Talking to Shaq

As the Television Critics Association mixer neared, ABC said there were a few additions. One was Shaquille O'Neal.

"Will he be wearing a name tag?" I asked.

That wasn't really needed, of course. Shaq is listed at 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds, but seems bigger. He's not the tallest person I've interviewed -- the late Kevin Peter Hall was 7-foot-2 -- but he's close. Since he talks quietly -- and from well above my ears -- the tough part was simply hearing everything. Here's the story I sent to papers:


LOS ANGELES – When you imagine a
spelling bee, you might think of little kids with big glasses and big

You don;t think of Shaq.

Still, Shaquille O'Neal says he did
well in his childhood bee. “I finished second,” he said. “I
almost got to go to Washington, D.C.”

Now he has a second chance. When “Shaq
vs.” returns Tuesday (Aug. 3), he'll compete with the 15-year-old
National Spelling Bee champion.

O'Neal was talking about this Sunday
night, at an ABC mixer with the Television Critics Association. For
reporters, it was a chance for quick one-on-one interviews – amid
logistical problems.

Listed as 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds,
O'Neal was dressed elegantly – dark suitcoat, dark vest, bow tie –
and talk\ed quietly. Arms stretched upward, to get tape-recorders
close enough to catch him.

No longer with the Cleveland Cavaliers
– who also lost LeBron James between seasons – he isn't sure
where he'll play basketball this season. His four NBA championships
(and three most-valuable-player awards in the finals) are now six
years behind him. During the recent play-offs, he was (at 38), the
oldest man in the league.

What he does know is that ABC has been
his summer home. First was “Shaq's Big Challenge,” in which he
pushed kids to exercise … and schools to re-instate physical

“It's getting worse,” O'Neal said.
“A lot of schools are cutting out their programs. When we were
young, our parents would say, 'Go outside and play.' Now there's
technology and videogames.”

Last summer, “Shaq vs.” had O'Neal
facing athletes in their own events. Now the show expands to an hour
and includes two things – one non-physical. O'Neal spells in the
opener, does magic a week later.

Still, the physical challenges may be
the biggest draw. In the opener, O'Neal races against NASCAR driver
Dale Earnhardt Jr. “It was terrifying,” he said.

He had a special car built that he
could fit into. “You have six seatbelts, but it's still scary.”

It was the toughest thing he's faced,
he said – even scarier than facing a spelling-bee champion.

– Shaq. Vs.,” 9:01 to 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, ABC; most stations will rerun it at 3 p.m. Saturdays.

– Opener (Aug. 3) has Shaquille
O'Neal facing racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. and spelling-bee champion
Kavya Shivashankar; second week has 150-pound boxer Shane Mosley and
magicians Penn-and-Teller.

– Other weeks will include singer
Justin Bieber, chef Rachael Ray and hot-dog eater Joey Chestnut.



Paul Lee at ABC: Oxford to the rescue

The networks are often very kind to Television Critics Association people. They stir up some sort of newsy chaos whenever we visit them in Los Angeles.

This time, it was the abrupt changeover at ABC. Fortunately, the network had a good programmer ready to fill the sudden hole. Here's the story I sent to papers; I'm putting it here right away, becase of the time factor:


LOS ANGELES – After a sudden and
dizzying change, ABC might seem to have a mismatch.

Gone is Stephen McPherson, who molded
the network's programming for six years. Amid reports of
sexual-harassment accusations, the network has had a no-comment

Stepping in is Paul Lee, sort of
McPherson's opposite. He's a quiet Englishman, an Oxford grad.

Yes, that's a surprise. This network –
with “American” in its title and Mickey Mouse in its DNA – is
run by an Englishman. An outside perspective can be fine, Lee told
reporters Sunday.

“Being an outsider – either by
country or by age – (is) a real motive to do a lot of research,”
he said.

For six years, Lee programmed ABC
Family, which was girl-oriented. “I've just spent the last six
years trying to channel … my inner female teen,” he said.

He succeeded, usually with shows that
included warmth and hope.

Lee tried fantasy shows; “Middle Man”
failed – “I adored that show (but) it was the wrong show for the
network” – but “Kyle XY” succeeded. He scored with TV movies,
failed with reality shows, had a clever comedy (“10 Things I Hate
About You”) and a praised family drama (“Lincoln Heights”).

Mostly, he succeeded with dramas
focusing on teens – in sororities (“Greek”), in gymnastics
meets (“Make It or Break It”) or in trouble (“The Secret Life
of the American Teenager”). This summer, he scored with two more
teen dramas, “Pretty Little Liars” and “Huge.”

Then came the abrupt change by the
Disney-owned network: On Tuesday (July 27), ABC issued a terse
statement that McPherson had resigned; it phoned Lee, who was
vacationing on a California beach.

When he met reporters Sunday morning,
he'd been on the job for 36 hours. This was not a time for substance;
Lee mentioned “Modern Family five times, mentioned his wife six

It was, however, a time to set a mood.
Lee looks like actor Jim Parsons (Sheldon on “Big Bang Theory”)
and sounds like a beloved English teacher; his master's degree is in
modern languages.

He's not the first Oxford man to run a
network; CBS thrived when Howard Stringer was in charge. More often,
Ivy Leaguers are at the top. Until recently, two networks were
programmed by friends – McPherson and Fox's Kevin Reilly – who
were Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers at Cornell.

Many network people are outsiders,
guessing the tastes of Middle America. Instincts help, Lee said. “If
a show doesn't really move you or hit you in the gut,” it won't

And testing? The British “The
Office,” he said, “was the worst-tested show I had ever tested in
my life,” then became an international hit. Still, he sees
advantages to research. “Ignore testing at your peril, because it
will often tell you weaknesses that you are too self-deceptive to

There are plenty of strong ABC shows,
Lee said. He mentioned “Modern Family,” “Grey's Anatomy,”
“Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing With the Stars” and the
summer success of “Bachelorette.”

McPherson helped nurture all of them;
with the just-departed “Lost,” he proved that a quirky show can
succeed. “So many of the brand-defining shows on this network have
been wonderful, serialized appointment television that nobody can not
watch within four hours,” Lee said.

McPherson prepared a fall schedule that
has standard shows and quirky ones. “My Generation” spans a
decade, “Better Together” spans a generation, “No Ordinary
Family” has accidental superpowers.

Don't expect Lee to change that now.
“We're locked and loaded,” he said. Changes “can make more
damage than good.”

The shows will debut in September, as
scheduled. It will be Steve McPherson's line-up on Paul Lee's
network. Two outsiders – from Cornell and Oxford – reach for the
American mid-section.



ABC and Paul Lee: A good choice

Here are a few of my comments from Los Angeles, where the Television Critics Association is meeting:

1) McPherson out; Lee in:

Given an awful situation, ABC made a smart move by giving its top programming job to Paul Lee. Before he took over, he did a terrific job at ABC Family.

The hole came this week when Steve McPherson suddenly resigned, just as ABC was preparing to launch its new season. Reports (including a Reuters report in said the company had been investigating him for sexual harassment.

Overall, McPherson had done a good job. On his watch, ABC came up with enough distinctive shows -- "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Modern Family," "The Middle" -- to hold viewers' interest during a time of crumbling ratings.

But ABC -- owned by Disney -- must pursue reports of misbehavior. It happened to have the perfect person in-house.

Lee ran BBC America, then took over ABC Family. There, his shows have ranged from adequate ("The Secret Life of the American Teenager," "Make It or Break It") to surprisingly good ("Huge," the summer's best surprise, plus "Pretty Little Liars" and several of the movies). He's the best guy for a bad situation.

2) Billy Bell's gone.

Yes, it's kind of startling to realize Billy Bell is gone from "So You Think You Can Dance."

Here was a remarkable talent who never quite clicked with viewers. He kept being in the bottom three; this week, he and Jose Ruiz -- a stunning solo talent who did his best to learn duets -- failed to make the final four.

Nigel Lythgoe, the show's creator and judge, said this might be because of his "slightly androgynous style." Lythgoe likes guys who "dance like a dude"; others might have trouble drawing the little-girl votes.

I'd guess this was more because he rarely projected warmth. He finally did during a brilliant duet Wednesday with Ade; it was, apparently, too late to soften his image.

3) Chased away.

In some sort of press-tour record, NBC allotted all of 20 minutes for the fall show, "Chase." Its other shows get 30; in other times, they got 40. That makes sense, I suppose; there wasn't time to ask about some of the hugest plot holes in crime-show history.




NBC: Help is on the way

I'm writing some quick stories at the Television Critics Association sessions and putting them here, after I send them to papers. The previous story -- see previouys blog -- had "The Real L Word" people talking about nudity in Sunday's show (Aug. 1); here's a newsy overview of NBC:

sorta-makeshift line-up fails this fall, don't worry. There are more
shows – plenty of them – ready for mid-season.

A year ago, the network was preparing
to launch Jay Leno across five nights of prime time. It was a huge
task for a fourth-place network. “We made too many changes, too
quickly, from a point of weakness,” said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of
TV entertainment for NBC and Universal.

Soon, NBC was scrambling to fill holes.
“We're trying to rebuild,” Gaspin said.

They're doing that with quantity. The
network has drawn some early buzz for “The Event,” a complex
thriller from “Alias” producer J.J. Abrams; other shows, however,
have drawn shrugs.

Still, there are many waiting for
mid-season. They include:

– “Parks and Recreation,” now
with Rob Lowe as a regular, in his role as an intense state auditor.

– Two more situation comedies,
“Friends With Benefits” and a Paul Reiser show.

– “Love Bites,” an hour-long show
mixing several short comedy bits in the fashion of the old “Love,
American Style.” It was originally set for September, then delayed.

– Two dramas. “The Cape” is an
action-hero show. “Harry's Law” has David E. Kelley returning to
lawyer shows, as he did with “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal” and
“The Practice.” The “Harry” (actually, Harriet) is played by
Kathy Bates, who is also returning to “The Office.”

There are more shows on the way for
later, including a key one. Producer-director Peter Berg (“Friday
Night Lights”) and writer Alex Cunningham are adapting the British
hit “Prime Suspect.”

The original had Helen Mirren as the
first woman to lead a police homicide unit. That isn't unique now,
said Angela Bromstad, head of primetime programming, “but it's
still a very male-oriented field.”

Bromstad also announced that “Friday
Night Lights” will have a live episode Oct. 14 and two shows will
get early starts after the final “America's Got Talent” episodes
– “Parenthood on Sept. 14 and “Outlaw” (Jimmy Smits' new
court drama) on Sept. 15.

The next night, “The Apprentice”
will have a two-hour season-opener. After that, it gets the 10 p.m.
Thursday spot originally given to “Love Bites.”


An "epic" hour of nudity and such

Here's a story that I just sent to papers and I wanted to put here right away, because of the time factor. Much of it involves a pay-cable hour that debuts at 10 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 1), then reruns often:


The women in “The Real L Word” want
to assure us of something:

Yes, their real lives include sex and
nudity – even when their reality show doesn't. And now the show
will start to catch up.

“I think Episode 7 is going to make
up for the entire 1-through-6 in not having that shock value ….
It's epic,” Rose Garcia said.

That's the hour that debuts at 10 p.m.
Sunday on Showtime, then reruns eight times in the next week. “If
you have not watched anything, this would be the one,” Nikki Weiss

The show has drawn praise for depicting
the warmth in the lives of six Los Angeles lesbians. “I hope you
see the love and chemistry that my fiancee (Jill Goldstein) and I
have,” Weiss said.

But unlike the fictional show (“The L
Word”) that preceded it, this one has been quite chaste.

“It takes a certain type of … bold
person to allow” sex and nudity on-camera, said producer Jane
Lipsitz. “We just documented as it happened. And it just landed as
this particular episode.”

One of the boldest people is Whitney
Mixter. “I'm very sex-positive, comfortable with my body,” she
said. “And I think it's time for women to really own that. (It)
increases in the next three episodes.”

In the first six, Mixter has had a busy
romantic life. “She's the Fonz,” Weiss said.

Tracy Ryerson agreed: Mixter has the
qualities of Fonzie, the “Happy Days” character who attracted
women instantly. “She walks in the room; she's magnetic.”

Accenting that is the fact that when
the show started, the others were in long-time relationships. Mixter
wasn't and stirred things up, sometimes by accident.

“I'm fun with the girls,” she said.
“I think that caused me to get in some sticky situations and that
is what you will see for the next three episodes. Things really work
up to a peak and kind of stay there.”

More often, viewers have seen
stability. “My entire family has been accepting,” Garcia said. “I
have a Puerto Rican, Catholic background, so it's very unheard of …
to accept a gay family member.”

There are occasional exceptions; Weiss
said she hasn't spoken to her father in 10 years. Mostly, however,
the women said they've been greeted warmly by most people –
including those whom they hadn't previously told about their

“I've encountered just a tremendous
amount of support,” Goldstein said. “It very quickly pointed out
that any fears … about how people would react were my own.”

– “The Real L Word”

– 10 p.m. Sundays, pay-cable
Showtime. The Aug. 1 episode is the seventh of nine; the network
hasn't decided whether to have another season.

– That episode reruns at 11 p.m.
Sunday; 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Monday; and 10 p.m. Tuesday. Also,
Thursday night at midnight, Friday night at 9 p.m. and 1:30 a.m.;
Aug. 8, at 8 p.m.