Turns out, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" star Melissa Joan Hart doesn't need all those witchy powers to get into pots of trouble; she's more than capable of getting in a jam all by herself.
The publisher of Archie Comics has demanded that Hart be removed as the star of the wholesome ABC prime-time family show unless she publicly apologizes for her nearly naked photo shoot and interview in the October issue of guy magazine Maxim.
"What Melissa does as Melissa Joan Hart is none of my business . . . [but] what she says and does as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is very much my business because it's my property," Michael J. Silberkleit told The TV Column yesterday. Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a property of Archie Comics. And ABC's sitcom, which is produced by Viacom and based on the comic-book character, is the No. 1 prime-time show among kids ages 2-11.
So you can imagine how steamed Silberkleit is over the Maxim cover that sports a picture of a clothing-deprived Hart over which are the words: "SABRINA, Your Favorite Witch Without a Stitch."
Inside the issue--which just happens to hit the stands at about the same time as Hart's new movie, "Drive Me Crazy," opens--are more peekaboo photos and a Q&A with the "Sabrina" star, in which she answers such questions as: "What's your favorite 'Sabrina' drinking game?"
The 23-year-old Hart confides it's a game in which you "take a shot" whenever the series's talking cat says a line. "And that's quite often--you can be pretty wasted after half an hour!" she assures the interviewer.
Great training, no doubt, for her 21st birthday, during which, she tells Maxim, she downed 12 tequila shots in two hours. Which, in turn, was perfect training for that week of binge drinking in Cabo, Mexico, with a dozen girlfriends, which she also details for Maxim readers. "Let's just say everybody knew about 'the American girls' when we left," she tells Maxim. There are also some instructive tips from Hart, such as "the difference between everyday sex and great sex."
"I would be surprised if Melissa Joan Hart's contract with Viacom allows her to engage in and advocate dangerous and immoral activities while she is playing the part of our character," Silberkleit hissed in a letter to Viacom Chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone.
"If Ms. Hart wants to change her image, she must wait until after her contract with Viacom expires and refrain from associating our Sabrina the Teenage Witch character with her personal endorsement of binge drinking, participation in pornography and discussions about sex," he added.
In fact, on the Archie Comics Web site, the company promises parents that all its characters are virgins and there's no drinking of alcohol.
ABC and a rep for Viacom Productions declined to comment on Hart's antics. But via a publicist, Hart said yesterday that "in the tradition of Archie Comics, we have always presented Sabrina as a positive role model for children. It has never been my intention to do anything that would compromise this character I love so much."
Hart's publicist said she prefers to address "the concerns of Archie Comics Publications" privately rather than in the press. But Silberkleit said late yesterday that neither he nor his attorneys had heard from Hart or anyone representing her.
He wants her off the show unless she agrees to make a public apology for her appearance in Maxim, as well as in the publication Bikini, which features her in a similar state of barely dressedness and also includes references to her "Sabrina" role. He says her quasi-contrite comment issued via her publicist doesn't count.
And, for good measure, he's also insisting that she "voluntarily" agree to participate in an anti-drinking public service announcement campaign.
Ally Lite opened flat.
Fox's skinnier half-hour version of the one-hour series "Ally McBeal" debuted Tuesday night with a slim 7.3 million viewers, for a fourth-place finish in the 8 p.m. time slot.
This is a far cry from the 10.9 million who had tuned in last year for the debut of the animated "King of the Hill" in the same Fox slot.
Even worse, "Ally" (shorter show, shorter title--get it?) was starving for viewers ages 18-49--people who are supposed to be drawn to this show. Among this set, Ally Reduced finished an embarrassing No. 4 in its slot, behind even "JAG"--a show that NBC dumped because it skewed so old and is now airing on old-timers' network CBS.
That may be okay for a program that costs about a nickel to produce. "Ally" is, after all, just another name for "Ally McBeal" reruns jazzed up a bit with some footage that didn't make the cut the first time around.
But what about the bigger picture? "Ally" made it onto the Fox network's prime-time schedule because Fox the studio, which produces the series, was looking to goose the price of "Ally McBeal" in syndication. The show's first syndication round, selling reruns to cable, was a disappointment. Apparently, cable execs didn't buy the notion that "Ally McBeal" is a sitcom, even if Emmy voters did. Sitcom reruns command bigger bucks than dramas do because they repeat better.
The second round of selling, expected to start later this year, will be to broadcast TV stations. According to Fox network's entertainment chief, Doug Herzog, writer-producer David E. Kelley came up with the idea of repackaging "Ally McBeal" as a half-hour sitcom to demonstrate its rerunability.
But, at least in its debut, "Ally's" audience of 7.3 million was only on par with the "Ally McBeal" summer rerun average of 7.6 million viewers.
ABC has made the first schedule overhaul of the new season, yanking "The Hughleys" out of its Friday 8 p.m. time slot after the show's botched season start during Premiere Week.
The "Hughleys" kickoff last week averaged 8.3 million viewers--the smallest audience on record for an 8 p.m. fall premiere on ABC's so-called "TGIF" (Thank Goodness It's Friday) lineup.
So starting Oct. 15, "The Hughleys" gets shipped over to the protected 9:30 p.m. half-hour where it'll play between self-starting "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and the Barbara Walters-hosted "20/20."
CAPTION: Melissa Joan Hart in Halloween gear in "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."