`Lateline' could be in peril

Schedule: Al Franken's sitcom gets a good time slot, but will that be enough to save it?

Radio and Television

March 17, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As we hold our breaths the next six weeks awaiting word from NBC on the fate of "Homicide: Life on the Street," here's another series that's on the bubble and definitely worth worrying about: "Lateline" with Al Franken.

The NBC ensemble sitcom about life inside a network news show that's very much like ABC's "Nightline" returned last night for a six-week run. NBC is giving the series its best time period so far -- between two series that are guaranteed to return next fall, "3rd Rock from the Sun" and "Just Shoot Me."

If you like "Lateline" and/or Franken's sense of humor, now is the time to sit down in front of the TV set and be counted by Nielsen Media Research Tuesday nights at 8: 30.

"We're feeling very good about the fact that they gave us this time slot," Franken said in a telephone interview last week. "But I suppose it depends on how our program does in this time slot whether or not we'll get picked for next year."

One of the problems for NBC series like "Homicide" and "Lateline" is turnover in the network programming department. Warren Littlefield resigned last fall as president of NBC Entertainment and was replaced by Scott Sassa, who came to NBC from Ted Turner's cable empire.

But Sassa is only temporarily filling Littlefield's job until Garth Ancier, the former president of entertainment for WB joins NBC. Ancier left WB in December, but his contract precludes him from working anywhere else for the rest of the TV season. When Ancier arrives, Sassa will move up the corporate ladder to be president of NBC West Coast. That's a lot of change, and it is having an effect on decisions about next fall's schedule getting made.

Franken, who co-created -"Lateline" and plays reporter Al Freundlich in the series, says he's a "little frustrated with the programmers" at NBC and the way "Lateline" has been on and off and moved about the schedule.

"But I have to say I like Scott [Sassa]. He's been very accessible to us. I can't say I agree with every decision he's made about the show, but I do like him. I don't know how I'll feel if we don't get picked up. I suppose it will depend in part how they handle us the next few weeks, how we're promo'd and all that by the network. But I feel like we've done our job, and now it's up to them."

Franken is once again on the best-seller lists with his latest book, "Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and UnMaking of the Franken Presidency," and his keen sense of political and media satire is the spice of several coming episodes.

Next week, "Lateline" producer Gail Ingersoll (Megyn Price), who hates a Christian Coalition-like group called the "Moral Coalition," winds up falling for its new executive director when he's invited on the show.

"It's a really good story about media ethics and stuff," Franken says.

The week after that, "Lateline" features Rob Reiner, Vanessa Williams and Martin Sheen in an episode that finds Freundlich on the set of a Washington-based disaster movie like "Deep Impact." This one is called "The Seventh Plague" and, though Freundlich has only a three-line part, he manages to destroy the film, which is being directed by Reiner.

The following week, G. Gordon Liddy and Freundlich break into SAT exam headquarters.

G. Gordon Liddy and a high-profile break-in: If you get the reference, it makes you smile and you haven't been watching this show, make a date to be with NBC Tuesdays at 8: 30 the next few weeks. Network sitcoms as smart as -"Lateline" are few and getting fewer each season.

MPT near its goal

Through Sunday, Day 16 of MPT's pledge drive, the station had already raised $747,381, putting it just a hair's breadth away from the overall goal of $750,000 by the time the festivities come to a halt Sunday. The big draws this past weekend included "Suze Orman: Courage to be Rich" (more than $17,000), a double-feature of Englebert Humperdinck concerts (more than $30,000) and "The Irish Tenors" ($16,000).

Anchor Marsden teaching

WMAR, Channel 2, news anchor Mary Beth Marsden will be on the campus of the College of Notre Dame April 12 and 13 as a "visiting professional" professor in communication arts. Marsden, a graduate of the University of Maryland who's been at Channel 2 since May 1988, will teach classes in communication arts and deliver an address open to the general public at 7: 15 p.m. April 13. For information, call 410-532-5546.

Milford Mill senior wins

Victor G. Blackwell, a senior at Milford Mill Academy, was the first-place winner in the "Salute to Heritage" oratory contest sponsored by WJZ, Channel 13, in honor of Black History Month.

Victor used as his theme a quote from NBA great Lenny Wilkens: "In the scale of life, what's important? My belief in God. My family. And being accountable for who I am. If these three things are in place, all other things are attainable."

Second place was awarded to Alicia Moore, a junior at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Third place went to Reubina Chance, a freshman at Chesapeake High School.

Shamrock Shag tonight

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