We watch... so you don't have to.

You Gotta Have A Gimmick

"You gotta have a gimmick
If you want to get applause."

--From the musical "Gypsy"

We've Got Gimmicks! Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne were writing about strippers, not TV shows, when they penned that amusing little ditty for their lavish Broadway musical about the life of Gypsy Rose Lee. But -- if you ignore the lyrics about taking off your clothes, bumping and grinding and dancing in front of howling men in burlesque halls -- they very well could have been writing about TV, circa 1998.

A few weeks back, I took time out of my hectic social life to spend a few hours watching television, specifically, watching a repeat episode of NewsRadio. In this particular installment, the pompous Bill McNeil -- played by the not-at-all pompous Phil Hartman -- has a run-in with the New York City police and is tossed in a mental hospital for observation. All in all, an entertaining half-hour from one of the most consistently funny sitcoms on TV.

Only something was different.

This time around, little bubbles would pop up on the screen, conveying arcane bits of information about NewsRadio, heretofore unknown to even the most devoted fan. How much an extra is paid. When the producers hired the lovely and talented Maura Tierney. Why the talented-yet-troubling Andy Dick didn't appear much in that particular episode. Stuff like that.

The stunt, it turns out, was a collaboration with the kids from Pop-Up Video, a show that has brought a level of respectability to VH-1 that ceaseless airings of old Huey Lewis & The News videos never could. In case you've never caught it, Pop-Up Video takes those rockin' adult contemporary music videos for which VH-1 is famous and tacks on little tidbits of information -- why Sheryl Crow is wearing that particular halter top, what frame of mind John Cougar Mellencamp was in when he wrote "Pink Houses," what particular substance Keith Richards was abusing the week the Stones filmed "Waiting on a Friend." Some of it's interesting. Some of it's unbelievably trivial. But damnit, it keeps you watching those Meat Loaf videos, and I guess that's really the point.

So in that sense, the NewsRadio-Pop-Up Video collaboration could be considered a success. The "pop-up" parts weren't obtrusive enough to detract from the episode. And for a regular viewer like myself, even though I had seen the episode, it was new to me.

A short-time later, I was watching The Drew Carey Show, an amusing program that seems to get better as the weeks roll on. Only this time around, something was amiss. There were jump cuts, continuity errors, out-of-place sound effects, Robert "Epstein" Hegyes cameos. Which can be very disconcerting. I mean, just ask Horshack.

As it turns out, the episode was nothing more than a bizarre April Fool's Day gimmick. Loyal viewers were to spot the many errors in the show, write them down and send them off to ABC to win a trip to Los Angeles or a walk-on role on Drew Carey or a ride in the Drew Carey-mobile or whatever the hell it was they were giving away. I was still hung up on that whole Epstein cameo and wasn't really paying attention.

For those of you scoring along at home -- and God help you, if you are -- that's two gimmicks on two Wednesday night shows in rapid succession.

This is what we in the journalism business call the makings of a trend.

Gimmick episodes of TV shows are everywhere nowadays -- popping up to the left of you, leaping out from behind the sofa to the right, creeping underfoot and causing you to trip into a wacky pratfall. The impetus behind gimmick episodes is that fewer and fewer people are watching network TV. They're tuning into cable. They're renting more movies. They're playing in recreational softball leagues. They're watching pornos and are forced to make up feeble excuses when their mothers inevitably call.

This, understandably, has put network TV suits into a quandary. Fewer people watching means lower ratings which means less ad money which means selling off that vacation home in Park City, Utah. So network executives -- fond of Park City, Utah, as they are -- are frantically searching for ways to juice the ratings for their array of programs and specials.

Why not just produce more innovative, high-quality programming, you say? Ho, ho, ho... stick to selling shoes there, Sparky. There's no future for you in this TV business.

No, when faced with low ratings and a shrinking audience pool, there's only one thing TV executives can do. And that's get on the horn to order up more gimmick episodes. Fly in Charo for a nutty cameo. Take the show on location to Wilmington, Delaware. Do an entire episode in mime. Anything to get people talking and to get folks watching.

And you know what? It works. NewsRadio's Pop-up Video episode garnered a front page story in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. This for a show that NBC shuttles around its schedule like a low-fare commuter flight while lining up its big-time promotional guns behind mindless drek like Suddenly Susan. And Drew Carey's April Fool's Day episode got people talking about ABC... and without using words like "death ship," "fourth-rate network" and "getting its ass kicked by UPN's Love Boat reprise."

Gimmick shows are old hat, of course. Who could forget those episodes of Simon & Simon where Magnum his own bad self, Tom Selleck, would drop in on his good buddies, Rick and A.J.? And I don't think America will ever forget the time Magnum and Jessica Fletcher joined forces to rid CBS' prime-time schedule of crime on Murder, She Wrote.

What? You've already forgotten? Oh well...

Like all things widespread and Evil, the gimmick episode has been perfected in recent years by NBC, which could probably find a way to promote the Apocalypse if there was a buck to be made. ("Rivers turn to blood... NBC Must-See Tuesday!") Back in the 1994-95 season, NBC promoted its Thursday night line-up by having each of its New York-based sitcoms affected by the same power outage. Friends was awash in darkness. Wacky antics ensued on Mad About You. Black-out-inspired hijinks carried the day on Madman of the People. And really, when didn't hijinks carry the day on Madman of the People?

(The lone holdout in NBC's black-out Thursday was Seinfeld. Jerry, apparently, doesn't cotton to nutty promotional antics.)

NBC's gambit proved so successful that soon other networks were following the same strategy. Several years back, CBS concocted a night of gimmick episodes in which pudgy has-been Elizabeth Taylor would appear in wretched, awful shows like The Nanny and Love & War to promote not only CBS' wretched, awful line-up but also her own wretched, awful perfume. And ABC tried a night of programming where Coach, Grace Under Fire and Ellen all descended upon Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to bring their plodding, obvious sitcoms to new and exciting ports of call.

As you've probably guessed, gimmick episodes used to be the province of either bad shows -- sorry, Madman of the People -- or shows like Friends that, at the time, were trying to build up an audience.

But increasingly, gimmicks are finding their way on to well-done shows, entertaining shows, shows that I like. If it's not NewsRadio turning to Pop-Up Video for ratings deliverance or Drew Carey trying to scare up more viewers, it's Homicide and Law & Order doing cross-over episodes -- thus giving marble-mouthed loser Jon Seda the chance to ruin two good shows. Or it's Ray Romano -- the funny, likable star of the funny, likable Everybody Loves Raymond and, to my knowledge, not the sort of man to have wronged God in any way -- forced to pay for what must be one whale of a sin by putting in double cross-over duty on both the bland Cosby and the aforementioned unspeakably wretched The Nanny.

Ray, Ray... I feel your pain.

There's nothing wrong with gimmicks, by the way... so long as they don't detract from the issue at hand which should be to entertain the vast American viewing audience. Take Drew Carey, for example. I tuned in to that episode hoping to see the clever writing and outstanding comedic interplay I've come to expect from that show. Instead, what I got was a 30-minute game show masquerading as a sitcom. It was as if the show had been put on hold for a week just so ABC could dole out some cash prizes.

"We know you probably turned on the show looking to be entertained," the makers of Drew Carey might as well have said. "And we certainly hope to get back to doing that next week. This week, though, we have to move product."

Increasingly, that's what happening with network TV shows... even the good ones. One show is used to promote another which is used to promote still another in what becomes a self-perpetuating chain of gimmicks, schemes and ploys. Instead of building up audiences, all this chicanery and sleight-of-hand winds up driving more viewers away in droves.

And don't even bother entering that Drew Carey contest, by the way. I spotted 54 things that were out of place in that episode, and my entry is already in the mail. That ride in he Drew Carey-mobile is as good as mine!


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *