The Last Picture Show

Presenting an array of closing images from the summer 2007 TV "press tour," where the stars came out and took their pictures.

Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives at an ABC party. Photos: Ed Bark

Jimmy Smits stars in Cane, a new CBS prime-time soap.

Julianna Margulies fronts Fox's midseason Canterbury's Law.

NBC footballers Jerome Bettis, Al Michaels, John Madden.

Meet Drew Carey, new host of The Price Is Right.

Patricia Heaton of Fox's Back to You, backed by Fred Willard.

Captivating? Stars of Prison Break belly up to a new set of bars

Prison Break stars Dominic Purcell, Wentworth Miller. Photos: Ed Bark

SANTA MONICA -- We're at an amusement park on the Santa Monica pier. Where better to interview Prison Break's wild-riding Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell?

Miller's character, resourceful Michael Scofield, was last seen in a stinkin' free-for-all Panama prison housing a fine collection of kingpins, prostitutes, drug smugglers and full-blown degenerates.

"It's a Lord of the Flies scenario. It's mayhem," Miller says at a Fox party this week. "It makes Fox River (the penitentiary from Season 1) look like Club Med."

Production on Season 3 of PB began earlier this month, with Dallas and surrounding areas again serving as home bases. Last season was spent on the lam. Now it's back to basics.

"I figure the show's called Prison Break. Chances are there's going to be another break," Miller says. "These things have a way of coming full circle. People, at the end of the day, love prisons. It's what made us a success to begin with. So it's kind of a return to form."

Michael's brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), now is on the outside looking in. That's a role reversal from Season 1, when Michael willfully became a prison inmate in order to engineer the escape of his incarcerated but otherwise protective older sibling. His roadmap was a full-body tattoo with a hidden road to freedom.

"Michael has no big brother to keep him safe this time, no tattoo to refer to," Miller says. "He's very much chum in the water . . . His hands are dirty at this point. A lot of lives have been damaged and even lost so that his brother could go free. Maybe there is a part of Michael that thinks being in prison is where he should be. That's the only way to atone for his sins."

In real-life, ex-Prison Break castmate and former Dallasite Lane Garrison pleaded guilty in May to vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving after an accident in Beverly Hills. He's facing up to six years, eight months in prison in connection with the death of a 17-year-old girl who was a passenger in his car.

"Lane and I have had a little bit of communication since everything that has happened," Miller said. "There's not a whole lot I can say except that I think he's handling himself with as much grace as possible considering the situation. It's obviously a tragedy, and my heart goes out to everyone involved whose lives will never be the same. Not least of all, Lane, of course."

Garrison, who's awaiting sentencing, recently told People magazine, "I realize I will live with a sense of guilt for the rest of my life."

Miller said he's acclimated himself to life in Dallas, where he's still living "not too far" from Southern Methodist University.

"Absolutely. There's still a lot to explore," he says. "I try to go out to these little towns on weekends and see what there is to see. It occurred to me on my summer break in L.A. that I don't live in L.A. anymore. I actually live in Texas for 10 months out of 12. So the reality is that Dallas is my home for the time being."

Purcell is of a different mind. For him, Dallas isn't so hot, even when it's not so hot.

Asked if he's enjoying the city, he says, "No, of course not. I'm away from home. But that's part of the deal. I get to play, I love what I do and I get good money. I'm not gonna sit here and whine and bitch about how bad my life is because I'm in Dallas. It's hard being away from my kids and the surf and water and stuff. But it is what it is."

Season 3 of Prison Break will be "by far" better than the first two, Purcell says.

"Everyone was concerned whether or not we could maintain the fun of it, the creativity and the dimension. Quite frankly, I thought the second season kind of dragged in the ass a bit in the middle and towards the end. This year it's going to be hard not to be entertained."

Purcell's Lincoln Burrows now is intent on freeing his younger brother from a prison full of "psycopaths and nut cases."

They include three Prison Break regulars -- FBI agent Alexander Mahone (William Fichtner), former penitentiary guard Brad Bellick (Wade Williams) and super-sadistic Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell (Robert Knepper).

"Mahone's losing his mind because he doesn't have his pills, Bellick's walking around in a diaper and T-Bag is just the personification of evil," Purcell says.

Lincoln supposedly will be less stoic and monotonic this season this season.

"It's going to be a different Lincoln," says Purcell. "He's a free man but he's still got to get his brother out. We're going to see a lot more of his street smarts this year. He'll be a more charismatic kind of guy."

New episodes of Prison Break are scheduled to resume on Sept 17. As in the previous two seasons, Fox again expects to take a midseason break at the series' halfway point.

Accommodating Kiefer Sutherland talks up 24's seventh season.

***24's seventh season will find agent Jack Bauer CTU-less.

Its signature hub, the L.A.-based Counter-Terrorism Unit, "will be a factor in the fact that it's been disbanded," actor Kiefer Sutherland says.

Jack also will working for, or maybe against, a new woman president named Allison Taylor. Fox has named Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran Cherry Jones (The Heiress, Doubt) to play her.

"I was very proud that we had the first African-American president on television," Sutherland says. "I think a female president will give a very interesting political perspective for us."

The show's sixth season played dead for much of its second half in the view of many TV critics and fans. Sutherland says the first four episodes "were probably the best we've ever done to start the season. I also thought we closed the show really well, and we hit some rough roads around episodes 13 and 14.

"It's a very difficult show to write. We're accustomed to running into things that we don't all agree with. But by virtue of our schedule, we've got to plow ahead . . . I felt it was no different really than any other season. We've always had our strengths and we've confronted some bumps and hiccups."

24's producers and writers begin each season with a basic road map, but "it's just that every year we've never stayed on the map," Sutherland says. "By the time we get to the last eight or so episodes, someone's got another idea and we veer off course. For the most part that's always been for the better."

Still, "we took the criticisms to heart" last season, he says. "We're not getting defensive about it. And there are some things we want to fix."

A 24 feature film is still planned, but "there's just no time" to make it until the TV version wraps up for good, he says.

"It's not a film that you could do in nine weeks" during hiatus.

24 will return in January, again on Monday nights.

A lot of help from his friend: Ouster of Kevin Reilly at NBC prompts ABC entertainment president to rap the Peacock's new guy

ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Upper echelon network executives seldom speak bluntly about their equally highly placed rivals. But this turned out to be one of those rare times.

ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson doesn't at all like what NBC did to his longtime friend, Kevin Reilly, who's now Fox's newly named programming head. So he let loose after a formal press conference Wednesday. It often pays to be in the post-game "scrum," where questions tend to get answered more directly and honestly.

In this case, McPherson was asked by whether NBC's swift hiring of actor Isaiah Washington surprised him. Fired from ABC's Grey's Anatomy for his derogatory comments about gays, Washington now has a four-episode "arc" on NBC's new Bionic Woman series, courtesy of Reilly's successor, Ben Silverman.

"I think it's kind of humorous the way that Ben talked about it," McPherson began.

"Kind of humorous?"

"Listen," McPherson replied. "You guys let him off the hook, but that's your prerogative to do that. I think it was pretty obvious what went on there. And if he (Silverman) was in fact talking to him (Washington) before he was available, then that's 'inducement to breach.' So I don't know. He (Silverman) is either clueless or stupid."

Meeting TV critics for the first time in his new post, Silverman announced Washington's hiring amid a slew of programming announcements and also said the Peacock would be developing a new action series for the embattled actor.

"I started talking to him (Washington) before he was available," Silverman said at one point. "And when he told me he was available, I was like, 'You are? Wait. I don't understand. What do you mean? You're a huge star on a television show.' I didn't quite understand what had gone on there."

McPherson said ABC wouldn't take any legal action against NBC for allegedly tampering. But he wasn't finished talking about Silverman, who also had deflected a question about NBC's decision to dump Reilly shortly after signing him to a new three-year deal. "Is that a good company or a bad company?" Silverman was asked.

"I hope that our shows and our results speak for what we're doing," Silverman said. "I only arrived (recently), so all I can say is we're really excited about what we're doing today and what we're going to be doing tomorrow and what you'll be watching in the fall."

"He didn't know what went on?" McPherson said of Silverman. "Is he living in a cave?"

NBC in fact stabbed his "best friend" in the back, McPherson said. "I mean, Kevin Reilly is the guy who stood up for The Office (which Silverman's Reveille company produced) against all opposition inside that company (NBC). He in essence made Reveille. The idea that he (Silverman) would then be able to stand up and say, 'I just got here?' Be a man."

McPherson also took issue with NBC entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff's contention that Reilly "wasn't fired."

Instead, when NBC hired Silverman to essentially replace him, Reilly "realized or determined, frankly, that there was just no role for him at the company and decided to move on," Graboff told critics with a straight face.

"I think that you guys got as good a laugh as I did," McPherson said of Graboff's disclaimer.

ABC won't compete any harder against NBC because of what happened to Reilly, McPherson said. "But there's no question that when you see a friend treated the way he was treated, you're going to stand up for him."

That he did.

Dallas native Angie Harmon stars in ABC's Women's Murder Club

***Juggling family and career can still be a "terrifying sort of realm," Dallasite Angie Harmon said Wednesday.

"But I'm praying about it every day, and I'm confident that it's going to work out," said Harmon, starring in ABC's new Women's Murder Club this fall. "It's a different environment now. People have families. People have children. Executives understand that you're not going to be happy at work if you're not happy at home, if you can't be around your kids and stuff."

Harmon and Jason Sehorn, the former New York Giants football player, are the still new parents of daughters Finley, 3, and Avery, 2. He's lately a house husband for much of the year, but soon will be traveling in his role as a commentator for Fox's NFL telecasts.

"My husband is the most brilliant father on the planet," she said. "He's not ready to be away from them (their daughters) yet. I love that about him. I'm not ready to have him gone either."

Harmon, 34, expects to have her daughters on the Murder Club set a lot.

"I have a fabulous, beautiful trailer . . . Hopefully they won't find it too boring," she said.

Living in Southern California makes her heart grow fonder for Dallas, where she and Sehorn were married in June, 2001 after he proposed on NBC's Tonight Show. "Because of the girls ages, it's hard to travel. I'm really homesick. I had the girls so close together. I got pregnant, had the baby, and then, bam, pregnant again."

Her main concern in Los Angeles is the paparazzi, who "terrify me."

"I don't need them chasing me to validate me as an actress," she said. "You see those pictures of actresses carrying their children, and their children's heads are buried in their arms. That's not for me. I'm not going to put them through that."

Harmon, a Highland Park High School grad, is cast as a hard-driving homicide inspector on Murder Club, adapted from James Patterson's bestselling novels. She's best known for playing assistant D.A. Abbie Carmichael from 1998 to 2001 on NBC's Law & Order.

"It's a wonderful show, but there is no back story," she said of L&O. "You don't know what's going on with those characters. So you become frustrated because there are muscles you don't ever exercise . . . After a while, you start to hunger for that."

Scheduled to premiere on October 12th, Murder Club is slotted on Friday nights between 20/20 and Men In Trees. The show's producers include San Antonio native Joe Simpson, also known as the father and manager of rollicking Jessica and Ashlee Simpson.

"They're flawed and they make errors," Simpson said after the Murder Club interview session. "I think we're human. Unfortunately the world watches their every step. We try to be there when they need us, and to be away when they don't."

Ready for its closeups? Tyler, TX going national in Fox's Anchorwoman

Leg up on the competition. Phil Hurley, president/GM of Tyler, TX-based KYTX-TV and made-for-TV anchor Lauren Jones Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Score one for Fox entertainment chairman Peter Liguori. He makes a hard-to-refute point when asked whether his network's latest reality concoction, Anchorwoman, might accelerate the ruination of television journalism.

"First of all, in Tyler, Texas, let's not forget there already is Stormy the Weather Dog," he told

This is true. And as previously detailed in these pages, Stormy is prominently pictured with Tyler's KYTX news team and happily barks at visitors to the station's website.

The mutt didn't particularly like former model and wrestling villainess Lauren Jones, though. They never got along during her recent one-month stint at the station, where Jones provided material for a five-episode "comedy/reality hybrid" scheduled to premiere on August 21st.

"He's a butt-head," Jones said of Stormy Monday night during a Fox party at the Santa Monica Pier's Pacific Park midway.

Earlier in the day, Jones, KYTX president/GM Phil Hurley and Anchorwoman executive producer Brian Gadinsky met informally with TV critics to mostly defend what they've done.

Hurley, who launched the CBS station in April 2004, is a likable and unabashed businessman whose main goal was to boost KYTX's ratings in the country's 111th biggest TV market.

"It's the first time that I've taken a model and turned her into an anchor-reporter," he acknowledged. "I'm still surprised at all the attention around the country on the journalism/entertainment issue. I've been around a long time and it's always been that way. It's entertainment, and we just weren't cutting any new ground here."

Not all of the station's news staffers signed on, but Anchorwoman has prominent roles for Stormy (who probably had little choice), news director Dan Delgado, and anchor-reporters Annalisa Petralia and Michele Reese. Pioneering Dallas TV anchor Judy Jordan ("she was a sweetheart," says Jones) also will be in the picture.

"We probably had two out of 25 that really didn't want to have anything to do with it," Hurley said. "And so we just excluded 'em."

Jones, 24, primarily anchored and reported on the station's new 5 p.m. newscast. A promotional clip from Anchorwoman shows her riding to the scene of a story while asking, "When we get where we're going, are we gonna like run out of the car and act all newsy?"

She's also shown learning the trade from news director Delgado, who tells her to stop winking at the TelePrompTer. And Jones is taken aback a bit after reading news copy that says, "Gunshots ring out at a Tyler nightclub."

"There's nightclubs here?" she asks.

Circled by TV critics Monday, the former "Barker Beauty" speed-talked her answers and challenged some of the questions.

"To hire a woman who's attractive to go ahead and do the news -- there's nothing wrong with that," Jones said. "We're boosting ratings, and to boost ratings is important for the show. I mean, I'm an educated woman."

She's also in the TV news game for keeps -- at least for now.

"I'm definitely going to stick with this career," Jones said. "If modeling opportunities arise, and I can do it as a hobby, so be it. But right now I am an anchorwoman, and I take it very seriously and want to continue my career for a very long time. I'm willing to do whatever it takes . . . In no way are we mocking journalism. It's my passion to become an anchorwoman, regardless of my background. I was given the opportunity, so I'm taking the bull by the horns."

Her idol is Katie Couric, with whom "I'm completely fascinated," says Jones. "I love her career and I've always wanted to emulate something comparable to that. She's a feisty, beautiful woman, and I'm very impressed by all the things she's had to endure and all this controversy and conflict. I feel like I can kind of relate to her at this point a little bit. Just a little bit. She sort of has more experience than me."

Hurley said that Jones has a standing offer to re-join KYTX as a full-time anchor/reporter. He doesn't expect it to happen, though.

"You want me to tell you what I think? I think she'll get a better offer than mine," Hurley said.

The Tyler area's Fox affiliate station, based in Longview, is unlikely to air Anchorwoman because it mainly promotes a competitor. All the better, said Hurley, who has permission from both Fox and CBS to air it himself. The show also could be seen by Tyler cable subscribers via Fox4 in Dallas.

Initial Fox promotional materials promoted Anchorwoman as the saga of a big-city sophisticate coming to Hicksville to cover "bake sales, cowpie-tossing contests and county fairs like they were Watergate."

The updated pitch pitch tries a different tack: "Can this bombshell make it as a serious reporter? Will she save KYTX, or make it the laughingstock of the Lone Star State? Lauren wants to show everyone she's no airhead, and this is her big chance to prove she's more than a pretty face."

Executive producer Gadinsky said he at first envisioned Anchorwoman as a variation on Fox's The Simple Life. But it came out more as Legally Blonde, with Jones as a TV newsroom equivalent of Reese Witherspoon's initially clueless Elle Woods.

"She came in and she kicked butt," Gadinsky said. "And others (in the newsroom) saw that very quickly, and they adapted to it . . . To my surprise, the overriding controversy is about this whole issue of journalistic integrity, which has sort of clouded the whole hayseed angle of going down to a small Texas town. But it's really not about Tyler. It's about the news."

Fox's Liguori said that Jones' ambition to be a real-life news anchor is "at the core of where the storytelling is coming from. If she didn't go into it with that kind of approach, then I think the criticism would be further warranted. But she actually wants to develop the chops to do this. That's where a lot of the comedic tension of the show comes in, because it ain't easy.

"You see someone who's not a professional giving it a whirl and coming at it not from the Columbia School of Journalism but from the school of hard knocks. And I think that's a refreshing approach."

After a month of crash training, Jones said she now feels "no different than any other journalist that's currently on the news right now."

She began with "softer, lighter news stories" before working her way up to a piece on an allegedly drunken woman who hit a 16-year-old boy.

"That was tough," Jones said. "It was tough to see the blood in the street."

On the other hand, "We had fun in that newsroom," she said. "We sprayed a lot of cotton candy perfume."

Acting is a big part of the job, too, Jones said. And who can dispute her point that "the part of anchoring that's acting is when you're reading the TelePrompTer. Any anchor is acting as an anchor when they're doing the news, because you have to put on a certain persona. You have to play an anchor.

"It was more work than I expected, but it's not rocket science. You see it all the time -- former models who become journalists. This isn't news."

Jones now considers herself very much in play.

"All the stars aligned for me (with Anchorwoman)," she said. "But at some point this career would have happened for me, because it's been my passion since I was a little girl. So I welcome all offers."

Fox's Batman and Robin: Tough competitors, tight friends

Dynamic duo: Peter Liguori, Kevin Reilly rejoin at Fox. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Having landed firmly on his feet in nearly no time, Kevin Reilly resists stepping on the neck of the network that "left my head spinning."

The new Fox entertainment president diplomatically says he "would like the best" for the new NBC fall shows he announced in May shortly after signing a new three-year deal with NBC.

Then the Peacock astonishingly went behind his back to shoot him down. It was a cold-blooded move even by high-level network TV standards, with Reilly's successor, Ben Silverman, addressing TV critics just six days before Fox began its two-day portion of the ongoing summer "press tour." On Sunday morning, Reilly sat comfortably beside Fox entertainment chairman Peter Liguori, with whom he developed The Shield and Nip/Tuck during their previous teaming at the FX cable network.

"I don't have that deep-seated, sort of torn emotion about it," Reilly carefully said of the NBC lineup he'll now be competing against. "If those shows deserve to work, they will."

Liguori then swung a sledgehammer.

"I will help Kevin with that," he said. "I want them to all be bloody failures."

It wasn't the only time Liguori made it clear he didn't like the way NBC had treated his longtime friend.

Asked whether his "intimate knowledge" of NBC might help him at Fox, Reilly joked that he'd rather be more familiar with ABC's schedule. Added Liguori in no uncertain terms: "Our sights are not set on the No. 4 network (NBC). Our sights are set on the No. 1 network (Fox) and creating a distance between us and the No. 2 network."

He referred to Fox's No. 1 standing with advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds, where it's topped the Nielsens for three consecutive seasons while CBS has remained tops in total viewers. In other words, Reilly has gone from worst to first with network TV's key audience demographic.

"I don't want to just sort of paint it with a roller, like everybody walks around with some sort of glazed smile on their face," he said. "But Fox has never been stronger. That has a really positive effect on the people who work there because they created it. I just played through an extreme 'down cycle' at the previous place, which tends to not bring out the best in people during those times."

Reilly also noted that joining Fox -- officially on July 9 -- is idyllic compared to the situation he inherited at NBC in 2004.

"The good news is I'm not sort of getting behind the wheel here, feeling like the wheels are about to come off . . . I'm going to be pretty low-impact in terms of the on-air stuff."

American Idol clearly won't need his help. Despite a slight downturn in the show's overall ratings, it remained a dominant No. 1 in both total viewers and with 18-to-49-year-olds.

"I've been a fan of the show literally since minute one," Reilly said. "I voted for people on the show. Everybody involved knows what they're doing. So sure, I oversee it as part of the network. But it's going to be business as usual. There's nothing for me to do."

Reilly and Liguori both were tieless and wore jeans. "This is the Sunday Fox look, I'm told," Reilly said. "Weekend Fox."

Their friendship is "really not in that Hollywood way where everyone's friends," Reilly said. "It's genuine."

"It's like an old love," Liguori later elaborated. "We finish each other's sentences."

"Kind of like -- wow," said Reilly.

"Maybe that was a bit of a stretch," Liguori rejoined.

For the record, both are married with children. But darn it, they really like each other.

"He (Liguori) challenges people without getting personal or petty about it," Reilly said after the formal interview session. "And I've learned a lot from him with that style. I had the three best years of my career working with Peter at FX, and I'm looking to re-create that."

Kelsey Grammer, star of Fox's new Back to You sitcom, talks with a staffer after posing with the show's mock WURG-TV news van.

Liguori and Reilly were followed to the stage Sunday by Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and the fellow stars and producers of Fox's high-powered new Back to You comedy series.

It's one of only two new fall sitcoms filmed the old-school way -- with multi cameras in front of a live studio audience. Grammer and Heaton play Pittsburgh TV news anchors Chuck Darling and Kelly Carr. He's rebounded back to Pittsburgh after flopping in several larger TV markets.

Co-executive producer Steven Levitan (Frasier, Just Shoot Me!) previously anchored and reported for WKOW-TV in Madison, Wis.

"What's so funny to me about local news is there's this great narcissism pretending to be altruism," Levitan said. "It's just a wonderful place for a larger-than-life character to be a big fish in a small pond."

Grammer and Heaton respectively are segueing from two of TV's all-time sitcom hits, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond. In very lean times for comedy, they're being perceived by some as possibly the make-or-break saviors of the genre. No comedy came close to making prime-time's top 10 last season, and their numbers have dramatically dwindled in recent years.

"No pressure. I have absolute, total confidence," Heaton said. "This is going to be the best new show of the year. I am completely and utterly confident that we will run as long as we want to run."

Back to You is being made in a "traditional" form dating back to I Love Lucy. Lately, a majority of new comedies have been "non-traditional" single-camera half-hours such as NBC's acclaimed but ratings-deprived quartet of The Office, My Name is Earl, Scrubs and 30 Rock. All are without laugh tracks or a studio audience's involvement.

"If by traditional you mean funny, yes, it's very traditional," Grammer said of Back to You.

Co-executive producer Christopher Lloyd, who also worked on Frasier, said that Grammer "plays big attitudes well. And pomposity."

"We wanted someone that was obviously not Frasier again," he said. "But not so far away from Frasier that people would say, 'Well, what, he's a sheriff from Alaska?' "

Heaton said she loves "checking out the hairdos" and the overall look of women anchors in different markets.

"You've got your local New York anchors -- the gals who really could use a little wax on the brow. Then you get all the way to the West Coast, where some of them look like hookers."

Levitan subscribes to the cheeky "News Blues" web newsletter to stay up on the latest anchor gossip. "It's a lot of little minutiae that we're having our writing staff read regularly so that we pick up some of the latest things that happen. So I'm pretty immersed in it."

After the interview session, Levitan is convulsed upon hearing that a Milwaukee TV station used to deploy an "Albert the Alleycat" weather and sports puppet voiced by the station manager. For his purposes, that's comedy gold.

"I promise you I'm going to steal that," Levitan said.

End around: Sopranos' creator David Chase

Closeup pictures of David Chase were very hard to come by at Saturday night's Television Critics Association awards. That's him in the middle, with star Edie Falco on the left. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Bottom line, he showed up, jetting in from Paris no less.

David Chase, enigmatic creator of The Sopranos, otherwise wasn't about to mingle or make small talk with those who honored his show with a pair of Television Critics Association awards Saturday night. He arrived at the last minute, was swept to his appointed table near a hotel ballroom stage and then left before the last award was given. It's his privilege, and no one really took offense.

"Here's another clue for you all. The walrus was Pauly," Chase said in accepting The Sopranos' first trophy, for "Outstanding Achievement in Drama."

That's a reference to "Glass Onion" from The Beatles' White Album. For a while it fueled the urban legend that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by both a lookalike and soundalike. Mobster Pauly Walnuts lives on in The Sopranos.

Chase later took the stage again to accept the TCA's "Heritage Award." He first turned to presenter Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger, whose paper got a series-long closing credit and was fleetingly seen in many episodes.

"It is very possible to be sitting in a restaurant in New Jersey, and everything stops," Chase said after turning to Sepinwall for confirmation.

Two of Chase's star players, Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Jennifer Melfi), joined Chase onstage. But their leading man, James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), didn't attend after meeting with critics the previous week to promote a new HBO documentary on wounded survivors of the Iraq war.

"Without him, there would have been no show at all," Chase said.

He ended by recalling his initial response to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes movie after seeing it as a graduate student at Stanford University.

Chase's reaction: "Wow, so they had a Statue of Liberty, too."

"So that's what you're up against," he said in another indirect reference to the puzzling Sopranos' ending that still divides its fans.

Chase then left before NBC's Heroes received a closing award as "Program of the Year." He mirrors Gandolfini in his aversion to gladhanding or elaboration. So be it.

Lorraine Bracco with kingpin Hollywood producer Brad Grey.

Earlier in the evening, Alec Baldwin quickly cut to a Chase story after accepting the "Individual Achievement in Comedy" award for his portrayal of unctuous Jack Donaghy on NBC's 30 Rock.

Baldwin said he regretted the end of The Sopranos in part because he now no longer has a shot at nabbing a guest star role. He then recalled the time he had to meet socialite Georgette Mosbacher to discuss his possible involvement in a fundraising event.

It was a steamy summer day in New York City, and Baldwin mistakenly thought they were meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel. Instead it was the Four Seasons Restaurant. So Baldwin bridged the gap on foot and arrived dripping wet for their meeting. He repaired to the men's room, took his shirt off and was un-moistening it with a hand-dryer when Chase walked in.

"Alec Baldwin?" he supposedly said in surprise in what Baldwin recalled as a Woody Allen stammer. End of story. Hoo-hah.

Edie Falco had the role of her lifetime as Carmela Soprano.

NBC's Friday Night Lights won the "Outstanding New Program" award after largely being snubbed in the Emmy nominations two days earlier. And the Peacock's The Office again received "Outstanding Achievement in Comedy" honors.

"So I spent all day reading Harry Potter," Office executive producer Greg Daniels began. "I'm on page 450. It's good."

Other winners were:

Career Achievement: Mary Tyler Moore, who sent a brief thank you note after belatedly deciding not to attend.

Individual Achievement in Drama: Michael C. Hall for his starring role in Showtime's Dexter series.

Best movie, miniseries or special: Planet Earth (The Discovery Channel)

News and information: Planet Earth

Children's programming: Kyle XY (ABC Family)

And the walls came tumbling down -- to save Jericho

CBS gave TV critics T-shirts touting the Jericho nuts. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- This is what people get excited about these days.

The demonstrably nutty and amazingly successful campaign to resurrect Jericho even reached CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler in her doctor's office.

"He was a new doctor. And he comes in to give me the results of a test, and you're always nervous," Tassler told TV critics this week. "You're like, 'I hope there's nothing bad. It should be good.' He comes in with his white lab coat on and puts his hand in his pocket. And I'm like 'Oh God, there's going to be bad news.' He pulls out a bag of peanuts.

"I thought, 'Oh Jesus.' "

Shell games began after CBS left the apocalyptic drama off its fall schedule. Jericho's Nielsen ratings had sagged when it returned to the network after an extended hiatus. So its cancelation didn't seem like any overtly big deal. That stuff happens all the time. You move on, and networks seldom look back.

Jericho fans seized, however, on a season-ending rallying cry from the show's hunky, heroic lead man, Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich). "Nuts," he'd replied to a call for surrender. "You can go straight to hell."

CBS corporate headquarters soon were being deluged with peanuts, a relatively cheap form of protest even at more than 20 tons worth. The Internet also heated to a boil. Chat rooms. Message boards. Threats to secede. Tassler at first thought her head might explode. Then she and her fellow CBS programming bosses took the highly unusual action of rethinking what they'd done.

"They had a knowledge of the show that was so detailed and committed and passionate. We said, 'Look, this is a rare opportunity for us to really interact with our audience and take another shot.' So it was a gradual build. It wasn't one specific moment."

Fans of Jericho got busy again earlier in the week, blanketing TV critics with emails urging them to wring every last ounce of information from CBS execs and the show's cast. Ulrich, for one, said he's never received this kind of reaction to any of his movies, which include Scream and As Good As it Gets.

"It's been an eye-opener, certainly . . . To many people, the show really mattered in their week, and they really were looking forward to seeing it. The thing that kept getting me is that people knew a lot about the show. It wasn't your casual viewer that was coming up to me. So it's been great to meet as many people as I have face-to-face."

Co-star Lennie James, who plays enigmatic Robert Hawkins, said the fan revolt over Jericho provided a "rare insight for the networks and the advertisers. And I hope they use it sensibly."

CBS has committed to a seven-episode return sometime in midseason on an as yet undetermined night. Tassler expects loyalists to either put up or holster their nut sacks.

"We've really said to them, 'You have got to be our Jericho Rangers. You've got to recruit more viewers."

Jericho co-star Lennie James, who plays myterious Robert Hawkins.

Production on the seven episodes is scheduled to begin on Monday (July 23) and run through September. Executive producer Carol Barbee promises a ramped-up "arc" in which resultions are revealed more rapidly than they might have been. But the storyline also will "open you up to the next level," she said, "so that you can see what the future would be if there's a Season 3. And hopefully there will be."

Summertime Friday night repeats of Jericho haven't done much business so far. A July 13 pairing of a Return to Jericho recap and a rerun respectively finished 94th and 88th in the weekly ratings, averaging just 3.1 million viewers for the two hours.

Tassler said she's virtually certain, however, that CBS will stick with the seven new midseason episodes no matter what the ratings. Then the games can begin anew. But what else might fans have sent the first time around? An Aristotle-Socrates dialogue ensued:

Ulrich -- "Snakes."

James -- "Snakes. Strippers."

Co-star Ashley Scott (Emily Sullivan) -- "Strippers. Little people strippers."

James -- "Strippers that bounce."

All great suggestions.

Presenting Adhir Kalyan, star of The CW's new Aliens in America.

Actor Adhir Kalyan, a fifth generation South African, stars as a transplanted teenage Muslim from Pakistan in the new CW comedy series Aliens In America.

Slotted behind Everybody Hates Chris on Monday nights, the show is generating a least a bit of sorely needed buzz for the Lilliputian network. Kalyan's character, Raja Musharaff, is an exchange student living with a Wisconsin family in fictional Medora, Wisconsin.

In real life, his only culture shock in coming to the U.S. was "the size of the portions of food."

"Really," Kalyan said, "do we need portions that are that big? I mean, Africa doesn't need Bono. Africa doesn't need (Bob) Geldof. Africa needs a Denny's Grand Slam breakfast."

Product placement or not, they just have to work that into the script.

Big Brother: An up-close and kinda creepy look at CBS's "human zoo"

This is where host Julie Chen greets weekly evictees. Photos: Ed Bark

LOS ANGELES -- Wearing dark clothing and speaking only in whispers, a small group of TV critics is feeling pretty damned cool about winding through Stage 18's dimly lit eerie canal.

It's also kinda bizarre being close enough to reach out and touch tattooed, pierced Big Brother 8 houseguest Dick Donato. He's completely unaware that we're watching him fold his clothes and then wheel a suitcase out of one of the CBS show's messy bedrooms. It's the eve of this season's second vote-off, and Donato is on the block with Joe Barber II, who eventually got bounced on a 9-1 vote Thursday night.

Big Brother's congenial executive producer, Allison Grodner, is leading this very Twilight Zone-ian tour of the show's inner sanctum.

"This is where the one-way mirrors are," she says. "It's really what I call the human zoo."

The Big Brother denizens can't see or hear us as we walk the entire perimeter of their "house" early Wednesday evening. In the surprisingly vast, Astro-turfed backyard, Barber and Donato's heretofore estranged daughter, Daniele, are playing Nerf golf.

The week's "Head of Household, Jen Johnson, has taken a brief time out from being full of herself. For now at least, she's sound asleep in her separate upstairs bedroom.

Meanwhile, "America's player," mole Eric Stein, is taking another of his seemingly frequent showers. And muscled Zach Swerdzewski is being taped in the "Confessional" room, where he's saying goodbye to both Donato and Barber. Only one will be of any immediate use.

"We do not stop taping these people ever," Grodner says. "So it's quite a feat to keep this beast going."

Executive producer Allison Grodner has a glop of "Big Brother slop."

A crew of 250 works night and day on Big Brother, which began its eighth season on July 5th and airs in one-hour gulps on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. is trained on the house 24/7 while the Showtime 2 pay cable channel offers unedited coverage in the wee hours. Forty-two monitors in the show's master control room offer a wide variety of live feeds. Subtitles sometimes are needed to interpret the contestants' conspiratorial whispering campaigns. At the other extreme, clattering kitchen implements can be a problem.

"Next year, Nerf pots and pans," says an editor.

The grand prize is still $500,000 for the last man or woman standing. It's a nice chunk of change, but the winner must withstand 80 days of conniving and kvetching while being isolated from the outside world.

There's also the imposition of "Big Brother Slop," a very bland gruel served for days on end to losers of various competitions. Had some. Wouldn't want any more.

Big Brother host Julie Chen and husband, CBS prexy Leslie Moonves.

Beer and wine also are served, but no longer in abundance, Grodner says. "It's not as if it was ever free-flowing."

Contestants aren't allowed to sing anything other than their own original songs because CBS doesn't want to pay any additional rights fees. Product advertisements also are forbidden on apparel, which regularly leaves little to the imagination. The self-absorbed Jen reportedly brought no fewer than 100 bikinis with her.

Host Julie Chen presides over Big Brother's live Thursday eviction shows. Her husband, CBS big boss Leslie Moonves, says he's learned to become a fan.

"My wife just came home (before Thursday night's CBS "All-Star Party") and told me what happened," he tells "Like anybody else, I talk to my wife about her job. And one of her jobs is Big Brother. So the more I know about it, the better husband I am. I have a little bit of a vested interest, but I do enjoy it."

Chen, who has hosted the show since its inception, randomly watches live Big Brother feeds and gets a daily "Hot Sheet" that keeps her informed on the latest intrigues.

"It's a part of my life for most of the summer," she says. "And my husband really does get into it. He's not just doing it to keep me happy. It's a pure soap opera."

Twelve contestants remain after Thursday's eviction. Not one of them knew they had a small batch of voyeuristic visitors the night before.

Dick Donato had the closest encounter. Some of us were near enough to pluck one of his silver earrings. Cuh-reepy.

Never-ending story: Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O'Reilly -- Round Gazillionth (But still entertaining)

Keith Olbermann throws a few more logs on his continuing firefight with Bill O'Reilly after earlier striking a match. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Last summer he brought a Bill O'Reilly cardboard mask with him to the annual Television Critics Association "press tour." This week he waited to be asked about the man he regular dubs the "Worst Person in the World" on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

"My gratitude to him has increased with every passing week, Olbermann said of Fox News Channel's most popular personality, whose O'Reilly Factor airs opposite Countdown on weeknights from 7 to 8 p.m. (central). "I used to say that I owed him a percentage of my salary . . . And now it's just, 'Good ol' Bill.' Writes half my material for me.

"Every time he does not say my name but tries to pretend he's shooting somewhere around me at the NBC family, somebody writes an article about him that includes me in it. It's to some degree the way a virus feels about the host."

After the formal interview session, Olbermann received thanks from a Denver television critic who was tracked down by one of the Factor's staffers after she wrote something critical of O'Reilly and then declined to appear on his show. Olbermann, of course, sounded off about it on Countdown.

O'Reilly's aversion to most criticism is the mark of a man who has "personal doubts about whether what you're doing is right," Olbermann opined to a small circle of critics. "If the writer hits a nerve, you might just briefly go off the deep end. Especially if you're already tending towards the deep end, as I think he sort of is."

Olbermann has bounced around a bit before finding his niche with MSNBC. He even worked briefly for Fox Sports.

But O'Reilly's "nomadic career makes me look like a one-team employee," Olbermann said. "How many places did he not succeed? Obviously he's always been fully convinced of his own superstardom. When success comes after that much failure, you wonder, 'Why this time did it work?' And it's quicksilver in your hands . . . You lose a sense of proportion, where any criticism can get you so angry that your logic suspends itself."

Olbermann finished with a roundhouse right, comparing O'Reilly to Sen. Joe McCarthy, the late, discredited Communist "Red"-hunter of the 1950s.

"Joe McCarthy has people to this day who say of him, 'He was right. He really was a great American.' I'm grateful that Bill O'Reilly is on television. I mean, what if he were in Congress? There's always been a little room for some crazy demagogues."

O'Reilly, as with another of his antagonists, Al Franken, does not address Olbermann by name. Olbermann said he's never met O'Reilly either, although they've attended a few large public functions together by happenstance.

Still, a one-page rebuttal (above) did find its way into the Beverly Hilton press room shortly after Olbermann's session with critics.

Fox News Channel denies being behind the jockey depictions of O'Reilly and CNN's Paula Zahn and Nancy Grace, with Olbermann's face relegated to a horse's behind. But no one fully believes that, especially in light of previous FNC attack materials sent to reporters under the proviso that they not in any way be linked to the network.

Olbermann said he was on vacation for roughly 25 percent of June, which could explain why his show ran fourth for a quarter of that month in the key 25-to-54-year-old advertiser demographic. Countdown generally finishes second to The O'Reilly Factor, and has gained ground since the two shows began collision-coursing in April of 2003.

***Olbermann will be moderating an August 7 debate among the major Democratic presidential candidates. The 90-minute faceoff, one of many so far, will originate from Chicago's McCormick Place West.

In contrast, Fox News Channel so far has been unable to persuade Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards to participate in an announced Sept. 23rd Democratic debate being co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

"I don't know whether I would have advised them to avoid free television time, whether it's on Fox or Al Jazeera," Olbermann said of the Democrats. "Realistically if you can get somebody listening to you, that's probably the most important component. But I don't think this is an endorsement of any kind (of MSNBC)."

***CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler confirmed Wednesday that actor Mandy Patinkin abruptly has decided to leave the network's Criminal Minds rather than show up for the production start of its third season.

Patinkin likewise left CBS' Chicago Hope in the lurch earlier in his career.

"Right now it's a personal issue," said Tassler, who repeatedly declined to specify any further. "And in the legacy of ER and Law & Order, the show will go on."

Patinkin's press statement, released earlier this week, cited "creative differences" as his reason for leaving.

"Well, I think 'creative differences' is a euphemism for 'personal issues,' " she said with a wink and to laughter.

Tassler said she hoped that Patinkin will elaborate in the "very near future." He's scheduled to appear in one more episode of Criminal Minds, likely the show's second episode, to wrap up his characterization of criminologist Jason Gideon.

Singing Bee host Joey Fatone strikes a pose with the hit show's dancing "Honeybees" during NBC's "All-Star Party" Tuesday evening.

***Half a year ago Joey Fatone might have had trouble getting a prime booth at Denny's. Now he's hosting summer's suddenly hottest show, NBC's The Singing Bee. Placing second on Dancing with the Stars can do wonders for a NSYNC singer who'd been going nowhere fast.

"Of course it was a great kick in the butt for me," he said.

Olympic skater Apolo Anton Ohno took the show's gaudy mirror ball trophy, but Fatone has profited far more from Dancing's priceless exposure .

"You give credit where credit is due . . . It's been a good shot in the arm for me to get boosted and to be able to jump-start my career again," he said.

Singing Bee already has been fast-tracked to NBC's fall schedule. It will follow bloated 90-minute editions of NBC's The Biggest Loser on Tuesday nights at 8:30 (central).

Friday Night Lights: Are you (not) ready for some football?

Friday Night luminaries Jesse Plemon, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton make the scene at NBC's "All-Star Party." Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- It's tough being Friday Night Lights. Everyone knows its premise is football. And there's the dilemma.

Even co-star Connie Britton, acclaimed for her performance as the coach's wife, has no use for all that smash-bang.

"I say with my head hung low, I'm not a fan," she said after ' Tuesday afternoon press conference broke up.

Britton joins legions of women in making that declaration. So would she watch the show if she weren't in it?

"That's an interesting question. I don't know. I think eventually, maybe, I would have gotten around to it. But our challenge is to really get people to realize that the football aspect of it is where this town's passion lies. And we all have passions about something. If people realize that, then they can get on board and know they're not going to be subjected to hours and hours of football, scoring, rah, whatever. I can't even talk about it."

Filmed in Austin and set in the fictional rural Texas town of Dillon, Lights kept being held for little gain in the Nielsen ratings during a first season that otherwise won it a George Foster Peabody Award and mostly uniform raves from TV critics. Cancellation always seemed imminent, but NBC belatedly gave the show a second season while switching it from Wednesdays to Fridays.

New entertainment president Ben Silverman faces the same challenge as his abruptly sacked predecessor, Kevin Reilly. He somehow hopes to persuade America that Lights is only peripherally about football.

"No more people in helmets," Silverman said of the NBC marketing division's "new attack plan" for the series, which returns on Oct. 5 after a first season DVD set hits stores at half-price ($29.98) on Aug. 28th.

Lights' freshman season got a heavy promotional push on NBC's Sunday Night Football. The network's sports czar, Dick Ebersol, now says that was a bad idea.

"It may be our best soap opera," he said. "I think we were part of an early mistake of letting people think it was too much about football, which was not good for the show."

Even Football Night in America co-host Cris Collinsworth, a former NFL receiver, has been coached to see Lights as "a Dallas or soap opera kind of thing. And that's what my kids like about it."

Minka Kelly plays "conflicted cheerleader" Lyla Garrity in Lights.

Last season ended with coach Eric Taylor's (Kyle Chandler) Dillon Panthers winning the state championship before he took a college coaching job in Austin.

Wife Tami (Britton), who stayed behind in Dillon, is in labor with the Taylors' second child as Season 2 begins.

"So that brings him (Coach Taylor) back for the first episode," said executive producer Jason Katims. "The next several episodes are really the story about this decision to live separately, and whether or not they made a mistake. So it's not like we're going to see five episodes where every once in a while they'll talk on the phone. They're going to be intensely connected from the very beginning."

Chandler, married for 11 years in real life, said he's "sort of bringing a little of what I know" to his challenging TV marriage with Britton. "I know how to be frustrated with a woman. I'm good at that."

He's also accommodated himself to Austin, where filming resumes next month.

"It's like doing a Tennessee Williams play on a stage outside down South as opposed to being in an air-conditioned studio in California," Chandler said. "There's a real energy. I don't know what the most exciting interview for you would be. But for an actor, the most exciting thing we can do is work on this show right now."

The Dillon Panthers will have a new football coach at the start of the season. An actor's been chosen, but the deal isn't quite done yet, Katims said. Former quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), paralyzed at the start of last season from an on-field injury, will be an assistant coach after graduating from high school.

"A great majority of the fan letters I get are from people who have suffered either a career-ending injury or any injury that is paraplegic or quadriplegic in nature," Porter said. "They say it's the most realistic view of a quadriplegic's life in a long time. I just take it as such a huge compliment."

Lights co-star Scott Porter (left) gets ready for a Singing Bee competition at NBC's "All-Star Party" Tuesday night. He didn't win.

Porter's character, who remains determined to walk again, is buoyed after getting movement back in one of his hands early in the second season. This also leads to his reconnecting with former girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and renegade Panthers running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who used to be his best friend.

These are just a few of the many extracurricular activities designed to get Lights at least inching upward in the Nielsen ratings. NBC's patience with the show is commendable but not bottomless.

"We think this is a show that should reach a female audience as well," Katims said. "Because of the football thing, it's been a challenge for women to know that they would like the show. That's what we're trying to sort of overcome. It's really about marketing."

A TV critic from Philadelphia wondered whether it's "possible that people in the United States just don't want to look at Texas, just don't want to go there."

Katims, a native of Brooklyn who didn't play football, said he's nonetheless "decided to dedicate my life to the show. I feel like it's something that people will connect with."

Porter sees Austin as a real world alternative to "the hype machine of L.A. or New York. It just allows us to bring more reality to our characters. We just keep on investing ourselves in the city and the state of Texas . . . This is real life. This isn't a show that overplays all the drama."

That's called talking a good game. NBC and Friday Night Lights soon will learn if America at large is ready to play ball.

Big Ben ticks off a slew of NBC gambits

View from the top -- but NBC's still on the bottom. Photos: Ed Bark

The new guy can't be accused of letting the job sink in first.

Ben Silverman, in just his third month as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, hit TV critics with a barrage of programming announcements Monday morning. None of them were piddling.

For one, Jerry Seinfeld will be guest-starring as himself on the second-season premiere of NBC's acclaimed but ratings-impaired 30 Rock. Also, Silverman has uncanceled Donald Trump's The Apprentice and hopes to lure the billionaire's arch-nemesis, Rosie O'Donnell, as part of a new celebrity version to be played for charity.

"It would be really fun to see her on that show," Silverman said after his formal presentation to TV critics. "I haven't made the phone call yet. But I'm gonna try." He has ample time. Trump's new Apprentice isn't scheduled to premiere until next spring.

The 36-year-old programmer also quickly pounced on Isaiah Washington after the actor was fired from ABC's Grey's Anatomy for making derogatory comments about gays. Washington will co-star in a five-episode arc of NBC's new version of Bionic Woman. The Peacock also is developing a possible new action series for him.

Silverman is reaching deep into TV's past, too, by hiring All In the Family creator Norman Lear, who turns 85 next week. Lear will helm a planned one-hour dramedy that NBC says is "focused on a mother who reenters the work force and is pitted against her late husband's ruthless partner in a money-charged battle of the sexes on Wall Street."

Additionally, NBC is shuffling its previously announced fall lineup to make room for The Singing Bee, which drew more than 13 million viewers with last week's premiere opposite the baseball All-Star game. Bee, hosted by Dancing with the Stars runnerup Joey Fatone, will air at 8:30 p.m. (central) on Tuesdays following expanded weekly 90-minute episodes of The Biggest Loser.

Silverman is pushing the made-in-Austin Friday Night Lights back one hour to 8 p.m. Fridays in order to give it a lead-in boost from Deal or No Deal, which is moving from Mondays. Deal's slot will be taken by the new sci-fi dramedy Chuck on an all fantasy night also populated by Heroes and the new time-traveling drama Journeyman.

In that same realm, Silverman is newly in business with "mystifier/artist" Criss Angel and veteran mentalist Uri Geller. They'll be fronting a search for the "next great mentalist" on Phenomenon, an Americanized version of the hit Israeli reality series The Successor.

Man in a big hurry: new NBC entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman.

All told, Silverman likely made more major programming announcements than competitors Fox, ABC and CBS are likely to make in total during their turns at the annual summer TV "press tour."

"Get ready. I want to do it fast and furious," he told "It's really hard to move this massive ship. We left port, and we're in a business that's under attack. We're an inch from the iceberg. We're not 100 yards from shore. So I think we have to move quick. We have to roll up our sleeves."

Silverman pledged allegiance to Friday Night Lights and promised a "new attack plan" that will position the Peabody Award-winning series as a family hour instead of a "sports or youth show."

"No more people in helmets" during NBC's promotions for Lights, he said. "I really like the show . . . You won't see us canceling anything early that we believe in."

Silverman often precedes his answers with "Do you know what?" It's a variation on CBS president Leslie Moonves's "And by the way." Previous network exec-speak such as "At the end of the day" apparently has been retired.

Silverman knows exactly what he wants to do with Jay Leno -- keep him at NBC after Conan O'Brien takes over The Tonight Show in 2009.

"We are talking to him all the time about what his fantasy (at NBC) would be," Silverman said. "We're aggressively courting Jay to stay."

A prime-time variety series is a possibility if Leno is interested, he said. NBC Universal also owns cable networks such as USA, Bravo and Sci Fi Channel. "We have a lot of assets that we can give him access to," Silverman said.

His overall mantra, which repeatedly will be tested on the fourth-place network, is "believe in your concept, believe in your finish line and see it through."

He at least is off to a lightning fast start.

Brian Williams studies the competition hard -- and freely admits it.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who dropped in at his network's cocktail reception Monday night, is a true student of the high-stakes game he plays. Lately he's been on an unaccustomed losing end, dropping to second place in the Nielsens behind ABC's World News with Charles Gibson.

"Ratings happen," he said. "If somebody made a bumper sticker that said that, I'd put it on my car. I can't change what we cover."

He is, however, acutely aware of what Gibson and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric throw against him.

"I TiVo both of my competitors every night," Williams said. "And I have a den with an easy chair that I go home to. And before I go to sleep at night, I watch my competition . . . I pour so much of myself into the broadcast every night. And I'm always so curious to see what we missed, what we did better. I can't imagine a world where I pretended that we weren't up against the other two. I think it's what keeps you sharp. But you'd go nuts if you gave it too much weight."

The Nightly News will be moving to a new studio in the fall. Williams also said he'd like to spend less time reading a TelePrompTer and more of his newscast doing live interviews. He's also reasonably certain that he covers more military stories than his competitors, in part because his only board of directors membership is with the Medal of Honor Foundation.

"I enjoy the time I spend in Iraq. I actually do," he said. "I'm anxious to go back. Immersing myself in that life is really fascinating. And I enjoy sharing some of the risks with American soldiers, because I didn't serve myself. I'm very wary, though. I'm not a cowboy when I travel."

Williams also retains a sharp sense of humor, and is scheduled to be a guest on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live Tuesday during his brief stay in Southern California.

"I've downloaded a lot of music based on the groups he's had on, " Williams said. "Half of which I can play in the car when my kids are listening."

Also count him as a big fan of The Sopranos who loved the series abrupt, much-debated finish and never thought that anything had gone wrong with his TV set.

"I think (Sopranos creator) David Chase gave us a painting to hang in the Louvre," he said.

Tony Soprano didn't die in the diner, in Williams' view.

"I assume he went on with the daily risks of subpoenas, indictments, shootings and the other conflicts that can happen to an upper middle-class mob boss."

Star Jones: Trying not to be the biggest loser after a lightweight interview

Surrounded by reporters, Star Jones keeps talking. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Cynically, it's damage control; charitably, it's a do-over.

Star Jones sought to recover from a semi-distrastrous press conference Sunday by doing remedial one-on-one interviews in her top floor hotel suite with a handful of TV critics.

Her new talk show for Court TV premieres on Aug. 20th. But the post-game talk was all about Jones' almost shockingly slim new look and her refusal to specify in any way how she "lost a whole person."

"I just find it fascinating that you all are so curious," Jones, 45, later told "If I start sitting on my butt and watch The Closer reruns every day, I'm going to start to spread. I'm not an idiot. I have to get some exercise every day. I have to choose what I eat. I don't over-indulge, but I do eat the things I love. When I came to L.A., I had a Pink's hot dog. Who wouldn't? But I didn't have three. That's the difference."

Jones, dumped by The View in June of last year, initially got into trouble by dodging the issue.

"In the coming months I think that I will have answered every question that you want the answers to," she told a roomful of TV critics about her dramatic weight loss. "I guarantee you no one will ever have to ask those questions again . . . I will address it in a more appropriate forum. I think it's a fair way to put it, and not address it right here."

The questions persisted, of course, primarily because Jones at first gave the impression that she had brokered an exclusive interview.

"I don't want to ruin somebody else's opportunity that we've put out there," she said. "C'mon, guys."

The cat-and-mouse game continued until an exasperated critic bluntly asked Jones, "Do you realize the public relations damage you've done by being coy about this upcoming interview?"

Jones could have waylaid such questioning much earlier by revealing that it's not an interview at all. Instead she's written a first-person column for the September issue of Glamour magazine that will detail how she dropped from 300 to 150 pounds. But she waited until the last minute to name Glamour before adding, "I don't mind saying that at all."

Later, in her Beverly Hilton hotel suite, Jones still declined to say whether her weight loss in part is tied to surgery.

"But I am healthy," she emphasized. "For the people who care, I breathe easily, I exercise regularly. I am healthier than I've ever been, and this is a new beginning for me with this show. So I've turned the page. I want people to focus a little bit more on my brain and not on the size of my butt."

Jones said she had "offers up the wazoo" to do television interviews, although View grande dame Barbara Walters "didn't ask."

"I took the time to find me (both physically and mentally)," she said. "Sorry it wasn't on a PR schedule. It was on a health-care schedule. I didn't want to sit down in an interview format where there were some crocodile tears and people milkin' this for all it's worth. That's not me."

Jones said her television show won't be a vehicle to talk about the ups and downs of losing weight and keeping it off. Instead she plans to be her old opinionated self, albeit in a new body.

"I feel that the audience is going to respond to me if they feel like their Star is back, that I'm giving 'em the straight skippy," she said.

The View is still looking for new bodies after losing Jones, Meredith Vieira and recently, Rosie O'Donnell.

"I was part of an amazing pop culture experience, and Barbara Walters gave me the opportunity of a lifetime," Jones told TV critics. "So I'm not going to do anything that damages that warm feeling that I had. I'm not going to pile on. I'm not going to partcipate in any of the silliness that might make excitement."

She's disappointed, though, that The View hasn't yet hired a "person of color" to fill a slot. "You need to make it look like the fabric of society . . . so that's the only thing that I would encourage."

Onstage at the Beverly Hills Friar's Club, actor Jeff Goldblum and a group of fellow jazzmen play the theme to vintage TV series 77 Sunset Strip during a party for AMC's new 1960-set series Mad Men.

***Matthew Weiner, co-executive producer of The Sopranos, is riding a new wave of favorable buzz for AMC's Mad Men, which premieres Thursday (July 19).

Set in 1960, it depicts a hard-selling, hard-living group of Madison Avenue marketers. Here's Weiner's perfectly delivered sales pitch, complete with punch line.

"I reached a certain point in my life where I started thinking about myself as a man and where I was and what I was feeling," he said Sunday. "And it had to do with New York at that period. And I looked at these guys, at this world, these men who were overpaid and drank too much and smoked too much and were glib and cynical and bit the hand that fed them all the time and showed up late and had no respect for authority. And I thought, 'These are my heroes.' "

Cigarettes are almost supporting characters in Mad Men. That's purely for authenticity, Weiner said.

"The truth is, it's part of the time travel, and it was ridiculous to try and tell the story without it. But you know, it's a self-detructive, horribly addictive habit that these people suffered from. And when I was trying to find these advertising guys who were there and talk to them about it, it was difficult. Because they're all dead."

The Sex Files (but first, The X-Files and Mary-Kate Olsen as a pot-smoking Christian)

David Duchovny plans to do another X-Files movie. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- It's been almost 10 years since the first and so far only X-Files feature film. Chances now seem fairly excellent, though, that a sequel will be made.

"I really am expecting to see a script next week," David Duchovny told TV critics Saturday during a session for his new Showtime series Californication.

Other planets already are aligned. The script is by X-Files creator Chris Carter, who also plans to direct. "And Gillian's on board and I'm on board," Duchovny said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he did."

Duchovny and Gillian Anderson played agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully on the series, which ran from 1993 to 2002 on Fox. They also co-starred in the 1998 movie.

"It's going to open the same weekend as the Sex and the City movie," jabbed Californication co-star Evan Handler, who declined to say whether he'll reprise his character of Harry Goldenblatt from the HBO series version.

"We're going to crush 'em," Duchovny counter-punched.

***Earlier Saturday, waif-ish Mary-Kate Olsen, now 21, joined the cast of Weeds for a third-season press conference.

She'll be playing new-to-the-neighborhood Tara Lindman when the marijuana-laced series returns to Showtime on Aug. 13th. Press materials describe Tara as a "good Christian girl-next-door" who quickly romances returning character Silas Botwin (Hunter Parrish).

"Does that mean she's never smoked pot before?" queried.

"I don't think Christianity and pot-smoking are necessarily mutually exclusive," said Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. "I think she's someone who is very comfortable in her Christianity and comfortable in her recreational drug use."

Olsen, reluctant or perhaps unable to be expansive, said her character wants to give Bible lessons. "Maybe she's stoned while doing so, but she wants to tell them about it."

Weeds will be her first screen role without twin sister Ashley. An earlier solo part in the movie Factory Girl was "cut out," she said.

"I mean, it doesn't feel that weird," Mary-Kate said. "I'm doing what I love. And you know, I go out on auditions by myself."

"We didn't know she had a sister," Kohan joked.

"The business of being an Olsen twin," as one questioner put it, supposedly doesn't get in the way of her acting career.

"I'm really passionate about acting and working hard," Mary-Kate said. "And you know, I do a lot of other stuff in my life. I do fashion and Im very passionate about that . . . It will always be that celebrity title or whatever you want to call it, but hopefully my work speaks for itself."

She spoke no further after the press conference. Engulfed by an entourage, Olsen was whisked to a waiting town car and disappeared in a poof. End of story.

Say hello to a girl in a bubble at Saturday night's Game Show Network party. There was a live band, too. And lotsa pizza.

***HBO's very sexually explicit new Tell Me You Love Me series had tongues wagging during cable's four-day portion of the ongoing summer TV "press tour." Even 67-year-old Jane Alexander, who plays a sex therapist, gets very naked during the course of the 10-episode drama, which premieres on Sept. 9.

HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss did something of a pole dance in describing to TV critics what the series is and isn't about.

"I think what we really want to give the feeling of is being in a relationship and being in the nooks and crannies of committed relationships, which are very peculiar and specific things, and mysterious," she said. "So I know that the sex is getting a lot of attention, but you really cannot tell the story of intimacy without using sex honestly as part of your tool kit. And that's a simple way of saying it."

One of the actor's tools -- or a very realistic rendering of same -- is on full display in the first episode as his lover takes her hand to it. In a later episode, Alexander repeats that action with her husband. And there's repeated and realistic-looking coupling throughout, raising the question of whether actors actually were "doing it" in the interest of cinematic art. That's hard to believe, but no one unequivocally said otherwise. Could HBO be leaving the question open as a sales tool in times when it could use another big buzz show?

"The sex scenes in any of the episodes are a pretty integral part of the storyline," said Michelle Borth, whose character, Jamie, is the most active. "We are not porn stars. We're actors. And I think part of our job in any scene, whether it's a sex scene, a fight scene or an emotional scene, is you do the best that you can do it authentically and honestly. So we were doing the sex scenes to make you ask that question, basically."

Executive producer Gavin Palone later deflected a question on whether Alexander had a grip on actor David Selby's hard-drive -- or a stunt facsimile.

"I'm not sure, and I don't think you need to get into it," he said. "The important thing is, when do you ever see people who are that age in a love scene? I don't think I've ever seen it before. And that's the key element as opposed to what Jane may be touching or not touching."

Jane didn't attend the interview session. And series creator Cynthia Mort, whose TV credits also include Roseanne and Will & Grace, expressed surprise that the sex in Tell Me you Love Me is arousing so much interest.

"Maybe other people answer these kinds of questions about violence or murder scenes, but these are sex scenes between two people who are in love in a committed long-term relationship," she said. "It's not marginalized, it's not perverted. It's none of those things."

Actually, Borth's character is trying out other partners after a fall-out with her would-be finance over issues of fidelity. But let's move on to HBO's arch-rival, Showtime, whose entertainment president, Robert Greenblatt, said his network has no corporate policy prohibiting real sex in scripted dramas.

Still, "as a programmer and as a producer, I would never do it," he said. "I would never even think about asking actors to do it. I don't know how you can't sort of simulate anything and get the same effect."

"Simulated sometimes works better, I think," interjected Showtime CEO Matthew C. Blank.

"Even in your own life," rejoined Greenblatt. "Did I say that out loud?"

Showtime has its own sexual romp in Californication, scheduled to premiere on Aug. 13 in tandem with Weeds' return. Duchovny plays a creatively constipated novelist turned Hollywood writer. He's still prolific in the sack, though. A clip shown to TV critics had him romancing the stone with three different female partners, all seen very much in the flesh.

Duchovny said he wouldn't ask his real-life wife, actress Tea Leoni, to join him on-screen for any of those activities.

"We have always kind of tried not to work together," he said. "And we've been pretty good at that so far, mostly because she doesn't want to work with me. But I can't imagine what would be worse than watching people that actually have sex (in real life) have sex on camera. I can't imagine a creepier thing, so I wouldn't want to inflict that on you. And I wouldn't want to inflict it upon my relationship either."

Even Showtime's press kit for Weeds is sexually charged. It depicts star Mary Louise-Parker in the altogether, with her behind in full view and her left breast only partially obscured by her arm and a snake resting on her shoulder.

"I think older women are beautiful," said Parker, 42.

"But not too old," co-star Justin Kirk interjected.

"Anyway," Parker continued, "he's always trying to get into my pants. So don't listen to him."

All of this made Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon's comments seem more than a little quaint. Two days earlier, he argued that his already sex-crazed character, Dr. Christian Troy, have even more outrageous exploits in the series' upcoming fifth season on advertiser-supported FX.

"I just want to do weird things," he said. "Kinky. It's a word that I keep using this year. I don't know why. We've got to notch up our kink level a little bit."

If this weren't enough, critics returned to their hotel rooms late last week to find the Independent Film Channel's Indie Sex poster resting on their pillows. The print says, "Featuring Dita Von Teese." Pictured is a topless brunette whose right arm double-crosses her breasts.

The showers are starting to run out of cold water.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: All that's "sacred"

Dallas Cowboys Ch'leaders give their all for TV critics. Photos: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- They danced, they pranced, and also wore short pants.

Your Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders put on an unannounced show for undeserving TV critics Friday as an appetizer for Season 2 of their CMT cable series.

Then the network's development head, Bob Kusbit, further buttered the bread.

"I just got word that there were two of the girls with strained calf muscles, and we need a little bit of help rubbing out the kinks," he said. "If anybody just wants to volunteer to head back there."

Well, we do have our ethics.

CMT's second go-around with Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team premieres Sept. 14th with an eight-episode run. Press materials tout the "sacred tryouts" that winnow a field of more than a thousand hopefuls to the chosen 36. Only they will be allowed to don "that sacred blue and white uniform."

That seems to be at least a slight overstatement, but veteran head choreographer Judy Trammell didn't necessarily think so.

"Anyone that's worn the blue and white uniform, it is sacred," she said. "We do not want to ruin our image in any way, so I guess that's why, to us, it's sacred and we are constantly protecting it."

Cheerleaders director Kelli Finglass took it down a notch or two.

"It's special," she said. "Perhaps you'd like that word better. It's magical. It is a part of the excitement of the National Football League . . . For the people who have worn it (the uniform), yes, we would say it's sacred. For the people that have been fans, it's very magical."

Finglass and Trammell, both former Cowboys cheerleaders, said they haven't junked up the process, and never will.

"The only thing that's different is that it used to be very private, and now it's captured on television," Finglass said. "But the conversations, the emotion, the awkwardness, all of that is very real. I'm not an actress, nor is Judy, and that's quite evident. We say what we have to, and actually, we don't really even notice the cameras."

A clip from the show's second season included Finglass's no-nonsense assertion that "the uniform is very unforgiving in terms of hiding any figure flaws."

Also, one of the under-the-gun rookie hopefuls bawls after telling the cameras, "There is so much pressure, because I don't have a bigger dream."

The Cheerleaders' national profile is helped by successful Cowboys teams and, lately, the popularity of the CMT series. But Finglass said she "cheered in the '80s and had five wonderful losing seasons with Tom Landry as the head coach. It didn't matter to the Cheerleaders' success. We were doing USO tours, television specials. It does have its peaks and valleys, but right now we're on a peak."

Former Dallas Cowboy "Rocket" Raghib Ismail (second from left) lately has been riding bulls and falling very hard from them.

***"Rocket" Raghib Ismail was known for being close-mouthed to reporters during his days as a Dallas Cowboy. Put him on a snot-spewing wild animal, though, and he becomes a quote machine.

"The thrill was more like an intense feeling in your gut," he said of his participation in Ty Murray's Celebrity Bull-Riding Challenge, a six-episode series premiering Aug 10th on CMT. " 'What the heck am I doing here? And where's the bathroom?' "

Ismail's co-stars include Vanilla Ice, Stephen Baldwin, Francesco Quinn (24) and former Survivor bad boy Jonny "Fairplay" Dalton. They all journeyed to Murray's Stephenville, TX ranch for a nine-day crash course in staying atop beasts that wouldn't mind breaking every bone in your body.

"On the bull, I felt like, you know, lost in space, man," said Ismail. "It was just ridiculous."

Fairplay cut further to the nub.

"The first second sucks, 'cause you're pooping yourself a little bit. Seconds two through seven are the coolest rush you've ever had in your entire life."

Vanilla Ice noted that the bulls poop, too, "because they're like, nervous."

Back to you, Rocket.

"Poop. Man, that's like explosive -- coming out of that bad boy."

Quinn, a former motocross competitor, kept riding "until he got squished," as Murray put it.

Actors and their bull-riding injuries for $500, Alex. Quinn ticked them off in no particular order.

"I have a broken rib in my lower back that punctured my lung partially. And I have three broken ribs under my armpit. I got two broken ribs right here above my heart where the bull actually stomped with both feet. And you can see, actually, the hoof mark that just went to the side of the vest . . . That vest pretty much saved my life."

Ismail said he wanted to take one more shot at it during a professional bull-riding event in Dallas. But then he and his wife watched a succession of topflight cowboys get "bucked off left and right, slammed against fences, stepped on the head, a lot of this stuff.

"And my wife literally turned to me nice and slow, very serious, and said, 'You're bull-riding days are over.' That was the end of it. What am I going to say?"

James Gandolfini: No trespassing

Former Sopranos star James Gandolfini spots another friendly face while talking to disabled Iraq war veteran Bryan Anderson during HBO's outdoor party at The W Hotel. Photos: Ed Bark

Privately he's a very generous man. Publicly he sometimes can be his own worst ambassador.

James Gandolfini, just over a month removed from the much-debated finale of The Sopranos, is neither a glad-hander or self-aggrandizer. He goes about his life without calling attention to it. Red carpets and reporters' questions usually don't go down easy with him.

His still very marketable name is the magnet for HBO's powerful Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, a one-hour documentary premiering Sept. 9th. Gandolfini's role is to listen to 10 veterans describe how they've survived their near-fatal wounds. How did the experience affect him?

"It's not about me," he told a roomful of TV critics Thursday while seated amid five veterans missing a total of six limbs. "I'm not trying to be antagonistic in any way, but I'd like the questions directed towards other things besides how it changed me . . . Let's have a different question."

His feelings about the war also are his business.

"Again, I have plenty of personal views on Iraq that don't have a place here today," Gandolfini said.

He wasn't being surly or dismissive, but just himself. This is not a man who flaunts his fame and fortune. But others aren't hesitant to talk behind his back about what a great guy he is.

An HBO publicist who worked on The Sopranos says without prompting that Gandolfini went to her father's, mother's and brother's funerals in the past few years. It meant a helluva lot to her.

On a visit to Kuwait, he was scheduled to spend two hours signing autographs and posing for pictures. But the line of U.S. troops was huge, so Gandolfini stayed for six hours to make sure that everyone got a piece of him. This story is told by another HBO publicist whose word has been gold over the years.

During Thursday night's outdoor HBO party at the W Hotel, your correspondent sees Gandolfini tip a bartender with a small stack of $5 bills. Sure he can afford it, but it wasn't for show. There's no way he knew that anyone was watching.

Gandolfini of course had no entourage or personal publicist in tow. He handles his own affairs without any protective shields surrounding him. And The Sopranos is now dead to him, even if Tony may not be.

Any questions about the series would have been horribly inappropriate during the Alive Day Memories press conference. But as Gandolfini slowly made his way out of a hotel ballroom, it seemed to be worth a shot.

"Would you entertain one question about The Sopranos?"

"No," he said. "Put that to rest."

"Is it a relief to be done with the character?"

"Yes. Thank you very much."

He said this firmly but without any steely-eyed glare. One never feels that Gandolfini is about to erupt into a rage. He simply opts out and leaves the area when questioning becomes too much for him. It's not a contempt for the press. Gandolfini is simply uncomfortable talking about himself under any circumstances.

In Alive Day Memories he mostly just sits and listens as 10 veterans tell him their stories. But he is moved to express his gratitude.

"I want to thank you for everything you've done. I admire you for that," Gandolfini says in the documentary before hugging one of the war's survivors. He did speak to that point during the HBO interview session.

"There were a few times that it was very disturbing (to hear the veterans talk)," he said. "It still is . . . There are stories that make you angry. Yeah, of course, I felt a lot of things. I'm not a trained interviewer. I'm not Barbara Walters or whatever. I don't know, maybe she cries."

Entourage's "Johnny Drama" (Kevin Dillon) looks just a bit . . . tired.

***Earlier Thursday, two members of HBO's new executive branch met TV critics for the first time.

Co-president Richard Plepler said he at first was flummoxed by The Sopranos' sudden blackout while Tony and wife Carmela munched onion rings at a neighborhood diner. He got to see the finale about three weeks before its June 10th premiere.

"I thought that they had withheld from me the final 50 seconds," Plepler said. Now, of course, he's on board.

"I thought David (creator David Chase) did what David was brilliant at doing, which is finding his own voice, doing something that nobody else has done. I thought it was, in many respects, in the highest tradition of the show. It's impossible to tell somebody like David Chase how he should end it."

So what does he think happened to Tony?

"I think David was saying simply, 'Reap what you sow, ' " Plepler said. "This is a guy who is going to live a life of eternal vigilance, looking over his shoulder always, never being sure about his safety or his family's."

"And I don't know, because my TV went out," co-president Michael Lombardo added.

***Those two promised Deadwood movies are getting iffier, Lombardo said earlier. They may hinge on the fate of Deadwood creator David Milch's new John From Cincinnati, which premiered immediately after the Sopranos finale and has been struggling to find much of an audience.

"We will revisit this with David after he's had a bit of a rest and after we know what the future of John is for him," said Lombardo, who noted that none of Deadwood's actors are under contractual hold anymore. "It's doable. It will just be daunting."

A second season of John From Cincinnati will require an "exhausted" Milch to immediately start work on new scripts, Lombardo said.

Plepler said the chances of making any Deadwood movies are 50-50 at the moment.

Noted curmudgeon Larry David enjoys a beverage at the HBO party.

***HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm will return for at least one more 10-episode season -- its sixth -- on Sept. 9th. Star Larry David said he's always agonizing about whether to rest on his laurels and multi-millions.

"Every season that I do is my last season," he said Thursday. "That's the only way I can get through the season. If I thought I had to come back and do it again, I would never do it in the first place."

He has an added financial incentive this time.

"Well, I've just been cut in half. I don't know if you're aware of that," he said when asked whether he could "buy HBO at this point."

He referred to his pending divorce from environmental activist Laurie David, who will be going green in a bigger way with a big hunk of Larry's money.

Should he do a seventh season of Curb, might he and his TV wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), be headed for a fall?

"Too bad you're going to be off the show," David cracked.

"What a fine way to find out," Hines rejoined.

Whatever happens, Larry as Larry will continue to whine and kvetch on Curb. Well, at least that's the popular view.

"Why are you so willing to portray yourself as a schmuck?" a critic asked.

"I'm portraying you, schmucko," David thundered.

Not really.

"I'm Jesus Christ," David clarified. "I'm sacrificing myself for the betterment of humanity."

Fighting through it: Ken Burns' The War makes peace

Ken Burns beams after selling critics on The War. Photo: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- He's apparently dodged a bullet.

Ken Burns' The War will grow by about a half-hour to appease critics who objected to its virtual exclusion of Hispanic veterans. Public television's franchise filmmaker met with TV writers Wednesday to both tout the seven-part documentary and explain what's being added to it.

"We've done more than we were asked or expected to," he said of extra footage that will run during the closing credits of episodes one, five and six. It mainly consists of interviews with two Hispanic World War II survivors and one Native American.

"It's as far as we can go," he told a packed hotel ballroom during the PBS portion of summertime's annual TV "press tour." "There are a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas . . . We listened as hard as we could."

The War ostensibly was completed a year-and-half ago, with Burns showing the roughly 15-hour "documentary epic" in its entirety at the recent Cannes Film Festival. But various Hispanic groups and leaders got word that they largely were being left out. PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said she then left it up to Burns to react in whatever way he chose.

"I have stood by Ken and the story that he wants to bring to the American public," she said earlier Wednesday. "When we first heard from some organizations, I told them that the film was completed, because at the time he had pretty much put the film to bed. But when he made the decision that he wanted to add material, we continued to stand by him."

Burns, 53, has been public television's Steven Spielberg ever since The Civil War wowed the masses in fall 1990. The War is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 23rd, 17 years to the day that Civil War opened to uniform critical acclaim.

"We didn't want to do another film on war after The Civil War because it hurt so much," Burns said after the formal session. An estimated 60 million people gave their lives during WWII. One of them wasn't Quentin Aanenson of Luverne, Minn., who flew 75 combat missions over Europe. He joined Burns on a hotel ballroom stage to talk about some of his experiences.

"Once you get down into the intensity of what war is really like, just by the nature of it, it is anti-war," Aanenson said of Burns' unsparing depiction of combat and carnage. But WWII was a "necessary war," as the film also states. And Aanenson has never wavered from that view, despite the nightmares he still has.

"A lot of mistakes were made," he said. "But the end result did more for this country than anything I can think of in our history."

Luverne is one of four towns through which WWII is relived. Also included are Mobile, Ala., Sacramento, Calif. and Waterbury, Conn.

Veterans of "the worst war ever" mostly had kept it to themselves until Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation books enticed many to talk. The first was published in 1998, with Aanenson eventually opening up. But why silent for so long?

"I think it was probably the degree of stress and trauma and what those days were like," Aanenson said. "So I think we just learned to draw it inside ourselves and deal with it that way. And that is not necessarily the best way."

Brokaw's books weren't the impetus for The War, said Burns, who began working on it six-and-a-half years ago.

"A lot of people began speaking to us, and telling their stories in part because 9/11 sort of opened up stuff," Burns said. "But Brokaw had done that a few years before. He had taken this unusually reticent generation and kind of gave it permission to speak, and they did. I think we've all been beneficiaries of that."

"The gift he made to all of us was he gave us a title," Aanenson said. " 'The Greatest Generation.' True or untrue, I can't say."

Also of note is The War's soundtrack, which includes both period pieces and Norah Jones' heartfelt performance of the contemporary "American Anthem."

Its main refrain -- "America, America, I gave my best to you" -- still cuts straight to the heart.

Sunning on the balcony: Jane Austen's "Action Figure." Photo: Ed Bark

PBS's Masterpiece Theatre won't be messing around when it comes to Jane Austen. Starting on January 13th, look for a four-month marathon dedicated to England's most famous spinster.

The Complete Jane Austen will offer new dramatizations of four novels and reprises of her other two, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

"What she wrote and when she wrote it was like Sex and the City in the 18th century," Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton said Wednesday. "It's a little bit like extensive hand-holding in the country, but it's the same idea."

In real life, plain Jane was an introvert who lived with mom and dad her entire life and died at age 41 in 1817 after writing all six books in six years. Lately she has 3,000 friends on MySpace and an "Action Figure" with her own quill pen and writing desk. To quote Jane: "I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them."

Well said, girlfriend. You're going to be great company for the next 16 days.

***Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi will become cartoon characters next summer in an as yet untitled PBS series.

The NPR radio mainstays will be voicing "Click" and "Clack" in 10 animated episodes co-starring a wacky crew of mechanics and co-workers.

"We want to apologize in advance to Jim Lehrer, Bill Moyers, the folks at Frontline, Nova and American Experience for the damage we are about to do to your network's reputation," the brothers say in a statement.

Screen savers: PBS presents another batch of talky "pioneers"

Museum pieces? Not yet. Still standing -- and seated -- are (left to right) Dick Cavett, Tony Orlando, Ed McMahon, Betty White and Tim Conway. But ill health waylaid comedian Phyllis Diller. Photo: Ed Bark

BEVERLY HILLS -- Dick Cavett still has a way with words, but the so-called "intellectual's alternative" to Johnny Carson doesn't always set the bar as high anymore.

In the midst of a Tuesday evening photo shoot, he spurts, "Did you hear the one about the two bald guys who put their heads together and made an ass of themselves?"

His fellow "TV pioneers" -- Ed McMahon, Betty White, Tim Conway and Tony Orlando -- groan in unison as the cameras keep shuttering. Thanks for the memories.

The quintet is missing scheduled participant Phyllis Diller, who had a "very serious health issue" Monday, TV critics are told. Hoping to turn 90 next Tuesday, the self-deprecating comedian instead is represented in an old film clip in which she cracks, "I once had a peekaboo blouse. People'd peek, then they'd boo."

It's all part of an upcoming four-part PBS sequel to 2005's Pioneers of Primetime. That one-hour special followed a now storied TV "press tour" session in which cock-of-the-walk Red Buttons shredded Mickey Rooney with a fusillade of barbed jokes while a game Sid Caesar grinned from his wheelchair. It turned out to be Buttons' last big hurrah. He died in July of last year at age 87.

Tuesday's oldest attendee is Betty White, 85. She's mostly content to let the others yap, particularly Cavett, 70, and Orlando, 63.

Cavett, proud to have been on Richard Nixon's enemies list ("I'm glad the sonofabitch is still dead"), isn't all that thrilled to be called a pioneer.

"I expected us to all enter in a covered wagon with Daniel Boone makeup on," he says.

Orlando, who hosted the first "multi-ethnic" variety show with "Dawn" (backup singers Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson), tells an exceedingly long but colorful story about how guest star Jackie Gleason pointedly derided the group during rehearsals.

"I hear him say, 'Who's this 'Amateur Night in Dixie' and these two shvatzes?' " Orlando recalls. "It was in a show business kind of way, so it wasn't in a racial way. But I was appalled by it."

New to television, Orlando nonetheless demanded an apology from "The Great One," who supposedly retorted, "I'm outta here, pal."

But Gleason stuck around, as did his gofer with a ready pack of smokes.

"All he ever did was follow Jackie around," Orlando says. "He had an ascot and a plaid jacket and a plaid shirt. It was horrendous. And Jackie would snap a finger, and the guy would open his Parliament box, and he'd push three Parliaments up and hold it for Jackie. And Jackie would take the pack, and the guy would hold a lighter."

But Orlando keeps promising a "good ending" to the story, which winds through fellow guest star Nancy Walker's heroism (she smacked Gleason during a production number), more toadying from the Parliament guy and the host's fears that he'd never work again in television.

Gleason eventually summoned him to his dressing room, where he was making himself a stiff libation.

"The sound of the glass as he's mixing his drink still reverberates in my brain," Orlando says.

He ordered Orlando to open one of the show's script books to the first page. And there he had written, "Dear Tony, I apologize. I was wrong. You were right. How sweet it is to tell the truth."

The big Hollywood ending -- Orlando still has the script book -- draws applause and then another crude one-liner from Cavett.

"I think we should caution ourselves that, despite Tony's story, there are schmucks in our business," he says.

Despite his trials with Gleason -- and Cavett for that matter -- Orlando frets that today's show business stars are too self-involved.

"I see too much bickering and too much putting down and too much irreverence in the comedy," he says. "There is a lot, and I think, too much maliciousness, in television."

Conway, 73, picks his spots, finding an opening when White is slow to answer a question on whether retirement is "out of the question" for her.

"Is getting a hearing aid out of the question?" he asks before White says she "just can't imagine what retiring would be."

McMahon, 84, continues to worship at the altar of the late Carson, with whom he teamed for 30 years on NBC's Tonight Show.

"No one will ever come near Johnny Carson as far as I'm concerned," says McMahon. "He was really the king of late night. And, no offense, Dick Cavett, but you know he was the best."

"Oh, and how we miss him," White adds.

"Who the hell are we talking about?" Cavett asks before launching into a story about how Carson once told famed party-giver Irving "Swifty" Lazar that "Dick's the only one who could beat me -- if he were on a real network."

Cavett instead was on then woeful ABC, where Carson cleaned his clock in the Nielsen ratings. No matter, says Cavett, because "once or twice I genuinely broke Johnny up with the biggest laugh you could imagine . . . Can I tell you the one that was my favorite?"

There is, of course, no stopping him. While guesting on Tonight, Cavett was asked what he had coming up next.

"And the gods came into my head. And I heard myself say, 'I'm working on a sitcom. It's a humorous version of Gilligan's Island.' "

It's still plain to see that Cavett was and is no Johnny. But he sure can be a Dick sometimes.