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Everyman "Charlie" Gibson signs off ABC's World News


Charles Gibson says goodbye to ABC's World News. Photo: Ed Bark

By ED BARK
Charles Gibson ended his relatively brief reign as anchor of ABC's World News Friday, completing the broadcast amid applauding, tearful staffers.

That final image immediately gave way to an on-air promotion for Diane Sawyer, who will take over World News on Monday, Dec. 21st.

Gibson began anchoring World News on May 29, 2006 after spending 19 years, in two separate tenures, on Good Morning America. On Monday of this week, George Stephanopoulos replaced Sawyer as GMA's co-anchor.

Gibson, 66, briefly yielded to his emotions before a film clip showed a who's who of dignitaries, including President Obama and the four living former U.S. presidents, saying farewell and wishing him well.

"It's hard to walk away from what I honestly think is the best job in the world," Gibson told viewers. But he said his parents had always told him to "understay, not overstay" his welcome.

"Objectivity is not universally in favor in our business today, but it is critically important," Gibson said, a reference to Fox News Channel, MSNBC and a host of partisan talk radio programs. World News must always be relied on to be fair and impartial, he emphasized.

His voice then began to break as he said, "I'm Charlie Gibson, and I hope you've had a good day. I've had so many good days here."

Gibson hinted at a possible early retirement during a March 2008 interview in Dallas with unclebarky.com.

"I don't know how long I'll do this, but I'm still having a great time," he said. "It's not as hard as I expected it to be, and this is all like an added chapter that I thought I'd never have . . . But I think I'll know when the time comes. You don't want to stay as long as (David) Brinkley did. David stayed too long. He had a great career, and you've got to know when it's time to leave."

Gibson formally announced his decision to retire from ABC News on Sept. 2nd of this year. Sawyer's ascension to World News will put women in charge of two of the three longstanding dinner hour network newscasts. She'll be competing with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, whose program is No. 1 in the ratings.

Gibson brought class and undeniable objectivity to World News, which briefly overtook Nightly News for the top spot before falling back to No. 2 this year.

Sawyer, who turns 64 on Tuesday, already is the tribal elder of the dinner hour trio, even though in tenure she'll be the junior partner. In due time, it would seem, she'll be replaced by ABC's odds-on heir apparent. That would be Stephanopoulos, who is 48 and clearly would love to have the job.

Lights, cameras, pageantry: TCM's Gigantic World of Epics is suitably towering


Doctor Zhivago, Ben-Hur are among featured epics in TCM special.

By ED BARK
Cue the mega-majestic score. Assemble the hordes of extras. Butter the jumbo tub of popcorn. Hope for a bladder-easing intermission.

TCM's one-hour The Gigantic World of Epics (Sunday, Dec. 20th at 7 p.m. central) is less than one-third the length of the real thing. It's a crowd-pleaser nonetheless, taking viewers on an economical journey through a mostly yesteryear collection of wide-screen, big-budget extravaganzas shepherded by Hollywood giants.

Interviewees include Stephen Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh, descendants of famed producers/directors/actors and Omar Sharif, who emerges as the scene-stealer.

Sharif, who co-starred in both Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, is charmingly candid and self-deprecating.

His Oscar-nominated performance as Zhivago's title character remains "one of my least favorite performances," Shariff says, judging himself "terrible."

He also recalls Zhivago co-star Julie Christie as an unpretentious early-day "beatnik" who used to mess up her makeup and wardrobe by eating messy fried egg sandwiches during breaks.

And although prolific producer Sam Spiegel was a longtime friend, he made only four worthwhile movies in Sharif's view. Namely, Arabia, The African Queen, On the Waterfront and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

"Apart from that, all of his films are quasi-disasters," Sharif says good-naturedly.

The special moves along at a quick but instructive pace, with the titles of its mini-chapters grandly etched in stone. Its spotlights shine brightest on Zhivago, Arabia, Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, for which star Charlton Heston won a best actor Oscar in an epic best known for its unparalleled chariot race.

"Somehow he had the dignity and the majesty without the pomposity," Branagh says of Heston, who also played Moses in Commandments.

In those pre-computer times, epic directors shot tremendous amounts of film, leaving "this huge pile of raw lumber" to be made into a building, as Heston's son, Fraser, puts it. Absent CGI technology, massive sets were built from scratch in order to induce the proper scope and pageantry.

The genre fell on hard times after Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) burned money without making nearly as much as anticipated. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) then bombed big-time, souring studios on epics until Dances with Wolves (1990), Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000) successively were critical and commercial successes.

Spielberg, a co-producer of Gladiator, says your basic epic amounts to "a really good story based on a big idea with big characters."

Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille remains the genre's foremost practitioner based on just two mighty strokes -- Ben-Hur and Commandments. His granddaughter, Cecilia, notes that he was 74 when filming on Commandments began. DeMille had a major heart attack after climbing a ladder to look at a tracking shot. He lived to see Commandments completed, but never fully recovered his health, she says.

That was a fitting way for Hollywood's consummate showman to go out. And TCM's Gigantic World of Epics pretty much measures up to the task of offering a very abridged history of the way it was and still can be. Behold the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Biblical or not, DeMille would have found lots to like.

GRADE: B+

PROGRAMMING NOTE -- TCM is surrounding The Gigantic World of Epics with some epic films. Here's the Sunday schedule, with all times central:

5 a.m. -- Raintree County (1957)
8:30 a.m. -- How the West Was Won (1962)
11:30 a.m. -- Doctor Zhivago (1965)
3 p.m. -- Ben-Hur (1959)
8 p.m. -- The King of Kings (1961)
11 p.m. -- King of Kings (1927)
2 a.m. -- Children of Paradise (1945)

GMA tabs Stephanopoulos, Chang to replace re-assigned Sawyer, Cuomo


GMA anchor George Stephanopoulos and news reader Juju Chang.

By ED BARK
He'll have to act a whole lot goofier, for one, particularly during those cooking segments.

His surname is no piece of cake, though. George Stephanopoulos, a lot tougher to type correctly than Diane Sawyer, officially was named to replace her Thursday as Good Morning America's new co-anchor.

As previously announced by the network, Sawyer will become the new anchor of World News, succeeding Charles Gibson on Dec. 21st.

Stephanopoulos' first day at the sometimes slap-happy GMA will be on Monday, Dec. 14th. He'll also remain in charge of Sunday morning's This Week With George Stephanopoulos "until a replacement is named," ABC News president David Westin said in a news release. Perhaps Gibson might be interested? That would be a nice fit, although he seems more interested at present in getting on with his retirement.

GMA also is adding Juju Chang, 44, as the program's news reader, with Chris Cuomo becoming co-anchor of 20/20 with Elizabeth Vargas and also serving as the network's chief justice and law correspondent. Chang has been a correspondent for GMA, 20/20 and Nightline. She also has a blog called Juju Juggles.

Robin Roberts and weatherman Sam Champion remain in place at GMA, which long has been No. 2 in the early morning ratings race to NBC's Today.

Stephanopoulos, 48, said he "can't wait to join Good Morning America's amazing team, and serve its loyal viewers. No one can replace Diane Sawyer (who spent nearly 11 years with the program), but I'll do everything I can to match her unquenchable curiosity and intense commitment to informing the country every morning. What an adventure."

Westin temed Stephanopoulos and Roberts "the right pair to lead our effort . . . Robin brings a warmth and intelligence to the morning that no one can match. George complements Robin's strengths with a deep knowledge of and commitment to news about the nation and the world."

Both Stephanopoulos and Sawyer worked for U.S. presidents. Sawyer served in the administration of Richard Nixon and also helped him to compile his memoirs after his resignation from office.

Stephanopoulos was a key campaign advisor to Bill Clinton and then served as the White House senior advisor on policy and strategy. After leaving the administration, he wrote the bestselling book All Too Human, in which he said the president had let many of his people down by dallying with Monica Lewinsky.

Sawyer's elevation to World News will leave NBC's Brian Williams as the only male anchor of a broadcast network dinner hour newscast. Unlike with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, though, there will be no big buildup before she takes the reins.

Sign o' the Apocalypse? ABC slots Conveyor Belt of Love after January premiere of new Bachelor


More than you can stomach? Here comes Conveyor Belt of Love.

By ED BARK
The Earth-invading aliens of ABC's V might have made a sharp U-turn back to Krypton had they known this was coming.

But yes, it's true. On Monday, Jan. 4th, ABC plans to proudly present Conveyor Belt of Love. It's scheduled to follow the season premiere of The Bachelor: On Wings of Love, starring Dallas commercial pilot Jake Pavelka as the latest hunky rose-bestower.

The "hilarious and fast-paced" one-hour special lines up 30 men as moving targets for five women. Each guy gets 60 seconds to make an impression. Those who do so will step off the belt as another male passes by. But wait, there's more, says ABC. "If two or more of the women are interested in the same man, the tables turn and the man on the conveyor belt gets to choose which one he would like to wait for."

Matched couples then date "in the hope of finding a true connection."

Actual ABC programming executives sat in a pitch room and green-lighted this thing. Which prompts Uncle Barky to float an even better idea.

It's called Suck on a Sausage. Six scantily clad exotic dancers writhe to the tune of "Simply Irresistible" while suggestively wrapping their lips around some of Wisconsin's finest bratwursts. Meanwhile, a like number of men strive to keep their pants from tent-poling. Re-channeling the ninth inning of Game 6 of the Mets-Red Sox World Series is an acceptable means of keeping your mind otherwise occupied. But whatever your head game, no fair looking away!

The guy who holds out the longest gets to pick one of the women for a very special date at her place of work. Can they find true love during a climactic, no-holds-barred lap dance?

Let the bidding wars begin.

TNT's Men of a Certain Age gives older guys a welcome new guise


Take a hike: TV pals Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, Scott Bakula.

Premiering: Monday, Dec. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Ray Romano, Andre Braugher, Scott Bakula, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Richard Gant, Penelope Ann Miller, Brian J. White, Carla Gallo
Produced by: Ray Romano, Mike Royce, Rory Rosegarten, Cary Hoffman

By ED BARK
TNT has a male-centric gem in Men of a Certain Age.

The "We Know Drama" network goes the serio-comic route this time with an affecting, amusing series fronted by three familiar actors whose characters skirt the far reaches of television's highly desired 18-to-49-year-old target audience.

Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula play close pals in their late 40s whose varying degrees of angst are palpable without being laughable. In a very loose sense it's The Golden Girls for men. In a very real sense, the Big Four broadcast networks (and little CW) no longer have any use for a weekly hour without gruesome crime, fantasy mythology or a cast predominated by characters almost a decade older than Brett Favre.

Cable, with dual revenue streams from both advertisers and subscriber fees, can still afford to take a chance on Men of a Certain Age. But the show's built-in star power obviously helped close the deal.

Romano, known to viewers of virtually all ages for Everybody Love Raymond, co-created the series with one of that show's behind-the-camera alums, Mike Royce. He plays a party store owner named Joe, who's also the separated father of two kids. After failing as a golf pro, he's now a chronic sports better temporarily living in a cheap hotel.

Braugher, best known for his Emmy-winning work on Homicide: Life on the Street, is getting nowhere fast as Owen, a diabetic, overweight, married father of three who works for his stern father's car dealership.

Bakula (Quantum Leap, Enterprise) is still trying to breeze along as a fading actor named Terry. He remains a hit with younger women, but probably not for much longer. A dead-end job as a temp worker seems to be closing in on him while he very reluctantly auditions for the Lifetime movie Cry Bobby.

Men of a Certain Age finds ways for them to regularly get together for the purposes of kidding and commiserating. Weekend hikes are one device. Lunches at Norm's diner are another. It may be a bit contrived, but no more so than the methods used on Sex and the City or Entourage.

These guys are just about old enough to father the entire Entourage cast, save for Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold. Still, the five featured kids in Certain Age number just one teen among them -- Joe's daughter. Owen's energetic two older sons are still into Incredible Hulk costumes and blow-up toys while the third is in a stroller. It all helps to cut down on the overall payroll, which also includes recurring roles for Lisa Gay Hamilton as Owen's wife, Melissa, and Penelope Ann Miller as Joe's estranged spouse, Sonia

Romano and Royce, who co-wrote Monday's premiere episode, thankfully stop short of making any of these guys utterly infantile. Romano's Joe borders on being neurotic, but not to the point of being a full-blown doofus. He does claim, however, to hold a personal record of dropping two-and-a-half pounds during a single pee. His most recent effort supposedly netted a two-pound loss. Owen and Terry remain skeptical.

The language is adult in spots, falling well short of HBO's largesse but easily exceeding anything Romano, Braugher and Bakula could have said on their long-running broadcast network shows. But the script never seems gratuitous or out of place.

Next week's Episode 2 improves on Monday's very solid opener. It includes a terrific closing scene in which Romano's Joe punches a Hulk inflatable into submission while grudgingly coming clean about both his renewed sports betting and intent to enter the dating pool.

All three principals deftly navigate what can be a great divide between guy talk and pathos. It's easy to relate to all of them, particularly Braugher's Owen. He weeps in embarrassment and humiliation after his dealership-owning father (fine work by Richard Gant as Owen Sr.) chews him out for being an "embarrassment" to the sales team. Later comes an even bigger fall.

Men of a Certain Age shows terrific promise on a network whose two other male-dominated series -- Leverage and Dark Blue -- are mostly about springing into action and random wisecracking.

Romano, Braughter and Bakula breathe much more than that into their character-driven hour. They're older pros in fine form on the best original TNT series since its very first -- The Closer.

GRADE: A-minus

Syfy's Alice "re-imagines" her as Wonderland-trapped action-hero


Our heroine is a little boxed in during the early stages of Alice.

By ED BARK
Alice has a black belt in the martial arts, making her a formidable fighter for "The Resistance" in oppressed Wonderland.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee are reprised as torturers Dr. Dum and Dr. Dee.

There's a love triangle, too, with Alice, Jack and Hatter making like Sawyer, Jack and Kate from Lost.

This is more than enough "re-imagining" to send Lewis Carroll spinning in his grave like a helicopter blade. Although it's arguably a lesser transgression than having a band of pirates attack Noah's Ark in the same-named 1999 NBC miniseries starring Jon Voight as the Old Testament's most famous seafarer.

Syfy's four-hour Alice, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. (central) and continuing Monday at the same hour, bears the stamp of venerable Robert Halmi Sr. as co-executive producer. So did Noah's Ark and an earlier TV version of Alice In Wonderland also made in 1999 for NBC.

Halmi and his son, Robert Jr., have never been sticklers for faithful adaptations. Which you'll quickly see in Alice, whose heroine is now a twentysomething Manhattanite played by Caterina Scorsone.

"What the hell is this place?" she demands after an elderly, double-ponytailed human form of White Rabbit leads her through the Looking Glass and into a Wonderland that at first seems like something out of the Great Depression.

Alice, quick of tongue and fists, is searching for Jack Chase (Philip Winchester), who's been beaten up and kidnapped after giving her a mysterious ring. Once in Wonderland, she quickly meets Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts), who speak with a British accent and at times has a forked tongue. Still, they kind of fancy one another, even after Resistance fighter Dodo (a briefly seen Tim Curry) brands Hatter a "blood-sucking carpetbagger."

The Queen of Hearts remains in residence. As played by Kathy Bates, she's a despot who controls the minds of Wonderland's zombie-like populace via various potions cooked up by her resident Dr. Feel Good. Also in play are Harry Dean Stanton as a rather ludicrous Caterpillar and Matt Frewer as the chicken-hearted White Knight.

Frewer as usual shovels in scenery by the mouthful, but also enlivens these proceedings. He's even a bit poignant at times, although not to the point where you'll resort to a hanky or anything.

Syfy sent a rough-cut of Alice, which is missing many of the special effects and has a temporary sound track. In this case, some of the accompanying music is very, very Lost-like. Critics with review copies also are treated to looks at how sausage is made during a pair of flying flamingo machine sequences shot at ground level against green screens. One gets a renewed appreciation of how actors have to fake it in times of such "peril."

Alice is watchable in spots, goofy in others and replete with action sequences in which the plucky heroine kicks and punches her way out of various scrapes. Alas, in the end comes nuclear annihilation.

OK, just kidding on that last one. But with this "modern-day spin," no one, especially the Queen of Hearts, is playing with an entirely full deck.

GRADE: C

Talkin' trash and grillin' for a grand prize on TLC's BBQ Pitmasters


Texas BBQers Johnny Trigg (Alvarado) and Paul Petersen (McKinney)

Premiering: Thursday, Dec. 3rd at 9 p.m. (central) on TLC
Starring: A buncha BBQers, three hailing from Texas
Produced by: Charlie Corwin/Original Media

By ED BARK
Profane Myron "The King" Mixon of Unadilla, GA is legendary in his field and also in his mind.

"Everybody's not Michael Jordan, everybody's not Tiger Woods and they damn sure ain't me," he brags in Thursday's premiere of TLC's BBQ Pitmasters.

Hell, even Tiger Woods probably doesn't want to be Tiger Woods at the moment. One of the series' featured competitors wouldn't mind crawling into a hole either after the smoke has cleared at the annual Mesquite, Nevada barbecue championship.

"Overall I sucked," says the would-be contender. We won't say who it is, but the poor schlepper doesn't exactly make for a great advertisement for his/her restaurant back home.

The eight-part series will focus on seven cooks and six events, according to TLC publicity materials. Three of the competitors hail from Texas, although Jamie Geer of Burleson's Jambo Pits is nowhere to be seen in the opener.

Otherwise meet (or meat) Johnny "The Godfather" Trigg of Alvarado and Paul "The Rookie" Petersen, executive chef at Rick's Chop House in McKinney.

Both like to talk a little trash because, after all, this is a "reality" series that needs to build characters if not character.

"I'm not a loser. I'm an ass-kicker," says Petersen, who's driven 1,000 miles to compete but is slowed down by a tire blowout.

"What the hell's this all about, Tuffy? You gonna wipe his ass, too?" That little bouquet comes from Trigg, who's raggin' on Tuffy "The Professor" Stone for helping Petersen back his trailer home into a parking space.

Harry Soo of Diamond Bar, Calif. and Lee Ann Whippen of Chesapeake, Virginia also are in this mix. They're all among 47 barbecue teams competing for $40,000 in cash and prizes, including $10 grand for the overall winner. Chicken, ribs, pork and brisket are on the menu, and each competitor has to submit all four to taste tests.

"I just hope they don't mind havin' their ass beat," says Mixon, who like his rivals is a real wordsmith.

You can learn a bit about barbecuing, too, although everyone's pretty secretive about why theirs supposedly stands out. In the end, each entry is "plated" in a styrofoam box on a bed of lettuce. Them's the rules.

BBQ Pitmasters is kind of fun to watch, with the well-fed Mixon mixin' it up and pretty much casting himself as the guy on whom rivals and viewers would most like to bestow a can of whoop ass.

Sorry, just tryin' to stay in the flow.

GRADE: C+

Comcast to take controlling interest of NBC Universal -- including that crummy old, loss-leading broadcast network


NBC Universal execs Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol will stay on board.

By ED BARK
This much seems crystal clear. The once potent and profitable NBC broadcast network is at best an afterthought in Comcast's controlling purchase of NBC Universal, officially announced Thursday.

It's the cable properties that count, with the home of The Biggest Loser reduced to an inconvenient loss leader in the current scheme of things. A joint news release by Comcast and GE (which will retain a 49 percent ownership share for now), and CNBC's interview with the companies' CEOs accentuated the positives of cable's dual revenue streams and current-day profit margins.

Take it from Comcast's Brian Roberts, who says in the release: "In particular, NBCU's fast-growing, highly profitable cable networks are a great complement to our industry-leading distribution business."

So much so that the two conglomerates' "outstanding portfolio of cable networks" will account for about 80 percent of the new partnership's cash flow, according to the release.

NBC Universal's cable holdings include USA, Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, CNBC and MSNBC. Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, will chip in with E!, Versus and The Golf Channel.

Roberts, in the interview on CNBC, termed it a "fantastic suite of cable channels."

"Obviously NBC and Universal are storied assets that help power the food chain of growth," Roberts said. "But it comes down to the cable programming channels are what are growing in the content area."

It likely will take at least a year, and quite possibly longer, for the new partnership to clear regulatory hurdles. So don't look for The Jay Leno Show to be jettisoned just yet.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker will remain in place after taking the NBC broadcast network into a fourth-place dumper while at the same time building the company's growing arsenal of cable networks into big-time profit centers. Sports president Dick Ebersol also will have two new toys to play with in Versus and The Golf Channel. They're Lilliputians compared to ESPN, but Ebersol no doubt will remedy that in coming years. For now he has the upcoming Winter Olympics on his plate.

GE will still run the NBC Universal ship until Comcast gets the go-ahead to step in. The toaster maker's CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, says his "top priority for next year" is to "get NBC back to number one again."

"Let's make no mistake," he said on CNBC. "Where we are today as a broadcast network is unacceptable. And I share responsibility with that. That is job one."

"But that's no longer going to be your headache," CNBC economic reporter Jeff Faber told him.

"Well, it is until it isn't," Immelt replied. "And we'll work very hard."

The executives also were asked whether the NBC broadcast network's longstanding, top-down affiliate system would remain in place. (In D-FW, NBC5 is owned and operated by NBC Universal.)

"We don't see that changing," Roberts said. "We are planning and want to keep the affiliated structure. It's been robust and successful for many years."

For viewers, the possibilities are both endless and possibly troubling. Putting so many networks in one mega-company's basket looks like another death knell for true independents. NBC Universal's latter day ownership of Bravo, for instance, has transformed that network from an arts and culture provider to a reality show purveyor best known lately for the mushrooming Real Housewives franchise.

For now, GE's top testosterone-oozer is praising the overall manliness of those who will be making deals and cutting throats down the road.

"GE has never been accused of being soft. Jeff Zucker's a performer," Immelt said on CNBC. "He's a competitor. And I'm convinced he's going to be a great leader of this combined enterprise."

And Comcast's Roberts, in Immelt's view, is a "tough-minded guy. That's why I like him. He's an honest, tough-minded guy who knows what it means to want to do well and win. I like partners like that."

So do vampires.

Jesse Ventura body slams brain cells in truTV's Conspiracy Theory


Jesse Ventura strikes a pose for Conspiracy Theory. Turner photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Dec. 2nd at 9 p.m. (central) on truTV
Starring: Jesse Ventura
Produced by: Jesse Ventura, Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Frank Sinton, Michael Braverman, Barry Bloom

By ED BARK
Laughable, preposterous and therefore perfect for Jesse Ventura, truTV's Conspiracy Theory makes television's dean's list in at least one respect: it's so bad it's good.

Ventura, the wrestler turned former governor of Minnesota, takes dumbing down to new heights in this thoroughly far-fetched hour of hokum billed as truth-seeking. TruTV's slogan -- "Not Reality. Actuality" -- should be amended in this case to "Not Reality. Idiocy." It also should be emphasized that Ventura is not acting. Well, actually he is, but he's playing himself in what's supposed to be a non-fiction series.

The program's initial target is HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program), a military-run facility based in very out-of-the-way Gakona, Alaska. Its website says that HAARP's goal is to "further advance our knowledge of the physical and electrical properties of the Earth's ionosphere which can affect our military and civilian communication and navigation systems."

But Ventura and his "team," who gather in the show's "War Room," suspect that the real goal is global terrorism via mind and climate control.

An accompanying soundtrack, replete with drum-beating and other notes of urgency, quickly chaperones Ventura and a camera crew to the very gates of hell, where the former Navy SEAL is told by a man with a digitized head and altered voice that he won't be getting an impromptu tour of the HAARP facility.

"When I get denied something, I do the opposite of getting intimidated. I get angry," Ventura barks. This dictum is repeated throughout the opening one-hour episode, just in case we don't get the idea that he smells a rat. Viewers might get a whiff of something worse -- pure stinkum.

Conspiracy Theory strongly implies that HAARP could be responsible for devastating tsunamis and hurricanes.

"Maybe they were just experimenting with the thing," Ventura theorizes. And in the process, "collateral damage" might be deemed unfortunate but justifiable -- at least in the minds of the sinister operatives that Ventura hopes to corner.

Several purported experts are interviewed. And Ventura also talks to a suspicious townie with a disheveled beard who says he was "havin' a beer" one night when a fellow bar fly talked about how they inadvertently "fried a guy" at HAARP. Ventura listens raptly before journeying to the home of "respected author" and activist Nick Begich, brother of Alaska senator Mark Begich.

Nick affixes a contraption to Ventura's face and tells the former ring villain to stick his fingers in his ears. Ventura then says he hears music coming out of the top of his head. It's supposed to be a small-scale simulation of the mind control allegedly going on at HAARP. But it also might illustrate that Ventura's had his bell rung way too many times.

"So in layman's terms, you're almost talkin' about an invisible death ray?" he then asks.

"This is the death ray," Begich concludes.

Ventura draws his own conclusions, of course. Affixing a glower, he ends this first episode with his shoulder to the camera and his face in viewers' faces.

"Bottom line," he barks. "I went up to the gates of the HAARP facility, and they wouldn't let me in. An operation that's run by the Navy doesn't shut out a former Navy SEAL unless they've got something to hide. I'm Jesse Ventura. This is Conspiracy Theory."

Oh yeah. No doubt about it. Proof positive, baby.

Maybe Ventura should try busting into a White House State Dinner on a future episode to investigate what kind of fancy vittles poor old Ted Taxpayer is springin' for. Recent history tells us that would be a piece of cake.

GRADE: D-minus

Bravo? Not so for Lauer and the Salahis during Tuesday's Today show interview


Unrepentant: The Salahis and Matt Lauer on Today. Photo: Ed Bark

By ED BARK
Shame on Matt Lauer. Not so much for interviewing the fame-craving Salahis "exclusively and extensively" on Tuesday's Today. But for failing to ask an essential question that cuts to the heart of NBC Universal's relationship with the alleged State Dinner party crashers.

It had been reported that Michaele and Tareq Salahi were trying to negotiate a big payday for their first TV interview after bagging out on Monday night's edition of CNN's Larry King Live. So Lauer asked them right at the top of a live interview: "Are you appearing here today in any way because of any financial deal that you have made with this network? Are we paying you for this appearance in any way?"

"No, you are not," said Michaele.

"No, absolutely not," mimicked Tareq, who ended up doing the bulk of the talking while his wife sat prettily with a silver cross around her neck.

Furthermore, Michaele said, "At no time, Matt, have we ever even talked about doing that with anyone."

Unidentified television network executives told The New York Times otherwise in a story published Sunday. But whether you believe the Salahis or not -- and I emphatically don't -- it's unbelievable that Lauer never even mentioned the reason they were at the White House in the first place.

Representatives of the Bravo cable network, owned by NBC Universal, have acknowledged filming the Salahis on the day and night they successfully made their way into last Tuesday's State Dinner, where they were photographed with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden among others. Bravo also has confirmed that Michaele is "under consideration as a cast member" for the network's upcoming Real Housewives of D.C., for which the "talent" hasn't yet been finalized.

Lauer made no mention of Bravo or Real Housewives of D.C.. He didn't ask Michaele whether she still hoped to be a part of the series. He didn't ask whether their agreement to be interviewed on Today was in any way tied to assurances that Michaele indeed would make the Real Housewives cut. In short he blew it big-time.

The Salahis indeed may not have any "financial deal with this network," namely NBC. But how about with Bravo? How about "future considerations" in return for making yourself exclusive to NBC's Today, as the Salahis apparently are doing. That's easily enough done when both networks are owned by NBC Universal.

Later in the interview, Tareq said tellingly that he and his wife soon would be returning to Today to provide evidence that they had not crashed the State Dinner.

"We're going to be coming up to New York, sitting on your couch," he told Lauer via satellite from Washington, D.C. "We're going to show you documentation from emails that you'll get a chance to see."

In the interim, the Salahis supposedly have been fully cooperating with the Secret Service and are "devastated" (they repeatedly said) by their portrayal in the media.

"Our lives have been destroyed," Michaele said.

"Our lives have really been destroyed," Tareq parroted.

The couple wouldn't say who invited them to the White House, but insisted they weren't party-crashers. They also denied NBC's earlier report that they had been tossed out of a Congressional Black Caucus fundraiser after crashing it.

"Were we escorted out? Of course not," said Tareq, who then assured Lauer, "I am certain we're going to be completely exonerated."

Tareq's "estranged brother," the Florida-based Dr. Ismail Salahi, told local reporters that he was "shocked" by the State Dinner scandal, but "I don't definitely (he jumbled his words a bit) put it past him and his wife . . . They're really into the whole media thing, and they love the attention."

Lauer, generally a precise and pressing questioner when in the presence of red meat, had a responsibility to ask the Salahis about their Bravo ties. But he didn't -- and that basically invalidated the entire interview. Does he know something viewers don't know? Lauer certainly raised that question Tuesday -- basically by not asking it.

Salahis will see Lauer -- apparently for free -- on Tuesday's Today.


This time they're invited guests -- on NBC's Tuesday Today.

By ED BARK
After bagging out on Monday's edition of CNN's Larry King Live, America's most famous uninvited guests, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, instead have granted their first TV interview to NBC's Today.

NBC Universal trumpeted the booking in a Monday night publicity release issued just a handful of hours before the preening pair are scheduled to sit down with Matt Lauer on the Tuesday, Dec. 1st Today. They became overnight sensations after crashing last week's White House State Dinner and posing for pictures with President Obama among others.

The Salahis reportedly were seeking a fee in excess of $100,000 for any TV appearance after canceling their appearance with King. Today, produced by NBC News, has a policy of not paying for interviews, although the network's publicity release makes no such disclaimer. Nor does it say when the Salahis will appear, although it reportedly will be during the show's first segment in the 7 a.m. hour.

(The New York Times reported Monday night that the couple initially demanded payment from NBC, which refused. After switching lawyers, they supposedly decided to abandon that strategy in the interest of getting their story out without compensation.)

Your friendly content provider recently was asked to write a commentary for cnn.com on the "reality" show ambitions that apparently drove the couple. It was posted Monday, and you can read it here if you'd like.

The Salahis arrived on the White House grounds with a Bravo network camera crew in tow. They apparently were trying to improve their chances of appearing on Bravo's upcoming The Real Housewives of D.C, also a product of NBC Universal. Casting is still underway.