Urinal Ads! What Will Those TV Whizzes Do Next?

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PASADENA— It is only appropriate that the annual Television Critics' Association press tour should be held in summer, in the full heat of July. Because, really, it's not a press event so much as a county fair. The networks trot out the stars and producers of their brand-new fall series like blue-ribbon heifers, hoping that the assembled TV writers, besotted by free smoothies and pastry and the chance to stand — omigod! — thisclose to Heather Locklear, will pretend, for a moment, that the new collections of star vehicles and fish-out-of-water sitcoms are not embarrassing retreads.

Those are simple rules, but they posed something of a problem this year for ABC, since it is not airing any new programming next fall. Well, that's not exactly true, but with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" hogging four hours of prime time next fall — that's enough broadcast real estate to employ eight teams of sitcom writers — the Regis network needed to schedule only a stingy three new sitcoms (including star vehicles for Geena Davis and renowned master of sitcom wackiness Gabriel Byrne) and one new drama. So how do you fill up two days' worth of press conferences?

Easy! With by pretending your old shows are new again. So we got plenty of introductory crowing on about "Millionaire" (Regis, whom we suspect died months ago of overwork and has been replaced by a digital animation, was absent); the cast of "Spin City," introducing new cast member and eternal tabloid resource Charlie Sheen; the "Monday Night Football" crew, introducing HBO comic turned sportscaster Dennis Miller; and the cast of "Norm," because... well, to be honest, we're not entirely sure why.

Ironically, the "Norm" segment was probably the highlight of the day, perhaps because there seems to be a refreshing, if not explicit, acknowledgement by the team that their show is really not particularly great. This is, after all, a sitcom that, ABC announced, will be advertised over men's-room urinals — a campaign, one suspects, that subtly acknowledges what ABC is doing with its ratings lead by relying on the quickly aging "Millionaire" rather than developing original series. The network set up test ads in the press corps' men's room and, true to their nature, freebie-happy reporters had stolen four of them by Monday afternoon. "I'm not a strong actor," volunteered comedian-star Norm MacDonald, with his patented side-of-the-mouth delivery. (Our Norm is better than perhaps any man alive at speaking out of the side of his mouth. He may in fact speak out of his ear.)

And yet, paralleling the show biz rule that bad books make the best movies, this mediocre sitcom made for the funniest press conference. Here's Norm on the show's being separated from "The Drew Carey Show" on the schedule: "It'd be great to be with 'Drew.' But it'd be great to be with that 'Survivor' show." Norm on the differences between costar Faith Ford and a former costar, the buxom Nikki Cox: "Faith can bring... some of what Nikki Cox brought to the show." Norm on the similarities between himself and Ford's old "Murphy Brown" costar, Candice Bergen: "We both dated Louis Malle."

Which gives this observer an idea. Since ABC doesn't seem that interested in scripted shows — the network briefly announced plans for three voyeur-reality series for later in the year — and since Norm is admittedly acting-challenged, why not abandon the pretense of surrounding him with professional actors in a lightly written comedy and simply give him a half-hour press conference once a week: "The Norm Macdonald Self-Deprecation Show!"

It'd pair nicely with Drew Carey's own comedy improv series, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" And with the money saved by firing yet another team of professional sitcom writers, ABC could advertise it over every urinal on the planet.