It's more than just a blip

Analysis: Praised by some, dismissed by others, `Fail Safe' puts live drama on CBS' radar screen.

April 11, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Fail-Safe" may have been the first live drama to air on CBS in almost four decades, but it definitely won't be the last.

That's the word from the network, where executives professed total pleasure with Sunday night's without-a-net adaptation of the 1964 Cold War thriller, even as media reaction to "Fail-Safe" proved mixed.

"Everything that we set out to do creatively was accomplished," said CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves. "I think people truly were in awe of what we were trying to do. One day, Steven Spielberg came by just to walk around the set. I think it got that kind of reaction from everybody in Hollywood."

CBS already has Julie Andrews gearing up for a live production of "On Golden Pond," to air sometime in the fall. Moonves said he was getting calls yesterday from people pitching similar projects, which he predicts will start showing up on the network sporadically.

"They really have to be done as event programming," he said. "If we did them every week ... it wouldn't make sense."

While some critics raved about both the drama and the drama-behind-the-drama, others saw the live performance as just a ratings gimmick that added little to the production.

"I think [airing live] plays well with something like this," said Phil Rosenthal, TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "I think that, for a drama that plays against the clock, it makes it that much more exciting."

Countered Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg: "It's a huge gimmick. There's no creative reason for it whatsoever. The only thing you get with live TV is a greater possibility of error, and if that's what turns you on for television ..."

"Fail-Safe" attracted an impressive numbers of viewers, including a 71 percent increase in men ages 25-to-54 over what the network normally achieves in that time period. It didn't win its 9 p.m.-11 p.m. time slot -- as usual, the ABC juggernaut of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "The Practice" did that -- but it came in a strong second, improving over the previous week and giving CBS an overall prime-time victory for the night.

"If a second-place finish can be gotten right out of the box, I think the networks might see potential for even bigger events down the road," said Steve Johnson, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune.

Locally, "Fail-Safe" did even better, beating "Millionaire" on ABC from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. and attracting only 7,000 viewers fewerthan "The Practice" from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.

The movie benefited from a top-notch cast that included Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy, Noah Wyle, Don Cheadle, Harvey Keitel, Sam Elliott and George Clooney, who came up with the idea for the live black-and-white telecast, sold CBS on it and was its executive producer.

It would have been nearly impossible to attract a similar cast for a conventional made-for-TV movie, Moonves said. "I spoke to just about everybody," he said. "Without exception, these people felt it was an experience they were so happy to take part in."

Several critics speculated it was the big-name actors, and not the live broadcast, that attracted so many viewers.

"I don't think you're going to see many more of these, unless there's a big name behind it," said Bruce Fretts, TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. "You really do get to see the actors performing under pressure, and I guess there's something to that."

The CBS broadcast was relatively gaffe-free, although veteran newsman Walter Cronkite flubbed a line during the introduction; he quickly corrected himself. That may have disappointed viewers who tuned in hoping to watch the actors miss lines or the technicians mishandle their equipment. The smooth performance seems to have surprised Clooney, who reportedly said at a cast party afterward, "We were panicked. We hadn't done one really smooth rehearsal. I thought we were dead."

"I think there's an inherent fascination in tuning in to see if anyone screws up," said Fretts. "That's sort of the main thing; you're sitting there waiting for the bloopers to happen."

For Rosenthal in Chicago, "Fail-Safe" was a home run, the sort of show "that kind of makes me proud to be a TV critic."

But back in Los Angeles, Rosenberg remained unimpressed with this throwback to the early days of TV. "There was no valid reason for doing this, other than to attract a large audience by trying to claim it as a major breakthrough ... which is what was done by our local TV station, which apparently is run by amnesiacs."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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