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The break-in period for new TV shows, faces

It's a thing I learned from Nick Clooney, father of George.

When Nick Clooney was, ever-so-briefly, tapped by an old Cincinnati friend to be Ch. 2's News anchor during the station's ownership crisis, Clooney was godawful on his opening day in the anchor chair. Because he's a class act, he freely admitted it to me later.

He'd been off the air too long and was all thumbs when he first got back on.

After two weeks, though, he became the most impressive single news anchor Buffalo has ever had -- a living embodiment of news as the world's most paradoxically genteel profession (i.e. he was the ultimate gentleman reporting to you about the world's most worrisome horrors and filthiest misdeeds).

What I learned from Clooney is this: Sometimes you have to suspend judgment for a while. My gut told me not to come down on Clooney like a ton of bricks for his opening day ineptitude; it told me to wait for his jitters to calm down.

I now consider the whole question a matter of TV viewer etiquette. How long is it proper to wait for a TV show or personality to get good? When is it proper to throw kernels of popcorn at your TV and holler churlish things? And when is it premature?

The answer, of course, varies from TV personality to TV personality and from show to show. Think of me here, then, as an extremely experienced Mr. Manners on this subject. Some etiquette suggestions:
* New local TV anchors: You have to give them a full two weeks. Call it the Nick Clooney rule. Sure, you'd have to be blind not to notice, for instance, that John Beard has aged considerably since he was last on the air here in 1981. (A friend e-mailed me this wisecrack: John Beard and Dabney Coleman -- Separated at Birth?) But you have to let both him and the station skate on his annoying and excessive volume level on his opening show on Ch. 2's "Daybreak." I'm going back in eight days to take a look. By then, he'll show us his true colors, whatever they are.
* Revolutionary network ploys to cut costs: Sorry, they only get three days to work that stuff out. It was monumental -- indeed historic -- stupidity that put NBC in the position of having to stuff Jay Leno into the nightly 10 p.m. slot in the first place. If they hadn't been such jackasses (thank you, Mr. President for liberating the word) for ousting Leno from the "Tonight Show" just to protect Conan O'Brien, they wouldn't have had to give Leno the nightly 10 p.m. slot just to keep him from bolting to ABC or Fox and creaming them in the nightly ratings.

The result, predictably, is that O'Brien's "Tonight Show" now looks like even more of a colossal redundancy than it did before. That's because Leno, after just three days, was doing just fine -- better, anyway, than he usually did on "The Tonight Show." Other networks' reluctance to share their stars for their prime-time competitor didn't hurt him one bit when he had people like Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams. And Williams, on Wednesday night, got the censor to be loose enough to prove they weren't going to let prime time scare them too much.

What I really loved on Wednesday night's show gave us a delightful demonstration by two loony Brits on the street comic practice of "ghosting" -- seeing how long you can follow unsuspecting citizens three inches behind them before they turn around and thump you on the nose. It was very funny. The new Leno show is, yes, prime-time TV on the cheap. It costs so much less than, say, a "Law and Order" episode. And good old Jay, it seems to me, is up to speed already.

The first network to copy him, though, with prime-time comedy/talk is going to tank big time, along with trashing network TV. Leno himself, I think, is always going to be a bit of a nightly hit-and-miss proposition rather than "appointment TV" the way favorite dramas and sitcoms are, whether old or new.
New network news anchors: You have to give them at least one week, preferably two (just like local anchors). That's how long it took for us to fully realize that CBS' game plan for the accession of Katie Couric on the nightly news was as hopelessly flawed as it was overpromoted. All that happened at the same time that it was obvious that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with Couric herself in the anchor chair. She still suffers from the ratings aftereffects of the initial oversell and excessive content tinkering. But she is the anchor I now watch.

So when Diane Sawyer takes over from retiring Charlie Gibson in January, ABC news would be wise to make as few overt content changes as possible and to keep the promotion down to a dull roar. Just put her in the chair and let her find her way smoothly rather than light her path with Roman candles every two inches.
* New Emmy Show hosts: On Sunday's Emmy Show, you have to give former Tony host Neil Patrick Harris more than just an opening monologue (or comedy bit or whatever). You have to give him at least four awards to see if he's any good at ad libbing and keeping things moving. It's simply a mistake to expect any new award show host to be Billy Crystal in the opening five minutes. I suspect, by the way, that he'll be very good at it, maybe even great in a couple years. Jeremy Piven, anyway, he's not.
* New TV series: Sorry. They get one week. That's it -- two, if you're generous and historically minded enough to remember how long it took, for instance, for "Cheers" to find an audience. The show was always good. It was the audience that wasn't.

So help me, you knew exactly how HBO's "Hung" would end its first season from its bland opening episode.

So for me the smart addition of the great Linda Hunt to the new spinoff "NCIS: Los Angeles" on Tuesday had better lend a much-needed flavor of David McCallum elegance to the all-too-crass action set up of the show. If she doesn't, I'm going to be out of there at the first opportunity, while still watching the well-grooved original.

You have to have standards, you know?


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