LOS ANGELES - Executives at all the networks have had a hard time defending their reality programs on Summer Press Tour. But only one has had to deflect criticism of its trashy show after a woman had a knife put to her throat by a fellow contestant.
And yesterday, CBS president Leslie Moonves - the most polished, glib and experienced of all the network bosses - came close to losing his cool when faced with a barrage of questions suggesting that CBS is behaving more irresponsibly than any other network with its handling of Big Brother 2.
Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellum wanted to talk to the nation's television critics about getting more viewers last year than the other networks, and about their big plans for the fall, including the Oct. 11 launch of Survivor 3: Africa.
But they couldn't get past Big Brother 2.
The incident in question took place in the Big Brother house earlier this month, when one contestant, a New Jersey bartender named Justin, held a knife to the throat of a female housemate. He said he was doing it playfully. The producers thought otherwise and removed him from the house and the game. CBS didn't air the incident but acknowledged that it took place.
Yesterday, Moonves and Tellum were asked how they would feel about broadcasting such a show if Justin actually had stabbed the woman or cut her throat.
"I'm not going to answer that question. I'm not going to answer that question," Moonves said. Then, as if hearing the decided edge in his own voice, he quickly added in a more relaxed tone: "I'm not trying to stop you [from asking it]. I'm just not going to answer it." With that, he dismissed the questioner and invited a query from someone else.
For all CBS' high-blown claims about the precautions it takes in producing the show, it seems clear that they would have been insufficient to save the woman from harm, had the threat of violence escalated to an actual attack. Arnold Shapiro, the executive producer of Big Brother 2, has acknowledged that as much as 90 seconds would have elapsed before his staff could have interceded on the woman's behalf.
Moonves didn't address that question directly. Instead, he said:
"We did not feel the woman's life or health were in jeopardy. Clearly, we did not expect that result from Justin. We had a clean psychological profile on him. We had a clean criminal background check and all those other background checks that are done. We met with him, and we saw a working class guy, a bartender, a tough guy from Bayonne, N.J. We didn't think he'd have antisocial behavior. We were surprised by what happened.
"But, you know, it is difficult. And, when you're dealing with these kinds of show you come up with things like what happened on Big Brother."
Moonves' "stuff happens" defense of dangerous reality show moments wasn't playing with his audience yesterday. Nor was the concept he tried to sell last year of Big Brother as "a social experiment."
As one questioner suggested, social scientists doing valid research follow certain protocols including peer-reviewed assessments of risks before human subjects are involved.
"You know what? I'm not a scientist," Moonves said. "What am I looking for? I'm looking for trying different program forms. I'm tired of putting on Diagnosis Murder reruns in the summer. Look, if we wouldn't have tried Survivor a year ago, we wouldn't be where we are today."
There's no arguing that.
The disagreement between Moonves and many of those who came to question him yesterday is whether that is a good or bad place for the culture to be.
Troubles for `Bob'?
Maybe it's that the press tour is coming to its end, and some critics are getting a little cranky after more than two weeks in Hotel Spin, but Jason Alexander had a bit of a bumpy press conference, too. You could almost feel his blood pressure rise when the very first questioner asked him how he felt about his new ABC sitcom, Bob Patterson, being tabbed a "troubled" show.
Alexander took a very long time to explain that the series, which features Alexander as a self-help guru named Bob Patterson, wasn't really troubled - there was only the "perception" of trouble. The perception was created by the press, he said, after an executive producer quit and two roles were recast since the pilot was filmed.
"So, yes, we did recast. A lot of shows do it," Alexander concluded.
"But that's all the turmoil on this very troubled show, which tested through the roof and has been put in an enviable [time] slot with a bunch of promotion. And, to my knowledge, a network doesn't do that unless they think they've got something. And all they've looked at is the pilot that we gave them. So, if that's as troubled as we get, bring it on."
Unfortunately, it's not - the show's bigger troubles include being scheduled opposite NBC's Frasier. It's not clear what Alexander finds so enviable about that time slot. There's also the danger that viewers never will accept Alexander as anyone other than George Costanza, the character he played on Seinfeld.
When asked what happens if viewers tune into Bob Patterson looking for George, Alexander said:
"If that's what they're looking for, I think they're going to be very happy, because we purposefully created Bob out of the ashes of George, for lack of a better word. We wanted to do a character that was going to be comfortable for the audience ... but that had some room to grow and some differences, so that I didn't pull out what's left of my hair, repeating myself all over again."
Unless the next few episodes improve drastically over the pilot I saw, I'd rather see Alexander repeat himself as George in reruns of Seinfeld than spend my Tuesday nights this fall with Bob Patterson.