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Flick Chick


Published June 19, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

What a difference a year can make. It seems like only yesterday “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” was the hottest thing on TV. Ratings began to plummet several months ago, though, and the future of the show was called into question. Host Regis Philbin got the final answer from ABC on May 14: The program henceforth would air only sporadically, as a special.

Philbin’s phenomenon is not the only show to get the ax this spring. A virtual massacre has taken place in executive suites, which pulled the plug on a staggering number of programs, some of them well established. As a result of these decisions, and others made by prominent broadcast personalities themselves, the cathode landscape is about to undergo one of its most radical transformations in recent memory.

Not that all the cuts came as shocks. “Greg the Bunny,” “The Chair,” “The Chamber,” “Wolf Lake,” “Inside Schwartz” — these didn’t exactly have “broadcast dynasty” written all over them. They’re guaranteed to be gone and forgotten.

On the other hand, some cancellations did seem premature. While Jason Alexander’s “Bob Patterson” certainly deserved to die a quick death, the Julia Louis Dreyfuss sitcom, “Watching Ellie,” had promise and should have been given time to work out its minimal kinks. And “Family Law,” “Felicity” and “Once & Again”? All three dramas were critically respected and enjoyed broad viewer support. It’s hard to imagine that their networks have three superior productions waiting in the wings.

“Dharma & Greg,” “Spin City” and “Ally McBeal” have been put out of their misery and, if you ask me, those responsible deserve the congressional medals of honor for their public service. Ditto when it comes to the less established though equally unnecessary “The Education of Max Bickford” and “The Ellen Show.” Those victories are less than complete, however; word is that Ellen DeGeneres has a talk show coming in the fall.

Speaking of talk shows, Rosie O’Donnell is walking away from hers after six years and a 19 percent drop in ratings over the past 12 months. Bryant Gumbel retired from morning TV — again — in May. And, in the “Yes, There Is a God” department, Sally Jesse Raphael was given a pink slip by her employers on March 12 after two decades on the air.

Raphael has always made my skin crawl, so this is a time of celebration for me. I realize it’s poor form, but I must admit to finding a certain amount of satisfaction in her current crisis. Not to mention her apparent mental collapse. If you want to see just how thoroughly she’s snapped, get a load of the “Message from Sally” she’s posted to loyal fans on her Web site at www.sallyjr.com:

It reads, “I am proud that we were able to help so many guests and viewers find solutions to their problems and comfort in their lives. I am also proud to have created the production formats that most talk shows now use.”

Right. And she’ll be curing cancer any day now. Talk about deluded.

Another wacky she-creature we won’t miss: Anne Robinson, host of NBC’s defunct “The Weakest Link.” Good-bye.

Additional no-shows for the new fall season: “The X-Files,” after nine seasons; “The Steve Harvey Show” and the acclaimed prison drama “Oz,” both after six seasons; “The Hughleys,” after four seasons; “Roswell” and “Family Guy” after three; the sci-fi action series “Dark Angel” after two years; “Philly” after a single season; and Sally Field’s comeback showcase, “The Court,” after only three episodes! We didn’t like her this time. We really didn’t like her.

Colin Quinn (“The Colin Quinn Show”), Joan Cusack (“What About Joan?”), Daniel Stern (“Danny”) and Emeril (“Emeril”) all have a little more free time on their hands. So will Tom Brokaw, of the NBC Nightly News, before too long. The veteran anchorman recently made breaking news himself, telling his bosses that he’ll be signing off for good two years from now.

Even a couple of annoying advertisers have disappeared from the airwaves. Have you noticed? All those TV spots for nutty ab belts and Miss Cleo’s psychic hotline are gone. As revealed in this very column months ago, both were huge scams that bilked feeble-minded Americans out of millions of dollars. The company that employed Miss Cleo is being sued by several states on a wide range of charges, and the FTC recently filed false-advertising complaints in federal court against makers of the three most popular belts — Ab Energizer, AbTronic and Fast Abs.

One could argue that television will be better off without Sally, Ally, Anne Robinson and Miss Cleo. I’m not sure the same can be said of one particular cut, though: I think it’s a shame that ABC turned its back on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.”

The show’s title turned out to be prophetic. The lively, thought-provoking and tremendously successful talking head program was the creation of its host and, after four years on Comedy Central, made its network debut in 1997. Throughout its life, the show fostered some of the tube’s most stimulating, hot-button gabfests and pioneered the now much-imitated format juxtaposing guests from the arenas of politics, the arts and show business. Maher made a name for himself as an intelligent, quick-witted and outspoken ring master.

Then, on September 17th, he spoke out in response to the President’s characterization of the terrorists attacks as “cowardly acts.”

We have been the cowards,” Maher suggested, “lobbing cruise missiles from 2000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building — say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

OK, maybe not the best time to nitpick about the proper use of the word “cowardly.” Before he knew what hit him, a firestorm of controversy engulfed Maher and his show. He was accused of calling the courage of the country’s armed forces into question. Major sponsors like Sears and FedEx pulled their ads. Affiliates dropped “Politically Incorrect” from their schedules.

Maher quickly apologized for the remarks and explained his position: First, that the U.S. would be better equipped to fight this new enemy if it appraised it honestly and took the full measure of the threat it poses. And, second, that he had been referring to the politicians who make military policy, not the service men and women who carry it out.

The country apparently was ready to move on. Ratings for the program held steady at about 2.5 million viewers per night. But ABC brass had another agenda. “They have been pretending since September 17th that I don’t exist,” Maher said in an interview this winter amid rumors that the program’s future was uncertain. On May 14th the network declared the show would not go on.

Truth is the first casualty of war, they say, and it looks like the First Amendment may not be far behind. ABC won’t come right out and admit that Maher’s remarks are the reason for the cancellation, but network officials are not offering credible alternative explanations, either.

“We didn’t go off because the ratings went down… last week they were way up,” Maher told a reporter in mid-May. “No one will ever convince me that there’s not a connection between saying things that are controversial and losing your place at the podium.”

Americans will have to get used to going without a lot of things on television this fall. It would be nice to think that freedom of speech will not be one of them.