It's Not Just a Stunt...IT'S AN EVENT / Live Shows! Crossovers! What will the networks do next to lure you to the tube?
STUNTS ON TV aren't limited to dashing bodies or crashing cars anymore. These
days they're more often executed by the networks, who are competitively
desperate to grab your attention. Why should they run just a regular series
episode anymore? Not when they can hype An Event!
This sweeps month, the big stunt series is "The Drew Carey Show," which puts
itself through two colossal conniptions for ABC. Tonight starting at 9, Drew
and the gang perform their episode live-not once, not twice, but three times,
remembering those oft-forgotten folks in the mountain time zone-as the plot
finds Drew and Kate both secretly deciding to pursue each other romantically.
Next week, "Drew Carey" presents a sort of uber-episode with an added component
that computer-equipped viewers can catch online simultaneously. When the
Winfred-Louder store tries an Internet sales scheme, a "Drew Cam" is set up at
Drew's house to capture every second of activity there. The episode's events
thus extend beyond ABC's air into alternate and additional scenes streamed over
the Web, continuing even when ABC is in commercials. "Bizarre incidents and
skits with characters when Drew's out of the house will be Webcast as a
synchronous complement to the TV viewing experience," says ABC's press release.
So what, is Drew jumping through hoops just to help ABC in sweeps? It's
happened before. Remember NBC's mid-'90s spate of Thursday night "threads"
connecting its sitcoms thematically? In the November '94 sweeps, three series
got struck by the same Manhattan blackout (the "Seinfeld" folks smartly
declined to take part). CBS leaped into the frenzy last fall with its
"Shameless Crossover Monday"-whose label at least confessed why "King of
Queens" star Kevin James was shoehorned into the evening's episodes of "Cosby"
and "Everybody Loves Raymond." (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton also crossed
over to "King" this past Monday.) And just last weekend, ABC promoted
"America's richest night of television," tying together Sunday's unconnected
quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and musical movie "Annie" (featuring
billionaire Daddy Warbucks).
"Obviously in sweeps with all the networks pulling out all their big guns, the
battle is to get attention, whether it's on 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'Access
Hollywood' or in newspaper pages," says Kelly Kahl, senior vice president of
program planning and scheduling at CBS, which this sweeps is promoting pro
wrestlers' appearances on "Nash Bridges" and "Walker, Texas Ranger" Nov. 19-20.
"Anything you can do to draw a little extra attention to what you're doing or
your shows becomes the goal."
But the "Drew Carey" folks swear there's also a creative impetus behind their
stunts this month. "TV's gotten so stale, Drew and I just want to shake it up,"
says co-creator and executive producer Bruce Helford by phone from Los
Angeles. "Since we're doing the live show, and that's a way to look back to
live TV, this [Internet episode] is a good companion piece for a real cool look
forward." He promises it'll still play great for non-cyber viewers. "This is a
normal story, and there's actually a very big development in Drew's life. It's
still based in the relationships of our gang. The event does not outweigh the
AH, BUT SOMETIMES it can, can't it? Remember May '97's 3-D installment of NBC's
"3rd Rock From the Sun"? Expanded to an hour, the episode was filled with wild
fantasy sequences thrusting things around and forward: John Lithgow trapped in
a "Brazil"-like torture world, French Stewart dancing through a vintage
Hollywood backlot. You had to have the 3-D glasses distributed by sponsors, and
you had to endure all the "art."
Then there was NBC's one-take, commercial-free "Mad About You" episode-or
should we say commercial-deferred, since the ads simply ran before and after
whether to soothe the crying kid. Many thought it was viewers who needed
reassurance after the December, '97, stunt. But Reiser insisted at the time in
a phone interview "it's not an effort to shake up the format and be 'ER'-ish,"
referring to the NBC hospital hit's much-hyped live episode that same fall,
which was also widely met with yawns. "From the very beginning [of the series]
we have wanted to do this," Reiser maintained of such small-focus stories.
"I've always wanted to do a show where they just stay in bed."
Too often, even the best intentions just don't translate to the tube: "Roc"
aired its entire 1992-93 season live for immediacy, but viewers still didn't
pick up Charles S. Dutton's garbageman sitcom, and the Fox series reverted to
tape before ending entirely in '94.
Yet it's also true these stunts can pay off beautifully for viewers, especially
when the push comes from the series' creative team rather than the network.
Following tonight's live "Drew," ABC's 9:30 "Norm" episode features its
lead-in's cast mates Carey, Ryan Stiles and Diedrich Bader, guesting in
different roles as addicted gamblers sharing star Norm Macdonald's current
compulsion. Both ABC series are run by producer Helford, and they strut a
similar nutso sensibility. For that matter, the guest cast of tonight's "Drew
Live" features Carey's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" improv cohorts Colin Mochrie,
Wayne Brady and Brad Sherwood.
Other recent crossover stunts have offered inside-joke satisfaction. Fox' "Ally
McBeal" star Calista Flockhart and Lara Flynn Boyle of ABC's "The Practice"
poked fun at their much-publicized ultra-thinness in a mutual May '98 plot
uniting producer David E. Kelley's two Boston-set legal hours. It was a major
treat-and a minor miracle, since Kelley had to persuade separate networks not
keen on promoting competitors' series.
Two different showrunners at a single network, NBC's Dick Wolf of "Law & Order"
and Tom Fontana of "Homicide," had to deal instead with different production
companies when they crossed over characters from their two East Coast law
enforcement series in recent seasons. That plan was hatched thanks to the
creators' professional mutual admiration and personal shared affinity for
Elaine's Manhattan eatery. Later, Wolf actually adopted Richard Belzer's
"Homicide" character Munch when that series ended, inserting Munch intact into
"L&O's" new "Special Victims Unit" spinoff.
The prime-time crossover has a long history, however, stretching almost as far
back as the medium itself-even longer if you count radio stunts such as the
famed '40s "feud" between separate program stars Jack Benny and Fred Allen. In
the '50s, Danny Thomas' TV family from "Make Room for Daddy" visited the Lucy
and Ricky Ricardo clan of "I Love Lucy" on the latter duo's "Lucy-Desi Comedy
Hour"; all three programs were based at the same Desilu studio. In the '60s,
characters from the CBS comedies "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat
Junction" and "Green Acres" crossed paths in the rural Hooterville
setting-these shows also coming from one producer, Paul Henning -creating such
wonderfully warped encounters that they air repeatedly in Nick at Nite's TV
But stunt episodes didn't really hit big until 20 years ago, when TV started
getting more cunning and competitive as cable and new "net-lets" began
challenging the networks' dominance. Series finales became a big deal in 1977
when the beloved "Mary Tyler Moore Show" bid adieu with an all-time classic
twist: The TV station was sold, with only useless Ted Baxter surviving the new
owners' purge. "M*A*S*H" upped the ante in '83, crafting an elaborate series
finale that lasted 21/2 hours and became the most-watched TV program ever,
luring 105 million viewers.
The TV cliffhanger made a splash in the '80s, after CBS' soap sensation
"Dallas" left the climactic last episode of its 1980 season unresolved after a
gunshot ambush of star villain Larry Hagman. "Who Shot J.R.?" became a national
obsession, and the resolution that fall-sister-in-law Kristin did it-grabbed
an astonishing three-quarters of the TV audience. Even sitcoms such as "Cheers"
and "Murphy Brown" got into the cliffhanger game.
Meanwhile, drama stunts were getting giddily playful, led in the late '80s by
"Moonlighting." A midseason replacement series from which nobody at ABC
expected anything, Glenn Gordon Caron's detective hour with Cybill Shepherd and
Bruce Willis not only knocked down the fourth wall-with characters directly
addressing the audience-it also sliced and diced the conventions of style and
substance to keep viewers coming. The time-traveling '40s noir episode "The
Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" was shot in black and white and hosted by
cinema legend Orson Welles; "Atomic Shakespeare" was presented as a young
viewer's daydream about the cast performing their own "Taming of the Shrew" in
In the '90s, a new sort of series stunt would salute more current cultural
references. TV turned a mirror on itself: characters on shows like "Roseanne,"
"Caroline in the City" and "Moesha" envisioned fantasies that placed them
inside vintage TV hits ("Gilligan's Island," "The Twilight Zone" and "I Love
Lucy," respectively). Old-time stars such as Barbara Billingsley ("Leave It to
Beaver"), Florence Henderson ("The Brady Bunch") and Bob Denver ("Gilligan's
Island") made minor careers out of saluting or sending up their classic
characters 20, 30, 40 years later.
And guest stars, of course, are perhaps TV's most perpetual stunt. Their lure
was made clear early by 1955's extended "I Love Lucy" trip to Hollywood,
enabling clever cameos by movie stars like John Wayne and Harpo Marx. Famous
non-actors do the trick, too: Jets hero Joe Namath was in a memorable '70s
"Brady Bunch," and a decade later Boston-based House of Representatives speaker
Tip O'Neill showed up in the city's "Cheers" bar.
Real events also can be an attention-getter for series episodes scripted around
them. Y2K storylines are big this season with the approach of the year 2000.
ABC's "Sports Night" addressed that computer crisis last week, and the Fox
reserve series "The PJs" has a Y2K episode waiting in the wings. Then there's
prime time's annual onslaught of holiday-themed stories. Christmas has been
ceremoniously celebrated by tube families since Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Of course their popular '50s comedy aired back when many TV shows were
broadcast live. You know, live-that new stunt that's happening tonight on ABC's
"Drew Carey Show." You never know what those networks will think up next.
Tuning In / Logging On
Next Tuesday's Internet-enhanced episode of ABC's "The Drew Carey Show" is
broadcast at 9 p.m. on WABC/7. And it's Webcast simultaneously on these sites:
(Windows Media Player must be used to view the show's special online content.)
ABC's Official Drew Cam Viewing Kit is available at