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CBS: Cowardice, Thy Name Is Les

Les Moonves has the Fear. Each night, as the hours tick away and the dawn creeps ever closer, the president of CBS Television tosses and turns and stews in a pool of his sweat. At least, he hopes that's sweat.

When the Fear has you in its grip, there's no telling what might happen to you. You might be seized by the night traumas. You could see horrible visions of bogeymen and goblins visible only to you. You could stake your network's fortunes on the likes of Bette Midler, Mike O' Malley and America's continued interest in Walker, Texas Ranger.

And make no mistake -- Les Moonves is gripped by the Fear. The Fear of Regis.

"I lie awake at night trying to figure out how to fight this thing," said Moonves, unveiling CBS's fall lineup for next year as embarrassed reporters mouthed "Too much information" at each other. "And I don't have the answer yet."

This "thing" is the unbelievably popular game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire -- now airing continuously on an ABC affiliate near you. Armed with the twin weapons of Regis Philbin and a pile of money, Millionaire has devoured everything foolish enough to get in its path. Even NBC's venerable Thursday night lineup took such a beating that Frasier had to declare victory and surrender the field back to Tuesdays.

Millionaire stumps the suits at rival networks. They know the show has to fail sometime. Hell, their copycat game shows disappeared without a trace. But Millionaire surges on, and all the other programmers can do is throw a bunch of well-worn premises at the wall and hope something sticks.

That's the dilemma facing Les Moonves, the one that has him pacing the floor until the carpet's worn bare. And when he says he doesn't yet have the answer on how to stave off Millionaire, I'm here to tell you he's not just whistling the theme to Good Times.

I mean, look at the CBS schedule. Clearly, Les doesn't have a clue.

Like NBC before it, CBS has decided that the fastest way to viewers' hearts is to play it safe. No hard-to-describe premises, no shows that can't easily be pigeonholed. CBS wants its senior-skewing audience to be nice and comfortable. If the network is setting out to discover new frontiers in programming, it clearly plans to do so from the safety of its own backyard. The biggest risk that CBS took this year? Moving Diagnosis Murder to 10 p.m. on Thursday, long after its core audience of bluehairs has retired for the evening.

That kind of risk-taking is why the only rookie shows to live to see Year Two on CBS were the ambitious-but-overmatched Judging Amy, the grating-but-tepid Family Law and City of Angels, which managed to be ambitious, overmatched, grating and tepid all at once. City of Angels had lukewarm reviews and worse ratings, but CBS re-upped it anyway. Les Moonves has enough problems sleeping at night without those noisy NAACP picket lines outside his window.

Gone from the schedule -- along with tired clunkers like Cosby, Early Edition, Martial Law, Chicago Hope, and Kids Say The Darndest Things -- is the unjustly canceled Now and Again. A wonderfully inventive show, Now and Again disappears because it could never be easily defined nor did it mesh well with the rest of CBS's dull-as-dishwater lineup. A creative, sweet show, its presence on network TV will be sorely missed.

What will CBS offer in its stead? Nothing you haven't seen before a dozen different times on half a dozen different stations.

Wedged in among CBS's remaining good shows, The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond, is newcomer Yes, Dear. The show stars Anthony Clark and Jean Louisa Kelly as new parents raising a 1-year-old. Apparently, the wife is a bit of a nervous nellie, leading to many undoubtedly hilarious domestic squabbles. Mike O'Malley returns to network TV as the ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, thus giving him a chance to win TeeVee's Dead Pool for an unprecedented second year in a row. We say the kid's got a fighting chance.

Wednesday night offers a pair of comedies -- The Bette Show and Welcome to New York -- that will excite only those in the cast and crew. The Bette Show stars Bette Midler as a diva-ish songstress and over-the-top actress named Mette Bidler or Betty Milner or something along those lines. Maybe the show's good, maybe it's not, but it isn't like America will notice since its up against that damnable Millionaire.

Welcome to New York stars stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan as Jim Gaffigan. (Is the CBS creative team stretched so thin that it can't bother to come up with character names anymore?) Gaffigan's an Indiana weatherman who comes to New York where he's the -- altogether now, class -- classic fish out of water. All of this is really an excuse to have co-star Christine Baranski chew up the scenery in another sitcom.

Proving that everything old is new again, CBS has brought back The Fugitive, a TV show that became a movie and then a sequel and now is back on TV. Tim Daly, the other guy from Wings on your scorecard, and Mykelti Williamson star as the pursued and the pursuer, respectively. Not to give anything away, but Tim Daly didn't kill his wife. Our money is on the one-armed man. Or, if Les Moonves has any say in the show's creative direction, Regis.

For those of you who hear about C.S.I. and think, "Oh man, another cop show," shame on you. C.S.I. is not a show about cops solving crimes. It's about forensic scientists solving crimes. Only with William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger picking up where Dr. Quincy left off two decades ago.

In its promotional material for C.S.I., CBS includes the following declaration: "If yours is ever a dead body lying in a pool of mystery, you'll want the C.S.I. on your case."

Well... sure. Though I hope they question that dastardly one-armed man first.

For those of you tired of cop shows, CBS finishes off Saturday night with a cop show. In The District, Craig T. Nelson plays a police commissioner who -- you know the words as well as I do -- battles crime. You may recognize this plot from such shows as The Commish or McMillan and Wife or, indeed, any show about police officers that has ever aired broadcast television.

The District is preceded by Walker, Texas Ranger, a show about a man who also fights crime. Different crime, no doubt. But crime nevertheless.

CBS's final new offering also airs on Saturday, the ensemble drama That's Life. Heather Paige Kent plays a blue-collar gal who dumps her thick-headed beau and enrolls in a local college to improve herself, much to the consternation of family and friends. Do not mistake That's Life for Costello, a show that aired on Fox for a cup of coffee in 1998 and centered around a blue-collar gal who dumps her thick-headed beau and enrolls in a local college to improve herself, much to the consternation of family and friends.

For one thing, Costello was a comedy. That's Life is a drama. And Costello was the first show to get canceled when it debuted. That's Life has Mike O'Malley to use as a human shield.

So will the path of least resistance lead CBS to a rosy fall? By meeting the big guns of Millionaire with the warmed-over offerings of seasons past, can the Tiffany Network regain its luster? Or at the very least, can Moonves at least manage to not tremble at the mention of Regis' name?

Not likely. But denial and delusion can be powerful little helpers. Right, Les?

"We hope they'll put enough [Millionaire] on that they'll blow themselves out," the ever hopeful Moonves said.

Well, that could happen. Until then, we'll always have those cop shows.


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