After TV campaign, who wouldn't believe a TV inauguration?

January 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Harry Thomason is a TV sitcom producer.

So, it shouldn't be too surprising when he says TV is going to play a bigger role than ever before in next week's inaugural celebration, which his friend, Bill Clinton, has asked him to produce.

But what might surprise some is how much the five days of events Thomason has planned for Washington are going to be shaped by the medium.

TV cameras and people are going to be everywhere. Instead of the Washington crowd or the old movie-star gang of the Reagans, Ted Danson, of "Cheers," and Donna Mills, of "Knots Landing," will be the ones introducing the president-elect and his wife at luncheons. Dixie Carter, of "Designing Women," will do the honors at the Governors' Luncheon at the Library of Congress Jan. 19.

In short, more TV stars -- ranging from Wil Smith, of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," to Markie Post, of "Hearts Afire," and Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" -- will be involved in more broadcasts and cablecasts, which have been sold for more money to more networks and cable systems than ever before.

"We sold $4 million worth of TV rights to events," Thomason, 51, said yesterday. "Yes, that is by far the largest amount ever sold. It's just something no one has ever taken the time to do. And, frankly, it's been a lot of trouble."

Thomason said he took the trouble for several reasons. As a producer, with his wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, of such shows as "Designing Women," "Hearts Afire" and "Evening Shade," he knows about selling TV rights and what they can be worth. The money from HBO, CBS and the Disney Channel will be enough, he said, when coupled with ticket sales for live events, to cover the estimated $28 million it will cost for the ceremonies.

But, most important, Thomason believes TV is a way of making the five days of celebration starting Sunday the "most accessible" inauguration in history. "I'm talking about events being seen in the living room," he said.

The first big "living-room" event will be Sunday when HBO telecasts "An American Reunion: The People's Inaugural Celebration" from the Lincoln Memorial. Quincy Jones is producing the event, which features a who's who of musical, film and TV talent, ranging from Diana Ross and Jack Nicholson to Yo-Yo Ma and LL Cool J.

The Clintons and Gores will arrive from Monticello and attend the event, which will feature an all-star saxophone jam, Thomason said. After Ray Charles sings "America, the Beautiful," the Clintons and Gores will lead a procession from the Lincoln Memorial across the Memorial Bridge for a national bell-ringing celebration.

When asked how ownership of TV rights to such a public event could be determined, Thomason said, "HBO is giving the political parts -- the walk across the bridge, the bells, the arrival and everything -- to any network and news organization that wants to carry it.

"Now from the entertainment section -- and this is all on an honor system -- others will be able to carry a couple of minutes of whatever they want. But we're strictly going on an honor system, because this is a public event on public land."

What Thomason means by "honor system" is that HBO will cablecast to a satellite and anyone would be able to use the signal and carry the entire show, rather than respecting the limits HBO puts on them.

Such a system still allows HBO's cameras and directors to control the flow of images at the American Reunion. But Thomason thinks the larger good justifies such arrangements.

"We've got so many free [live] events that we sold rights to HBO [and other TV outlets] to help pay for the events, which is different from other inaugurations."

Other differences in deference to TV will be most obvious on Tuesday when the Presidential Gala, featuring Barbra Streisand, is broadcast on CBS, and a "Salute to Children," featuring Post, and a "Salute to Youth," featuring Smith, are broadcast in the afternoon on the Disney and other cable channels.

"The children's show has people like Mr. Rogers. The teen-age show has acts like Boyz II Men," Thomason said.

"We sold rights to these two shows to Disney, because there was no chance of a television show . . . at that time of day. Now, Disney is putting it up on the satellite for the Disney Channel, but it's giving it to every cable system in the U.S. for free. We only have slight involvement of the Disney characters," Thomason said, adding that the line-ups for the children and youth shows are not restricted to Disney characters nor are the shows controlled by Disney executives.

"We have the traditional parade and the actual swearing-in on Wednesday," Thomason said, "and we have done nothing to change the nature of the swearing-in. It's the same almost as the day when George Washington took a coach to New York to be sworn in. [We're] not going to mess with the sanctity of the ceremonies.

"I mean, most of the TV we're talking about involves entertainment events. We're talking about peripheral things at the celebration."

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