Fox's 'Front Page' slithers its way into tabloid-TV

June 26, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Just what prime-time TV needs: another newsmagazine, another bad TV newsmagazine. This one is called "Front Page" and it's from Fox Broadcasting.

But wait. It gets worse.

Behind the cameras are some of the biggest washouts in TV journalism, such as Van Gordon Sauter, the former president of CBS News who set a record for doing more damage in less time to a news operation than anyone this side of Michael Gartner.

In front of the cameras, appearing weekly in the role of intrepid reporters, you have the likes of Ron Reagan. And young Ron is on the upper end of the reportorial talent scale.

It gets worse. Between reports, you have overproduced, hot-dog video "essays" from some of the leading proponents of the School of I Have Absolutely Nothing Worth Saying But Aren't I Saying It With Lotsa Attitude, such as New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica and San Francisco Examiner political columnist Chris Matthews.

And it's all wrapped in a graphic package that's a sorry melange of "Hard Copy" tabloid-TV, old CBS News staging and new MTV point of view. Pick one, any one, please, guys, and try to learn how and why it works before you start mixing and matching, cutting and jumping.

Do I hate this show? Let me count the ways.

I suppose I should mention when it airs, so everyone can rearrange their lives to see it or at least set their VCRs. It premieres at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).

The first report is an "investigative" piece examining the connection between a couple of Hollywood con artists and Robert Evans, the producer of "Sliver."

The thrust of the piece is the allegation that Evans participated with the con artists in a scheme to defraud "Sliver" investors and that they ran the scam out of Evans' offices at Paramount. Evans declined to be interviewed for the segment. The idea is that 90 percent of what the investors, most of whom are elderly, gave to the con artists went straight into their pockets.

Not only does the report not make much of a case on behalf of the investors, a huge conflict of interest on the part of "Front Page" itself is never mentioned.

Fox Broadcasting is a direct competitor with Paramount in everything from production to syndication of TV shows. Even though it appears Paramount itself had no involvement in any alleged wrongdoing beyond the fact that Evans had offices on the Paramount lot, the entire report is laced with repeated pictures and videotape of Paramount studios. I saw so many shots of the Paramount water tower, I wanted to climb up it and jump.

One likely visual message of such repeated images is that Paramount is a crooked operation. By anything above the standards of tabloid TV, the report should have acknowledged the possible conflict for viewers and cut the visuals of Paramount by about 90 percent.

Tonight's other reports are on the number of teen-agers having plastic surgery and how the Endangered Species Act is keeping some guy in Utah from starting an RV park because the government wants to protect the snails living on his land.

The report on plastic surgery has only been done about a dozen other times on TV. The piece on snails, which Reagan and his producers try to turn into an attack on government bureaucracy, will only remind you how great "60 Minutes" is when it takes on the government.

Fox is clearly trying to make a newsmagazine that it thinks will appeal to a blue-collar audience. It's full of terms and expressions like "feds" for federal government agents, "cost you big time" for the threat of jail and/or fines. Its targets are Washington, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, doctors, federal officials and movie producers.

"Our first story tonight takes place in the heart of Hollywood," correspondent Vicki Liviakis tells viewers at the opening of tonight's show. "It has all the elements moviemakers love: sex, scandal, money, even murder."

As if low-rent TV newsmagazine producers don't love these elements, too. As if that's not why it's your lead story, Vicki.

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