Beware: Throughout this article there will appear show titles and concepts that may sound like a satirist's take on the television industry. I regret to inform you that they are all real.
Yes, I have just returned from NATPE, the television industry's annual trade show in Las Vegas. (NATPE, by the way, stands for the National Association of Television Producers and Executives). This week, as CBS executives are counting on the launch of "Survivor 2" to follow the success of the series that made Richard Hatch the biggest TV star since, well, Darva Conger, hundreds of producers, studios and distributors of programming came to hang their shingle in one of the most bizarre bazaars on earth.
It's the place to find out what kind of shows are in the pipeline what we'll be seeing in our living rooms in the next year or two. It's also home to some of the weirdest goings-on in America.
It was thus that I discovered a relentless campaign to bring us the ultimate dating show, "Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl?", and a frenzied effort to sell Andrew Dice Clay (remember him?) transported back in time to ancient Rome to be the talent booker for "Colosseum."
'Miami Vice' lives!
It all starts innocently enough (if anything is innocent in Las Vegas) with arrival at the city's huge and bland convention center. Once inside, two vast halls have been transformed into what resembles a pair of aircraft hangars decorated by a team of demented TV junkies. There are massive stands taken by the major TV producers, such as Paramount, Columbia and Warner Bros. Huge signs feature talk-show hosts flashing blindingly white teeth and hopeful slogans such as "cleared in 80 percent of the country" ("cleared" means sold; loosely translated, the sign is challenging the other 20 percent to jump on the bandwagon.) Also looming are giant images of refurbished game shows from the '60s, complete with refurbished game show hosts. The three keys to making over an aging game show host seem to be a deep tan, heavy airbrushing round the jowls and removing that fuddy-duddy tie and sports coat and replacing it with a "modern look" T-shirt and dark jacket. (If that seems a touch "Miami Vice," it's intentional most game shows operate in a time-lag that's exactly 15 years behind the real world.)
These stands are slickly run machines dispensing food, drink and hype in equal doses. The most popular is easily Columbia-TriStar's. Perhaps visitors are attracted by a chance to buy "Pyramid" starring Donny Osmond. More likely it's the gourmet food on tap daily from Wolfgang Puck, who personally serves guests his signature pizzas.
All erotic, all the time
Paramount is traditionally tighter, and only dispenses hot dogs as it pitches "Hot Ticket," its new show featuring film critic Leonard Maltin. "It's 'Siskel & Ebert' meets 'Politically Incorrect'," offers a helpful sales rep. "Would you like some chili on your dog?" I go for the chili. I feel guilty that I'm unable to buy the show.
Nestled around the big stands are a slew of small-time operators and hopefuls. They don't have the budgets to match the big boys, so they have to use their imaginations, a process that results in bikini-clad girls draped over cut-outs of show stars as though they were the latest Ford Thunderbird. Other stands touting wildlife programs offered you the exciting opportunity to be photographed with a small mammal and a show host, usually clad in what looked like a jungle outfit from The Gap.
It is on these smaller stands that one encounters the rarer delights of TV programming.
Such as Surrender Productions' "Flesh TV."
Allow me to quote from the promotional blurb: "Jenna and Gina two sexy sisters and the daughters of a wealthy entrepreneur decide that television programming is their true calling. So with daddy's bank check they take over a fledgling public access channel, uplink it to a satellite and turn it into Flesh TV. All erotic. All the time."
By the time I leave the convention, they had still not sold their show. I figure the blurb was too intellectual. It should have just said: "Wayne's World but with two hot chicks running a porno channel."
Reality won't be what it used to be
In the same vein, an L.A.-based company offered a documentary series about prostitutes, coyly titled "Ladies of the Night" (though the promotional poster makes them look like convent girls) while an Australian firm weighed in with "Single Girls," a reality series from Australia in which four successful career girls go on the prowl for four Mr. Rights from a luxury penthouse helpfully provided by the TV production company.
So-called "reality" shows are, of course, big now. However, when I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on TV's future hosted by top Hollywood TV agent Pat Quinn, I heard several warnings from the industry experts. "Reality isn't what it used to be" said one producer. (I suspect that he's right. The just-released pictures of the new "Survivor" crew is suspiciously lacking the Rudys and Sonyas of the original.)
After the inhabitants of the mini-booths come the convention's real bottom-feeders. Wandering the halls alongside the buyers (and the dogged press hounds) are hustlers who can't afford any real estate but who are nonetheless determined to pitch their wares. I encounter a Rod Stewart look-alike in imitation snakeskin pants and a boating hat. Velcroed to his arm is a drop-dead gorgeous, svelte young Asian woman poured into a minuscule shiny black rubber dress. He introduces himself as "Flashman" (though when I encounter him a few hours and several beers later he fesses up to being Michael Schwartz from New York). His young charge is called Mirage and she is apparently a big star on a women's wrestling program called "Thunderbox." Or she would be if only he could get them to sign the contract. Pending this, he is on the prowl to get her "exposed."
Maury Povich gets mauled
I follow this odd couple's progress for a few minutes. Flashman trawls Mirage with him to the Studios USA stand (formerly Universal TV). There Flashman spots Maury Povich posing for cameras and offering pithy sound bites about the art of TV. Flashman sees the opportunity. He pushed Mirage towards the leathery-faced host and bellows out "Hey, Maury! You like Asian women! Whatcha think of her?!" Povich, who is, of course, married to TV anchor Connie Chung, shudders and moves away as rapidly as he can. I ask Flashman if his approach had perhaps lacked subtlety. "You gotta hustle in this business" he explains to me.
After a couple of days wandering the show, and incidents like this, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. You encounter folks such as Carole Lieberman, self-styled "Media Psychiatrist." Clearly aiming at the Dr. Laura market, she is touting several "reality" programs, including "Dr. Carole's Couch" in which "you're a fly on the wall watching real therapy." She proudly announces that her patients include "faces from the hit television shows 'Survivor,' 'Big Brother' and 'Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?'" It's a relief to know that people from reality shows can have a soft landing back to real reality by appearing on a show with a reality shrink.
A tough sale
One's heart aches for forty-something Susan Russell from Chicago, who has spent a small fortune taking a booth to sell "Exposé," her public-access show in which she "interviews celebrities while dressed in go-go boots, short skirt and 'Flashdance'-homage crop-top." Billing herself as " a hot blonde with a masters degree and a mini-skirt," she explains that her "groupie girl wardrobe" belies her intellect. I peruse the list of "stars" she has interviewed so far and recognize just one: Kevin Cronin, lead singer of REO Speedwagon, which last had a hit in 1982. This show will be a tough sale.
After hours, the better-funded producers tap into the delights of Vegas by hosting ritzy parties for the would-be buyers. I attend one such bash, given by Pearson TV, at the MGM-Grand Hotel's reincarnation of Studio 54. The party is a scrum full of polyester-suited local TV buyers eyeing the go-go dancers and the stars of the Pearson shows. The entire party seems designed to be one of those occasional corrections of global history. This ersatz Studio 54 is filled with exactly the people who were always refused entry in the real Studio 54. John O'Hurley (Mr. Peterman from "Seinfeld") bravely emcees the stage presentation, touting his own show, "To Tell the Truth," and bringing on castmates such as Paula Poundstone and Louie Anderson, who is the host of another Pearson show, "Family Feud." It is a tough crowd. In truth, the stars know that these parties are all part of the promotional game. Even an inattentive audience at least goes home knowing that it has seen the stars.
Shooters with the Hooters
On the last night of the convention I go to a party thrown by Lion's Gate Productions to boost its big hopeful, "Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl?" The promotional literature proudly announces that it is "the only branded dating show in television." To boost sales of the show (sample segments: "Stud or Dud?" "Know Your Hooters") the producers have shipped in a clubload of the identically clad gals from the Vegas branch. In the course of my investigation I chat to several of these girls in their tangerine hotpants and tight white crop-tops. (Tough work, but I can take it).
Did they feel demeaned by the TV show? "No way!" explained 24-year old Julie Luste from New York. Her three years at Hooters has paid for her to earn a B.A. in psychology (albeit from the University of Nevada) and she can't wait to be on the TV show. He view was shared by 27-year-old Amy McNair, who has ambitions to travel and feels that the show could give her a leg up in this goal.
And maybe it will. Though there didn't seem to be too many show buyers there, the girls did catch the attention of a representative from a respected Hollywood talent firm. Chris Coelen, an agent at top notch United Talent Agency clients include Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Barry Levinson and Charlize Theron was most enthused by the ladies. He danced energetically with Amy and assured her that if she appeared on the Hooters TV show he would be willing to try and get her a hosting slot on the Travel Channel.
As the agent smoothly charmed the young ladies and posed for photographs with his prospective new clients, I felt I had now seen enough of Vegas, the Hooters girls and the entire TV industry. As I was leaving, though, I did suddenly get an idea for a show: "Who Wants to Date a Hollywood Agent?" It can't miss.