulse will try exporting the Fox News Channel formula to primetime, showcasing Shepard Smith, Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera.

The debut will feature Rivera's report on smuggling illegal immigrants of Middle Eastern descent into the U.S. from Mexico (presumably for terror activity). An O'Reilly segment dubbed "Guess Who's Annoying Me Now?" centers on the guy who sued to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Review copies of the show were not provided to critics.

But Fox News Channel already has effectively targeted conservative news viewers with a mix of right-leaning commentary and splashy reports targeted squarely at the Rush Limbaugh demographic.

Strange as it seems for the network of Temptation Island, The Pulse will likely bring that formula to network television, telling targeted viewers what they want to hear.

* * *

It was an inspired idea to kick off Nightline's half-hour interview show, Up Close: Since ABC flirted with hiring David Letterman to take Nightline's spot earlier this year, why not get Letterman as their first inteviewee?

So why was Monday's conversation between host Ted Koppel and Letterman so boring?

I don't blame Letterman, a guarded man who generally avoids press interviews. (Monday's tete-a-tete was Letterman's first TV interview in six years).

I blame Koppel.

First, he failed to follow up on interesting points. Letterman, in describing overtures from ABC executives, talked about "phone calls from people in Paris and gifts from children of executives."

Huh? Letterman could have been joking, but if he wasn't, who were these kids? Why didn't Koppel ask about it?

Second, if Letterman respects Koppel so much, why was he was entertaining an offer that would have meant the death of Nightline? Again, Koppel didn't ask.

Most of all, I blame Koppel for skirting the real question: Was Letterman ever really serious about leaving, or did he just use ABC's interest to sweeten his CBS deal? (Even without prodding, Letterman did say, "in practical terms, I don't think I could ever make that move." But Koppel didn't probe further.)

It's as if, after tweaking ABC executives by getting Letterman on his show, Koppel stopped short of actually making the interview worthwhile.

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