Tooning to Reality: One TV Trend

Monday, July 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — With television, each new trend bursts into view like last week's fireworks. Then it subsides, overtaken by the next dazzling trend.

Example: prime-time animation. The toon trend swept the broadcast networks a couple of years ago after ``King of the Hill'' scored as only the third prime-time animated hit in TV history.

``The Flintstones,'' ``The Simpsons,'' ``King of the Hill.'' That's it. Suggesting not the best odds for another such success. But the networks didn't care. Animation was going to be the next craze.

As of last week, consider it stone-cold dead. Already sputtering, that trend has been finished off by CBS' new ``Big Brother,'' which, joining the red-hot ``Survivor'' and ABC's ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'' has left no doubt: So-called ``reality'' programming is TV's newest rage.

Not as obvious, but also worth noting: Reality fare is the polar opposite of the toons it superseded.

Take the casualties one by one. ``Family Guy,'' which Fox launched with great fanfare in April 1999, has been canceled. Likewise, UPN's nonstarter ``Dilbert.''

Even controversy couldn't salvage NBC's ``God, the Devil and Bob,'' which a religious advocacy group denounced for portraying God as a Jerry Garcia lookalike. Unfortunately, no one else — not even Grateful Dead fans — noticed the resemblance, much less the show as it came and went last March.

What's left? Now, when little-watched shows can inflict the least damage, the networks are throwing a summer clearance of stuff they couldn't bring themselves to air before. Everything must go!

NBC's long-promised ``Sammy,'' brainchild of comedian David Spade, will have a limited run next month. Later this month, the WB's ``Baby Blues'' blows in for a few forgettable weeks, and that network is also planting segments of ``Mission Hill,'' a misfired fall '99 entry, in its summer landscape.

Of course, sometimes planting isn't the answer. A swift burial is. Blasted by critics and ignored by viewers, ``Clerks'' went on permanent leave last month after ABC had aired only two of its six scheduled episodes.

What of the future? This fall, animation will be represented by Fox's ``The Simpsons,'' ``King of the Hill'' and ``Futurama,'' as well as by ``The PJs,'' which the WB has retrieved from Fox, where it never found a following.

These four series will be clustered in a 90-minute window on Sunday nights. No new toons are on the schedule.

R.I.P., toon trend. It's over. Fini. At least, until the inevitable rebirth.

But make no mistake: Animation remains alive and well on broadcast television at other times of the day, and on cable networks, where the toons can cater to narrower and savvier audience segments.

Meanwhile, prime time's cartoon craze was its own undoing, as crazes usually are. On TV, there's never enough of anything new and different until it's old and all the same.

Which brings us to the reality craze.

``Scores of reality producers have been given a golden ticket into the network suites to pitch their take on the new hot mix of reality and voyeurism,'' reports Variety, the show-biz weekly. Broadcasting & Cable magazine echoes that ``the rush to get in line for the next `Survivor' or `Big Brother' has sent Hollywood into a tizzy.''

You call THIS reality? Wouldn't ``unscripted'' be more accurate? But call it what you will, it's mighty big at the moment.

It also seems an out-and-out retreat from everything that toons represent.

Animation has license to bend reality beyond recognition. On the other hand, the unscripted shows — whether a game like ``Millionaire'' or voyeur-vision like ``Survivor'' and ``Big Brother'' — pledge to give you reality straight. Unfiltered.

And spontaneous, captured as it happens. Animation, by contrast, is a precisely plotted out, frame-by-frame exercise.

The art of the toon is in making it appear to be unfolding wildly before your eyes, subject to veer out of control at any instant. But any threat of lost control is an illusion, concealing a creative process that leaves nothing to chance. Cartoons at their best are therefore glorious, no-holds-barred deceptions.

Now, you say you want some semblance of the truth. Now, in the name of reality (and a half-million-dollar prize), George and Jamie, Curtis and Karen have been invited to play house with six other instant stars on ``Big Brother.''

On first arriving for her three-month stay, Jordan was seen alone for a moment as a camera, whirring on its wall mount, by remote control, fixed on her.

``Ahhh, that's creepy,'' she said to herself, her wireless mike and the world.

For viewers, that's the real thing. At least, until the next thing.


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Elsewhere in television ...

ON THE NET FROM JAIL: Court TV's late-night prison talk show ``Inside Cell Block F'' will present the first-ever live Webcast from inside Sheriff Gerald K. Hege's pink jail in Davidson County, North Carolina. On Tuesday, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern, viewers can click to an unedited taping of the show, during which they can phone in with questions and comments for host Hege (self-described as ``America's toughest sheriff'') and his inmates. Footage will air in edited form on Thursday, July 27, at 11:30 p.m., to conclude the series' first season. (Web site: The half-hour show, which launched in July 1999, airs Monday through Thursday.


Frazier Moore can be reached at