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TV Scandals Behind the Camera


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

There are many ways for TV networks to lure nightly viewers: Gripping story lines, great acting or scandal. Tonight, viewers can choose between two programs that go through the trashy details of the lives of a couple of television people. The networks airing these shows are looking for ratings, but DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein says scandal shows offer other benefits, as well.


Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which network is the sleaziest of them all? See for yourself tonight. CBS has an hour-long interview at 8 PM with Pat O'Brien, the host of the syndicated news magazine "The Insider." He just emerged from a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse. Sounds juicy enough, but ABC's "Primetime Live" is doing an expose on "American Idol" at 10 PM. It will likely include steamy allegations about the conduct of one of the hit show's judges, Paula Abdul.

If you like celebrity dish, these stories are going to be great. But what you may not realize is how great these shows could be for the networks that produce them. Take the "Primetime Live" investigation of "American Idol," the FOX series that is television's highest-rated show. All ABC is saying at this point is that it concerns, quote, "explosive claims about behind-the-scenes activities." But the segment will likely focus on unsubstantiated allegations made by a former contestant on the show about the personal relationship he says he had with Abdul while he was on the show. Her lawyer is already threatening to sue ABC.

Questioning "American Idol's" fairness could be damaging to the show. But let's not forget what hurts "Idol," helps ABC. ABC and FOX are running head to head in the closest rating race of recent years. Even the slightest fall-off in "Idol's" viewership could help ABC when the finale of its own hit series, "Lost," airs in the same time slot as the "Idol" finale on May 25th. Oh, by the way, guess what the subject of another ABC news show, "20/20," is this week? The hit series "Lost." I don't expect that report to dig up much dirt.

Meanwhile, CBS appears to be trying to sweep away the dirt associated with one of the hot properties at its parent company, Viacom. "The Insider's" Pat O'Brien will be the subject of a special hosted by Dr. Phil. In case you're not familiar with him, he's a daytime talk show host who takes a tough love approach to counseling his wayward guests. That should prove really interesting with O'Brien. His reputation has been tainted by recordings circulating on the Internet of a man who sounds an awful lot like him boasting of kinky sex and drug use. I'd play you an excerpt, but you'd hear more bleeps than actual words.

It will be interesting to see just how tough Dr. Phil will get with O'Brien. What will be even more interesting is whether Dr. Phil mentions that Paramount produces his show, as well as O'Brien's show, "The Insider." Paramount and CBS are both subsidiaries of Viacom. You could bet that Dr. Phil probably won't be too hard on him. O'Brien will be able to defend his reputation on his own terms, not to mention timing. After all, he returns as host of "The Insider" tomorrow.

So I hope that gives you a better understanding of why networks choose to devote an entire hour to celebrity scandal. Stories about Paula Abdul and Pat O'Brien may not spark everybody's interest, but they're certainly in the interest of ABC and CBS.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

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CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
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