Remember that old network? It just went Pop

We've always kind of known the TV Guide Channel was somewhere on our cable box, waiting to be consulted. With all the ways to get listings, however, we kind of ignored it. So now, logically enough, the channel is going Pop. The change comes Wednesday (Jan. 14); here's the story I sent to papers:


For decades, the TV Guide Network was like a quiet party host,
someone people ignore except when they need directions to the

It was in 80 million
homes, but mostly people used it to find listings. “We were a
channel that told you to go to other channels,” said Brad Schwartz,
the network's president.

Now the makeover
begins. On Wednesday (Jan. 14), this becomes Pop, a channel focusing
on popular culture and its fans. “Fandom is fun,” Schwartz said.
“It's optimistic, it's passionate, it's shareable.”

That may be obvious
on the first day; on Wednesday, Pop will:

-- Obsess on the New
Kids on the Block. Various specials (including one visiting the New
Kids cruise) run from 9-11 a.m., 4:30-6 p.m., 8-9 p.m. and 10-11 p.m.

-- Launch “The
Story Behind,” which each Wednesday will eye a past TV show. That
starts at 9 p.m. (rerunning at 11), with “Everybody Loves Raymond”;
coming are “ER,” “Friends” and more.

-- Air old movies –
“Uncle Buck” (1989) at 11 a.m. and “Kindergarten Cop” (1990)
at 1:30 p.m. Next week brings daytime reruns of “Beverly Hills,
90210” and its remake; “Melrose Place” is next.

-- Continues
“PopSugar” at 6 p.m. and midnight. It's an upbeat entertainment
show that has just added Shenae Grimes Beech (an actress who was in
the “90210” remake) as a host.

Those shows have
modest budgets, which we expect. “As a small, emerging network, we
have to watch our pennies very closely,” Schwartz said.

Still, he's also
landed a scripted comedy. “Schitt's Creek” (debuting Feb. 11) has
Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara of “SCTV” as heads of a
once-rich family, now penniless. There are eccentric (and hilarious)
moments ... sort of what people want from cable channels. “We have
enormous creative freedom .... We've really been left to do the show
the way we wanted to do it,” Levy said.

This is a
transformation for a network that has been around (and ignored) since
1981. Under different names (including Prevue Guide), it often had
primitive shows alongside TV listings.

Then the channel's
parent company bought TV Guide. Prevue became the TV Guide Channel in
1999 and TV Guide Network in 2007; it kept the name, even after it
was sold in 2009 to Lionsgate, the “Hunger Games” and “Mad Men”

In 2013, CBS joined
Lionsgate in running the channel. Now CBS' soaps rerun there -- “The
Bold and the Beautiful” at 6:30 p.m. and “The Young and the
Restless” at 7. A CBS summer show yields “Big Brother After
Dark,” a talk show that does well in the ratings hit.

There's more: CBS
owns “Entertainment Tonight.” Beginning with the Grammys, the
“ET” people will do red-carpet coverage for Pop. “They're the
first spot on the carpet,” Schwartz said.
The TV Guide Network
had dropped out of red-carpet coverage, ceding glitzy turf to cable's
E channel. Now it's back; it also added that daily show from the
“PopSugar” Web site. “We look at the world in the same way
'PopSugar' does,” Schwartz said. “They're fans of everything
going on in pop culture.”

Also on the way are:

-- “Queens of
Drama,” in April. It's a reality show, with former soap stars (from
Vanessa Marcil to Donna Mills) scheming to create a new primetime

-- “Sing It On,”
which follows six a cappella groups, as they prepare for a national

-- And more.
Upcoming shows, Schwartz said, will see celebrities linking with
inventors ... or describing their worst experiences ... or describing
the first time they had sex. “It will be done in a comedic way with
puppets or animation. (But) I don't think there will be re-enactments
of sex with puppets.” Even pop culture, it seems, has its limits.


Whitney's journey: From prom queen to ignored to reality star

For years, Whitney Thore and her friends tried to ignore the weight gain that was controlling her life. Then her "Fat Girl Dancing" video confronted the matter head-on. Now a reality show starts Tuesday (Jan. 13); here's the story I sent to papers:


For Whitney Thore, the second transformation began last year.

She put some “Fat
Girl Dancing” videos online, drawing a quick buzz. “She gets
comments from, last time I counted, 132 countries,” said her dad,
Glenn Thore. And now she has a reality show.

The first
transformation had come a dozen years earlier, when her weight
suddenly soared. “I even used to cover mirrors in my dorm room, so
I wouldn't catch a glimpse of myself,” she said.

Much later, Thore
would learn she has polycystic ovarian syndrome; at first, she only
knew that her life in Greensboro, N.C., had crashed. “Guys who used
to take me out on dates, three months later (would) look through me
like I didn't exist.”

And yes, that life
had been vibrant. “We met doing community theater,” said her
friend, Tal Fish. “Whitney was that dancer who caught your eye. She
has this spark about her .... She was a prom queen, absolutely

Even back then, at
5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, she worried about her weight. “I remember
throwing up my meal in the bathroom before the (prom), because I
thought my dress was too tight.”

In college, that
weight soared. “By the time I got home for Christmas break, I had
gained 50 pounds. By the end of the year, I had gained 100 pounds.
And the next couple years, another 100.”

Some strangers
taunted her; her friends and family said ... well, nothing.

“We were
confused,” said her mother, Barbara Thore. “We were afraid ... to
say anything and I really regret that .... We didn't want to hurt her

Weight is a subject
people avoid, Fish said. “If it was more of a comfortable topic,
I'm sure that we all would have addressed it head-on.”

Instead, Thore
drifed. A theater and dance major, she quit going to her dance
classes. She moved to Korea, returned, lost and re-gained 100 pounds.
“I was in a very dark place.”

The mistake, she
said, was to quit dancing. “When we don't do what we love, it makes
us sad people.”

Yes, she's now
working on her weight, through a Duke Medical Center specialist. “I
know that I'm at a risk healthwise, being this size.”

But the key change
is in attitude. At her job (a radio producer in Winston-Salem), a
colleague suggested she post the dance videos. The result sparked a
discussion of out attitudes toward weight.

Thore faces ones of
the few biases that linger openly, Fish said; he faces another: “Fat
people (and) gay people (are) two groups that it's still (politically
correct) to discriminate against.”

Now she's attacking
this head-on. At age 30, the 380-pound dancer moved back into her
parents' house and started work on her reality show. People will see
his friend in a new light, Fish said. “She is just one of the most
dynamic people that I know. She's intelligent, she's articulate; she
is hilarious.”

“My Big Fat
Fabulous Life”

10 p.m. Tuesdays,
rerunning at midnight, TLC; debuts Jan. 13

Opener reruns at the
same times Monday (Jan. 19) and at 7 p.m. Jan. 20


A semi-incredible, global life of piglets, hedgehogs and cable fame

Up close, Jan Pol is just what you expect -- a big, vibrant Dutchman who became a veterinarian on purpose and a cable-TV star by accident. Now NatGeo Wild has a special about Pol on Saturday (Jan. 10), along with an "Incredible Dr. Pol" marathon. Here's the story I sent to papers:


PASADENA, Cal. -- So
there was this Dutch boy, not quite a teen, with his arm halfway up a

“That was so much
fun,” Jan Pol recalls, 60 years later. “I knew then I wanted to
work with animals.”

What he didn't know
was that he would become a TV star, beloved (often) and berated
(sometimes). Now he has a successful cable series (“The Incredible
Dr. Pol”), plus a new special about his life.

It's a fairly
un-incredible life in many ways. Dr. Pol has been in the same little
town (Weidman, near Mount Pleasant, Mich.) for 34 years; he's been
married 47 years.

But four years ago,
his son Charles (an aspiring TV producer in California) pushed the
idea to his friends and co-workers. “He said, 'My dad is a a
character,'” Pol said.

Others agree;
ratings – more than a half-million viewers for some hours – are
high by cable-Saturday standards. Viewers savor an old-school vet who
ranges from cows and horses to snakes and hedgehogs.

That's what Pol has
wanted to do since he was 12 and was asked to help the difficult
birth of piglets.

The youngest of six
kids in a farm family, he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian ... but
to see the world, too. He became a foreign-exchange student, choosing
Michigan by miscalculation.

“The Netherlands
is so small, you can get anywhere in an hour,” Pol said. Eyeing a
map, he assumed Mayville (in Michigan's “Thumb” artea), is near
Ontario, where his sister lived.

It's not, but he
soon liked his host family, including Diane. As he came off the
plane, he noticed her “towering over the rest.” She was
5-foot-8-and-a-half, he was 6-2; that was a start.

Her first reaction?
“I thought, 'He's not as good-looking as I thought he would be.'”
But by the end of the year, “we were good friends, like brother and
sister.” When she visited Europe, they fell in love.

Pol got his
veterinary degree in the Netherlands, worked for 10 years in the
Thumb town of Harbor Beach and sought the perfect spot for his own
practice; Isabella Counry seemed ideal – lots of horses and cows
... only “three old vets” ... and Mt. Pleasant (home of Central
Michigan University) nearby.

So the clinic
opened, at first focusing on cows and horses. “I never wanted to
quit small animals,” Pol said. Soon, people brought dogs and cats
and more; he figures he's treated a half-million animals.

Things keep growing,
Pol said. “Within five years, we built the clinic we have now. Four
years later, we doubled that. Last fall, we expanded it again.”

Now he employs three
vets, a vet-tech and more. “He is a true hero of his community,”
said Geoff Daniels, a NatGeo programmer.

But a controversial
one. “Dr. Pol may look like the wonderful ol' family farm vet, but
his medicine is antiquated,” Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, a
Massachusetts vet, wrote in, reeling off things she
feels brought excessive pain or danger to his patients. “He
(should) understand that animals have a pain center and surgery
requires clean gloves.”

She wrote that in
2012, the year state regulators fined Pol and put him on probation.
He had misread ultrasound, they said; 10 dead puppies were in a dog
for days, before the owners went to another vet.

Pol defends his
upbeat, old-school approach. “My goal has always been to provide
affordable care.”

That approach is one
reason viewers like the show, Diane said. “It is a true reality

-- “Incredible!
The Story of Dr. Pol,” 10 p.m. Saturday, NatGeo Wild

-- Surrounded by
episodes of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” from noon to 3 a.m.


His road to stardom is bumpy. muddy and more

The things I appreciate in a hotel are a big pool and a little refrigertator; the thing Josh Gates appreciates is survival. He spends his life traveling in odd places, chasing elusive clues. Now his "Expedition Unknown" debuts Thursday (Jan. 8); here's the story I sent to papers:




Anyone diligently
watching the “Expedition Unknown” debut will hear this three
times: “There must be a better way to make a living,” Josh Gates

He says that while
crawling under a Fiji house, amid spiders and such, looking for bones
that may or may not be Amelia Earhart's. Now that he's back, we'll
double-check: IS there a better job than this?

“It depends on
your level of interest in difficult food, bad roads, questionable air
travel,” Gates said. “For me, I love this stuff. I love
rough-shod travel, I love adventure travel, so for me, I think I do
have the best job in the world. (But) it does get a little hairy
along the way.”

Or a lot hairy. In
the opener, a helicopter takes him to what is supposed to be a New
Guinea village, but is really just a jungle clearing. He finds the
village and – with the camera rolling – feels an earthquake. “It
was a 7.4 .... It just felt like the entire world has sort of

Such things happen
when you're visiting near-invisible worlds with near-impossible
goals. In his previous shows -- “Destination Truth” and guest
shots on “Ghost Hunters” -- he kept looking for monsters and Yeti
and such; now his new show aims bigger – from Jesse James' buried
gold to Captain Morgan's sunken ship to recently discovered “lost
cities” in Peru and Cambodia.

But that all starts
with Earhart, the pioneering pilot whose plane disappeared in 1937.
“I heard the Earhart story at some point when I was a kid,” Gates
said, “and I was just transfixed by this idea that we couldn't find
this person .... It has something to do with just how daring she was,
how unrestrained.”

Planes were a
natural interest for Gates, whose dad (a deep-sea diver) “worked
overseas for most of my childhood and was flying back and forth.”

Gates, 37, grew up
in Massachusetts and graduated from Tufts, majoring in archaeology
and drama. His monster-hunting, legend-probing life has taken him to
95 countries, often to places he doesn't fit. In Papua New Guinea,
many of the men were under 5-foot; Gates puts his own height at

“Kids sometimes
are either giggling or terrified .... Some of these little kids have
just never seen a white person before.”

And yes, Gates --
newly married to Hallie Gnatovich, who was a “Destination Truth”
researcher – says he does sometimes have an average American life
and meal. “In and Out Burger is usually my first stop on the way
home from the airport.”

-- “Expedition
Unknown,” Travel Channel

-- 9 p.m. Thursdays,
beginning Jan. 8, rerunning at midnight; opener is two hours, others
are one hour

-- Opener (Amelia
Earhart) also runs at 10 p.m. Sunday (rerunning at 1 a.m.) and at
noon Jan. 18.

It's slow-build Urban on fast-track "Idol"

Is it still possible to get excited about "American Idol"? Yes, actually, because many of the young singers are good, a few have been great and these three judges -- Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. -- really know what they're talking about. The season starts Wednesday and Thursday (Jan. 7-8), here's the story I sent to papers about Urban and "Idol":


“American Idol”
is back, putting young lives into hyperdrive. And no, that's not
always a good thing.

“Some people dive
straight into the arenas,” said Keith Urban, an “Idol” judge.
“It's just 0-to-100 as far as their career goes. I think there's no
substitue for the slow build.”

He's in those arenas
now, with a pile of hits; he has a movie-star wife (Nicole Kidman),
two young daughters and general optimism. “Eight years of sobriety
(have) an impact on the way I feel,” he said.

But that's at 47,
triple the age of some “Idol” contestants. First, Urban competed
in three “Idol”-type Australian shows, never winning. He went to
rehab twice. He worked small spots, few of them comfy.

“I learned
everything playing in tiny clubs and slowly building,” Urban said.
“I've been fired from a gig. I've had every kind of insult and
abuse hurled at me on stage, literally things being thrown at me.
Especially, growing up in Australia, you play at really rough

He did find some
success there, doing regional TV shows, cutting an album and backing
other people. Then he took a chance, “coming to America with really
nothing. I was 24 when I moved to Nashville. I really didn't know
anybody and I just showed up because I believed I was supposed to be

No one else seemed
to. “After being there five years (I had) still nothing really

He got studio gigs,
co-wrote a few album cuts and was part of a group (The Ranch), with a
semi-noticed album. At 31, a year after his first rehab, he finally
reached the solo charts.

Then things soared.
Urban has had 15 singles reach No. 1 on Billboard's country chart. On
the country-album chart, he's been No. 1 four times, with three more
reaching the top four; even on the overall album chart, he's been No.
1 twice and No. 3 twice.

Now he's judging
“Idol” contestants, many of them lacking those tough roots.
“They're really revered in their little towns,” Urban said.

Many seem great in
auditions; this year, more than 200 advanced to Hollywood.

Some contestants –
Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, a
few more – have jumped nimbly to the big venues; most weren't
ready. The new goal, Urban said, is to figure out which have more
depth. “Idol” changes, he said, include:

-- An extra step.
Before the cut from 48 singers to 24, each does a song at the House
of Blues. “We've never done that before .... I really wanted to see
what they were like in front of a club setting.”

-- A new mentor with
current-hit credentials. That's Scott Borchetta, who created Big
Machine Records, signing teen Taylor Swift as his first act. “He's
brought something very, very fresh.”

-- An attempt to
learn more about the singers than whether they have good voices. “You
can have people who sing really well, but they may not (have) an
artistic vision of who they are and what kind of career they want to
have. Sitting down and talking with them really allowed us to see
that .... From there, I think we really found some artists.”

Perhaps. Eventually,
we'll see if they're ready for the 0-to-100 life “American Idol”
can demand.


-- “American
Idol,” Fox; season starts Jan. 7

-- 8-9 p.m.
Wednesdays (leading into the new “Empire” drama), 8-10 p.m.
Thursdays; later in the season, that will be trimmed to one night a

-- First week:
Nashville on Wednesday; Nashville and Kansas City on Thursday

-- Second week:
Kansas City on Wednesday; Long Island, NY, on Thursday. In Long
Island, Adam Lambert substituted on the judging panel, alongside
Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.; Urban was in Australia for the
funeral of his father-in-law, a clinical psychologist who died at 75.

-- Other auditions
were in San Francisco (Urban's favorite this time), New Orleans and