Not enough advance hysteria--that's the problem NBC faced with its Sunday movie "Y2K."
Oh sure, there'd been some nibbles. Last month, a lawmaker on the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem called the movie one of the most irresponsible things ever to come out of Hollywood, which got published. More recently, the Edison Electric Institute sent a screed to the 100 biggest NBC stations--and cc'd The Reporters Who Cover Television--blasting NBC for trying to "fan flames of panic and unnecessary alarm."
After an appropriate delay, NBC announced it would run a disclaimer at the outset of the flick, saying, "This program does not suggest or imply that any of these events could actually occur. " That was picked up by some of The Reporters Who Cover Television--as was a comment by one of the movie's producers that his slogan while making the movie was "Paranoia is our most important product."
Good stuff all, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
That's because, for some reason, viewers--and The Reporters Who Cover Television--are far more interested in a bunch of white guys perched in high chairs answering inane multiple-choice questions than they are in NBC's sweeps extravaganzas. This is a stunning upset for the peacock network, which has dominated the sweeps competition since November 1995 with highly hyped, big-budget special-effects blowouts such as "Gulliver's Travels," "Pandora's Clock," "The Odyssey," "Atomic Train" and "Merlin." But this November, NBC's miniseries "Leprechauns" went down in flames and its millennium-conscious movie about the Virgin Mary was no great shakes, ratings-wise, even though it was produced by America's First Family-in-Law, the Shrivers.
Something had to be done. NBC's advertising and promo department, a group so hip it was this week renamed the NBC Agency (cool!), came up with an idea for a "Y2K" ad that was a real pip. Get the White House to publicize the movie! How? By using unauthorized videotaped quotes from the president of the United States, which the Big House was certain to protest, giving The Reporters Who Cover Television no choice but to write about it.
Hey, it worked for the producers of the movie "Contact."
In the Jodie Foster alien movie, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis used the same digital techniques he employed in "Forrest Gump" to morph actor James Woods into the background of an actual President Clinton news conference; only Clinton appeared to be issuing statements about a radio contact from outer space, not speaking about the 168 people who had just died in the Oklahoma City bombing. A White House vs. Hollywood kerfuffle ensued, which the press gobbled up.
Yards and yards of free publicity for the movie in all the nation's newspapers.
Faster than you can say "Must See TV," NBC approved and made the ad. It opened with footage of a speech President Clinton gave on Nov. 10 from the lawn of the White House:
POTUS: "The federal government is Y2K ready and leading by example. And the American people can have full faith that everything from air traffic control systems to Social Security payment systems will continue to work exactly as they should."
Cut to black screen filled with big bold letters, spelling out:
"What if he's wrong?" Cut to people screaming, soldiers toting guns, voices counting down to midnight--5-4-3-2-1--things blowing up, people punching one another.
Then the pitch:
"Y2K: The Movie." NBC Sunday.
The End. NBC late Wednesday tipped off The Reporters Who Cover Television that the spot would debut, appropriately, that night during NBC's White House drama series "The West Wing."
Then, NBC waited for the inevitable.
"The counsel's office is going to object; they always do," a White House spokesman told The TV Column wearily, when contacted yesterday about the ad.
"They usually write a letter at some point. . . . That's standard operating procedure."
And, how about NBC's very clever strategy?
Said the White House rep: "We went through this with Jerry's Pizza using the president's voice in an ad."
The NBC Agency President John Miller said late yesterday that he had not been told by any of the NBC upper muckety-mucks to pull the ad, so he was planning to rerun it last night during "ER" and tonight during newsmagazine "Dateline."
Of NBC's Friday programs, which also include the chick drama "Providence" and a rerun of the cop-lawyer drama "Law & Order," "Dateline" is the most appropriate for the Clinton-"Y2K" ad, Miller said, because "it's real."
We think he meant the program. We hope he meant the program.
Attention Prime-Time Quiz Show Fanatics: Don't read this item if you don't want the unbearable suspense of these game shows spoiled. I don't want to hear from you tomorrow.
Sure, Fox's game show "Greed" gave away $1 million last week, but it was divided among three people and one fool squandered his share last night going for an even bigger prize.
But on tonight's edition of ABC's game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," one guy, a John Carpenter from Hamden, Conn., wins $1 million all by himself. It's ABC's first million-dollar giveaway on "Millionaire," which has hit the ratings jackpot this November sweeps, putting the network in first place.
NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" bagged its biggest audience in eight months, 2.6 million viewers, last week when it took its first-ever road trip--if you can call migrating from NBC's New York digs to its Burbank, Calif., digs a road trip.
ABC's "Good Morning America" had an average audience last week of 4.3 million viewers--that's up 23 percent compared with the same week last year. CBS's new "Early Show" took a hit, averaging 2.7 million watchers--down 12 percent compared with the same week a year ago, when CBS had "This Morning" in the day part. NBC's "Today" show was flat but in the lead, with 6.1 million viewers.
CAPTION: Lessons From "Contact": NBC used unauthorized videotape quotes from President Clinton's Nov. 10 Y2K-readiness speech to hype its Sunday disaster movie "Y2K."