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The Unmerry Month of May

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, April 27, 2006

What can you say about a wrist-slittingly gloomy-doomy slate of May sweeps specials that includes an ABC flick about a bird-flu mutation about to wipe out the population of the United States; an NBC miniseries about the mother of all earthquakes, which could obliterate the Western Hemisphere unless FEMA saves a seismologist trapped in a Las Vegas casino; an "unspeakable horror" beastie thing posing as a small-town cop in the Nevada desert and terrorizing the locals and the local insects (you think I make this stuff up, but I don't) on ABC; and David Blaine being "Drowned Alive" from Lincoln Center, also on ABC?

Plus, an actual woman trying to escape an allegedly abusive husband by seeking Dr. Phil's help, and Joan Collins trying to hang on to her whole slutty kitten thing at 72 in a "Dynasty" reunion -- both on CBS.

ABC, NBC and, to a lesser degree, CBS are literally trying to scare up numbers in the vacuum created by the ratings tornado that is Fox's "American Idol."

"Idol" is averaging 30.6 million viewers -- about 4 million more than last year. During the May ratings sweeps, Fox will air at least eight hours of the singing competition.

NBC and ABC come into this sweeps with their prime-time schedules looking kind of tatty. ABC had been the No. 1 network among younger viewers, but recently, thanks largely to "Idol," Fox moved into a tie for first and, short of a ratings miracle, it will win the season among the 18-to-49-year-olds advertisers covet.

NBC, meanwhile, is trying to claw its way out of its prime-time rubble -- like that seismologist trapped in that casino in a 10.5-quaked Las Vegas. It and ABC are really ramping up the Chicken Little stuff for the sweeps.

Against "Idol" on May 9, ABC will air "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," about which the network says in its news release:

"There are times that test humanity and challenge the soul of a community or a nation. News images and headlines tell stories of rising waters, quaking ground and tragic acts by man himself. But the real story, the human story, is found in the lives changed forever, in the strength of the survivors and the resilient hope that give them the courage to recover.

"On Tuesday, May 9, ABC will bring such a story to television," the network added, finally getting to the nub of the issue, "in a two-hour original movie [that] follows an outbreak of an Avian Flu from its origins in a Hong Kong market through its mutation into a virus transmittable from human to human around the world."

It's a "meticulously researched film," ABC assures us; among the consultants was John M. Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History," about the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed as many as 100 million people.

ABC also has lined up the Stephen King flick "Desperation," about that small-town cop-unspeakable horror beast named Tak, for May 23, the second-to-last night of "Idol."

And ABC will bring us Blaine trying to hold his breath underwater longer than anybody else after spending seven days imitating dinner choices at Red Lobster in an aquarium in front of Lincoln Center. But David, for all his death-defying bravado, is too chicken to face "Idol"; his special will air on a Monday.

NBC will air the first half of the sequel to its popular end-of-the-world miniseries "10.5" on Sunday, May 21. But Part 2 will air on an "Idol" night -- May 23 -- though it will start at 9, after "Idol" -- unless Fox decides to beef up that penultimate episode, which could happen.

CBS's prime time is in a stronger position than the other two networks', and the network will emerge this season as the most watched among viewers of all ages. Still, CBS has a few sweeps specials up its sleeve, including that "Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar," which is worth watching for the plastic surgery alone.

And, for sheer horror, you can't beat the sinful exploitation of a young woman turning to Dr. Phil for help when she wants to leave her allegedly abusive husband in "A Dr. Phil Primetime Special: Escaping Danger."

UPN and the WB are, literally, over. They will cease operation in the fall when the merged CW debuts.

What good can come of all this "Idol"-izing during the May sweeps, you wonder?

How about catching pedophiles?

NBC has scheduled four new hours of its "Dateline" episodes in which it sets up sting operations to nab pedophiles. Three of those hours are being produced to counterprogram "Idol" during the May sweeps.

Since 2004, "Dateline" has aired three reports in the sting operation series, titled "To Catch a Predator." NBC News worked with a group called Perverted Justice, whose volunteer members pose as boys and girls in Internet chat rooms and wait to be contacted by adult men seeking sex with minors. The volunteers lure the men to a house rented by NBC, where they are caught on hidden cameras and confronted by a "Dateline" reporter. Some are arrested.

Each of the first three "Dateline" stings drew more than 8 million viewers. During the February ratings sweeps, an episode of "To Catch a Predator" drew the newsmag's biggest ratings of the year.

* * *

Done in by "Unchained Melody," Trampy Barbie got sent home last night on "American Idol."

In week after week of subpar-even-for-"Idol" performances, Kellie Pickler had dodged the Bottom Three on the strength of her pouty dumb-blonde routine, which never failed to enchant the all-male lineup of celebrity coaches, the mostly male judges and show host Ryan Seacrest.

Simon Cowell was so smitten he proclaimed her a naughty little minx.

But even Simon couldn't overlook her funeral dirge version of the tune made famous by the Righteous Brothers.

Not even this week's brilliant variation on the dumb-blonde routine could save her:

I'm so sad because I don't have a boyfriend, so I'm singing this song because it reminds me of that pottery scene from "Ghost," and won't you come play pottery with me?

Though it was very, very good.

How bad was Trampy Barbie singing "Unchained Melody"?

When she was announced as this week's ejectee and handed the microphone for the traditional Song of the Loser, Ryan suggested she instead use the time to thank her fans. That Ryan is such a diplomat.

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