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?

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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

story."

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

stars Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt sat by their baby's bedroom door debating

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

Land.

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

iambic pentameter.

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:

www.winloud.com

www.abc.com

www.warnerbros.com

www.windowsmedia.com

www.microsoft.com/windows/mediaplayer

(Windows Media Player must be used to view the show's special online content.)

ABC's Official Drew Cam Viewing Kit is available at

www.abc.com/primetime/drew_carey

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