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Lower your expectations for TNT's Raising the Bar

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Jane Kaczmarek clash in Raising the Bar.

Premiering: Monday, Sept. 1st at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek, Gloria Reuben, Currie Graham, Melissa Sagemiller, Jonathan Scarfe, Teddy Sears, J. August Richards, Natalia Cigluiti
Created by: Steven Bochco, David Feige

"Perfectly ordinary." "Brought to you in living color." "Familiar faces go through their paces."

It's tough to muster much more enthusiasm than that for TNT's Raising the Bar, whose father figure, Steven Bochco, previously has crafted the likes of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and Doogie Howser, M.D.

Nearing 65 as one of television's most decorated veterans, Bochco also has been capable of clinkers such as Blind Justice, Total Security, Public Morals and Capitol Critters. His storied Cop Rock also fired blanks, but at least it was a ballsy try. And Bochco's recent, ambitious Iraq war series, Over There, lasted just a single season on FX.

Raising the Bar plays like something Bochco left in the freezer for five years and now is thawing out in hopes it'll still retain a little flavor. He's enlisted former NYPD Blue star Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the show's principal antagonist.

Long of hair and short of fuse, Gosselaar plays public defender Jerry Kellerman with all the texture of a one-year-old encountering his first birthday cake. He alternately broods, mists over and clashes angrily with judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek from Malcolm In the Middle), who treats him as Judge Judy would a deadbeat dad.

"What happened to you? How did you go from being a judge to a petty, spiteful tyrant?" Jerry asks before Trudy throws him back in the clink for contempt.

Premiering on Labor Day, the series otherwise strives to intertwine the lives of defenders and prosecutors, whose clashes by day don't keep them from mixing and mingling nightly at their favorite bar.

Jerry and assistant district attorney Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) also have been coupling in the sack. But it's clear from the second episode that he'll be making a move for incoming public defender Roberta "Bobbi" Gilardi (Natalia Cigluiti), who's married at least for the moment.

Defendants, all of them minorities, include a black man wrongfully accused of rape and a Hispanic man wrongfully accused of murder. Attendant developments for the most part are telegraphed. If Boston Legal is over the top, Raising the Bar seems over the hill, at least in terms of Bochco's creative juices.

Also in the mix are ER alum Gloria Reuben as Jerry's boss, Rosalind "Roz" Whitman, and Currie Graham in the role of Michelle's sneering taskmaster, D.A. Nick Balco. There's also Judge Trudy's ambitious young law clerk, Charlie Sagansky (Jonathan Scarfe), who deftly sexes her up for his own purposes while otherwise secreting gay bars.

Monday's curtain raiser also finds Balco coming on to his principal underling, only to see him plead for a rain check after she advances on him like Madonna in an NBA All-Star dressing room.

"Don't ever let your great big head make promises your little bitty head can't keep," she instructs him. Thud.

None of the performances resonate, at least in the tone-setting first two episodes. The scripts mostly limp along, too, afflicting viewers with lines like, "Process creates truth" or "We all know Jerry Kellerman has a Don Quixote complex."

Your honor, frankly, we're kinda bored. Raising the Bar provides way too much evidence of a once topflight TV auteur now running on fumes.

Grade: C

Obama's big night: A tale of two networks

The big night in Denver and an authentic ticket to John F. Kennedy's 1960 outdoor acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The ticket and campaign button were purchased from a political memorabilia vendor at the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, where I was otherwise covering media activities.

Barack Obama's crowning moment Thursday night found two cable news networks playing their respective roles as cheerleader and naysayer.

But Fox News Channel's nays were far more muted than MSNBC's yays. So in that sense at least, FNC in fact achieved a semblance of fairness and balance in the oft-polarized battle of two networks that despise one another.

MSNBC's resident hot air balloon, Chris Matthews began as usual by first referencing himself.

"I've written speeches all my life, of course nothing like this," he said from the network's outdoor post amid the usual gathering of boisterous Obama supporters. "And let me tell you what was great about it."

Matthews opined that Obama repeatedly and effectively attacked "from a defensive position," using presumed opponent John McCain's words against him.

"It was a great way of throwing back the other side's best shot and saying it's full of crap," Matthews thundered as the crowd behind him roared.

Deskmate Keith Olbermann also rhapsodized.

"There was no stone left unturned here," he said before later assuring correspondent Andrea Mitchell that the speech in fact played as beautifully on TV as it did before an estimated 80,000 partisans gathered at Denver's Invesco Field.

Tom Brokaw termed it "a wonderfully crafted political speech" and then faulted the initial Republican response as weak.

"They didn't know how to react to this speech," added analyst Chuck Todd. "As a political show, this has got to be hard to top."

MSNBC's sub-panel of political jabberers, helmed by Kelly O'Donnell, responded in kind after she asked each of her three colleagues to "pick their favorite part of the speech."

Rachel Maddow, the Democratic partisan getting her own prime-time show later this year, offered another rave review. Even Pat Buchanan, the leathery and lately mellower GOP warhorse, went a bit cuckoo for Obama.

"I was a genuinely outstanding speech. It was magnificent," he said. "This is the greatest convention speech and probably the most important."

Olbermann interrupted with relish to introduce a commercial break.

"We had to stop Pat Buchanan gushing over Obama's speech for the sake of time," he said. "Perhaps that will tell you the story better than anything else we can say."

Over on FNC, anchor Brit Hume marveled at the pageantry he had just witnessed, terming it "an extraordinary night of spectacle and speech."

But analyst Juan Williams, the only reliably left-leaning member of the Fox News Sunday team, went against his usual grain by proclaiming himself underwhelmed.

"What we heard from Barack Obama, I think, was more prose than poetry," he said. "This was not a motivational, inspirational speech. At times it looked more like a laundry list . . . People will say, 'Gosh, there's magic to him.' But I don't know that he did the closing sale tonight."

Conservative analyst Bill Kristol then turned the tables on his usual political bent.

"Barack Obama faced very high expectations tonight. And honestly, I think he met them," Kristol said. "And I honestly think he exceeded them . . . I thought it was an awfully impressive performance."

Nina Easton of Fortune magazine, also on the FNC panel, said she liked the introductory biographical film of Obama better than his big speech.

"I thought it was a lost opportunity," she added.

"Well, amazing theatrics. I kind of loved them," said conservative-minded Fred Barnes. Otherwise, "this was the same liberal speech, only better delivered . . . This speech will not build bridges."

Chris Wallace, on the ground at Invesco, credited Obama with making "an exceedingly smart speech."

The usually sour-minded Charles Krauthammer likewise used Wallace's words -- "exceedingly smart" -- before also crediting Obama with making "a generic Democratic speech, because he realizes that if he becomes a generic Democrat in this election year, he wins by a landslide."

That's a pretty good teeter-totter of reviews compared to the merry-go-round of unfailing acclamation on MSNBC. On this night at least, Fox News Channel easily "faired" better than its principal antagonist.

Also of note -- Someone should have their journalistic head examined at CBS News. All of its rivals, cable and broadcast alike, played the mood-setting Obama biographical film before the candidate took the stage at 9:11 p.m. Thursday. But CBS first had an inconsequential interview and then went to a commercial break before belatedly joining the film in its final minutes.

Imagine the number of viewers who clicked away from CBS during that time and then never returned. What idiocy on its part.

Katie does a handstand, but CBS isn't turning cartwheels over convention ratings

Katie Couric has been doing interviews -- and handstands -- in Denver during the Democratic National Convention. CBS photo

Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather wouldn't have done it -- not that they had or have the agility.

But CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, still fighting to have "embattled" removed from most descriptions of her, seems totally oblivious to some of the impressions she's leaving while in Denver covering the Democrats.

On her latest CBS webcast, she did a handstand at a yoga retreat set up within the convention site's "Blogging Tent." CBS is hardly hiding this. Emails to TV critics tout this feat, noting that Couric "impressed many by the perfect handstand she did."

Couric also is shown getting a chair massage at the Youtube work site in a webcast headlined "Katie Chills With DNC Bloggers." Maybe it's her way of re-injecting a little of that old Today magic into her CBS news anchor persona. Nothing else has worked for her -- ratings-wise at least. The CBS Evening News continues to run a distant third, and CBS' prime-time convention ratings have been likewise dismal during the first three nights of coverage.

In fairness to Couric -- what a concept -- she's been doing more than just playing around. CBS also has alerted TV critics to her interview with failed 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who fell on his sword in no uncertain terms earlier this week.

"Look, I owe the American people an apology," he told Couric. "If I had beaten the old man you'd of never heard of the kid and you wouldn't be in this mess. So it's all my fault and I feel that very, very strongly. So this is an important election for us, let me tell ya."

That's a helluva quote. But it's the subsequent handstand that sticks the landing. Anchors are entitled to be breezy at times. They're not concrete pillars. On-camera handstands and chair massages still should be out of bounds, though. Shouldn't they? Here's the video of playful Katie:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Superman swimmer adds another laurel

NBC has landed a big fish to host the 34th season premiere of Saturday Night Live.

Eight-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps will join the growing pool of athlete hosts, with musical guest Lil Wayne. SNL is making an unusually early Sept. 13th return and will have seven new shows before the presidential election, the network says.

Trusty Internet research shows that quarterback Fran Tarkenton was the first athlete to host SNL -- on Jan. 29, 1977. Phelps is the one and only Summer Olympian to get the gig. A pair of Winter Olympians, Nancy Kerrigan and Jonny Moseley, also have hosted.

Other prominent athletes who have presided over SNL include Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Joe Montana, O.J. Simpson, Chris Evert, Bill Russell, Billy Martin, Deion Sanders, Charles Barkley, Lance Armstrong and last season's lead-off host, LeBron James.

Michelle, Teddy keep Dems from dozing before McCain has some last laughs

News and views from Night 1 of the Democratic National Convention in Denver:

"A girl from the South Side of Chicago" -- Maybe she's the real orator in the family. Michelle Obama likely gave the best spousal speech ever at a national political convention, particularly when contrasted with Theresa Heinz Kerry's fingernails-on-a-blackboard performance at the 2004 gathering.

CBS floor reporter Byron Pitts quoted an unnamed Obama supporter as saying that Michelle needed to be "less Jackee, more Jackie-O" in her remarks.

The labored references were to saucy black actress Jackee Harry and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Anchor Katie Couric repeated them with a hint of disdain in her voice before Michelle was introduced by her older brother, Craig Robinson.

Smooth, conversational and charismatic, she also looked smashing in a dress that Victor Costa no doubt already is knocking off by the thousands. Who wouldn't look good in a "Michelle?"

"I'll tell ya, the girl from South Chicago knows how to make a speech," CBS podium reporter Bob Schieffer enthused.

His counterpart at Fox News Channel, Chris Wallace, termed it a "beautiful speech, beautifully delivered." But he wasn't alone in saying that for the Democrats, "I can't help but feel it was a largely wasted night."

How so? Because the Dems supposedly didn't go on the attack enough after accentuating the positive too much four years ago. Serpentine gut-fighter James Carville agreed, saying on CNN, "If this party has a message it has done a hell of a job of hiding it tonight."

CNN analyst David Gergen, who has been an advisor to presidents of both parties, earlier characterized Monday night's presentation as "a television show without a message" or much momentum for that matter.

All seemed positive about that at least.

Teddy Bearcat -- Sen. Ted Kennedy, battling terminal brain cancer, put his shoulder to the podium and talked vigorously for eight minutes after an adoring, Ken Burns-directed biographical film portrayed him as a devoted sailor and family man dedicated to justice for all.

Escorted by his wife, Vicki, Kennedy's appearance at Denver's Pepsi Center had been confirmed earlier Monday night. But few knew whether he could muster much of a speech. His left hand wrapped in an ace bandage, Kennedy delivered an abbreviated, but trademark stem-winder that had delegates roaring, but not for too long out of concern for his health and stamina.

"I think we can rack that one up as an adrenaline moment," said CNN's John King. "Whatever you think of his politics, the guy wanted to be here."

"We just looked at one reason why we still have these conventions," historian Richard Norton Smith said on PBS.

It indeed was a singular moment, but not nearly of the same import as Kennedy's very public snub of President Carter at the close of the 1980 convention. Now his party's elder statesman, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, earlier appeared on the convention stage after a film extolled his work on behalf of the homeless.

During later interviews on PBS and MSNBC, he talked of how the combative 1976 Republican campaign between Ronald Reagan and President Ford had hurt the latter's bid for reelection against Carter. But out of deference or ignorance, no one asked Carter about events at the 1980 Democratic convention, when Kennedy declined to join him in a concluding celebration. That hurt lots, with Carter eventually losing his reelection bid to Reagan.

The Kennedy speech, from 8:30 to 8:38 p.m., came with ABC, CBS and NBC still showing entertainment programming. But the slow pace of the night's events gave ABC a window to replay his address in its entirety well before Michelle Obama took center stage and commanded it.

Luke Russert in convention mode; John McCain on the Tonight Show.

Not-so-cool hand Luke -- Luke Russert, only son of the late Tim Russert, is making his MSNBC debut at the Dem convention as a reporter on "youth issues."

More than a little hyper-caffeinated but definitely not lacking self-assurance, Russert reported from the floor early Monday evening on a poll that said potential voters between the ages of 18-to-24 favor Barack Obama over John McCain by a 55 to 32 percent margin. He especially trusts the poll because it utilizes youth-favored cell phones, not just land lines, Russert said.

But wait, there's more. The poll also showed that 18-to-24-year-olds trust McCain more as commander-in-chief by a thin 31 to 28 percent margin.

"That cannot bode well" for the Democrats, he asserted without equivocation, adding that "If they feel this way, it's a huge problem for Obama."

MSNBC co-anchor Keith Olbermann and Tom Brokaw, who is Tim Russert's interim replacement on Meet the Press, both smiled broadly after the kid's first dispatch.

"Luke, dad would be very proud," Brokaw then said.

Life on planet Maher -- Also on MSNBC, comedian Bill Maher lamented the IQ erosion of your basic American voter, contending that "people get stupider and stupider at the end of every election cycle."

He'll be voting for Obama, Maher said. Still, "there's no doubt McCain would be better for nightclub purposes" as president. "I mean, a 200-year-old man is always amusing."

Segue to the 200-year-old man with Jay Leno -- In Hollywood for a fundraiser, McCain made what he said was his 13th appearance on NBC's Tonight Show after host Leno first aimed some monologue jokes at his age and the purported seven homes he shares with wealthy wife Cindy.

McCain in turn had been given seven dressing rooms backstage, Leno cracked.

The presumed Republican nominee first embraced the black vote by hugging bandleader Kevin Eubanks.

"You forgot to mention when I warned the people about the British coming," he then told Leno. And furthermore, "My Social Security number is eight."

Terming himself the underdog against Obama, McCain again referenced his long-ago captivity as a Vietnam war POW after Leno asked, "For one million dollars, how many houses to you have?"

He didn't specify, but emphasized that his wife's father was a self-made businessman who achieved the American dream. "My friends," McCain added, "I'm proud of my record of service to this country, and it has nothing to do with houses."

His answers and one-liners were enthusiastically received by Tonight's studio audience, which numbers only in the hundreds compared to the thousands jammed into the Pepsi Center.

But whoever the speaker and whatever the trappings, they're all playing to a far more important national television audience. In that realm, Michelle Obama, Ted Kennedy and John McCain each took their own giant steps Monday night.

NBC extinguishes its Olympic torch and fires up America's Toughest Jobs

Toughies Steven Hopper of Dallas and Sandy Gabriel of Winnie, TX.

Premiering: Monday, Aug. 25th at 8 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: 13 dangerous job doers, including Steven Hopper of Dallas and Sandy Gabriel of Winnie, TX
Hosted by: Josh Temple
Produced by: Thom Beers, Gail Berman, Lloyd Braun

Midway through America's Toughest Jobs, narrator and series creator Thom Beers notes that the 13 contestants have now endured "seven hours of fish-gutting and vomiting without a break."

But hey, at least they're painfully employed in an economy that's also gone sour enough to make you puke.

Immediately following the majesty of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, NBC will be celebrating the agony of grueling, life-threatening dirty work on yet another hardscrabble hour from the brains behind Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Monster Garage and the recently concluded Black Gold.

Those brains belong to Beers, a former actor whose trademark staccato narration and eye for the unglamorous have made him the reality genre's Galahad of Grit. Subtle he's not. But these shows have enough sinew to stir the juices.

There's an odd sort of synergy, too. On this Monday and next, America's Toughest Jobs will lead directly to NBC's one-hour treatments of the Democratic and Republican conventions, whose nominees will be competing for America's mother of all toughest jobs.

It's hard, though, to envision either Barack Obama or John McCain on a crab fishing expedition in the Bering Sea, where a "sacred maritime ritual" first requires greenhorns to bite off a raw fish head and eat it. Then it's on to the "bait chopper," where the real fun starts.

The premiere episode's two competing teams each have a rawboned young Texan. That's hardly a bulletin in the reality arena, where Lone Star natives ganged up earlier this month to win NBC's Nashville Star, Last Comic Standing and American Gladiators, plus Fox's So You Think You Can Dance.

Still, local angles at least deserve a nod in their direction. So for the record, recent college graduate Steven Hopper, 22, of Dallas, and plucky 26-year-old schoolteacher Sandy Gabriel of tiny Winnie, TX (pop. 2,914) are both in the hunt for a growing pot of prize money sponsored by an American truck maker.

In each hour, the "worst four" workers are sent back on the job before bossmen evict one of them and extraneous host Josh Temple intones, "I'm sorry, you weren't tough enough. You're going home."

Narrator Beers and respective ship captains "Kiwi" John Hansen and Tony (not the Cardinals manager) LaRussa regularly remind viewers and competitors that death is a distinct possibility if the job's not done right. In this case, someone could be thrown into unforgiving icy waters, never to be seen again.

A couple of allegedly close calls are depicted, although their authenticity is always questionable when "reality" TV editors and choreographers are at work. The overall nasty nature of crab fishing is well-played, though. Sandy, for one, heaves four times by the show's count.

Upcoming jobs include logging, oil-drilling, bullfighting, gold-mining and the second episode's big rig driving above the Arctic Circle.

Previews of coming detractions of course are included. As when one male contestant brays, "She's a bitch. That's what bitches do."

What Thom Beers does is make make this stuff watchable, relatable and even somewhat educational. America's Toughest Jobs doesn't necessarily make you wish you had one of 'em. But it does prompt some respect for those who do.

Grade: C+

PBS again goes old-school gavel to gavel while rival broadcast networks let fly with reruns and reality

PBS convention coverage colleagues Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff

Jim Lehrer snaps at the bait; Judy Woodruff delicately wriggles off the hook during their separate phone interviews Wednesday with unclebarky.com.

The quadrennial subject is PBS' renewed vow to be the only broadcast network with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the national political conventions. The Democrats open their four-day show on Monday (Aug. 25) from Denver and the Republicans gather in St. Paul on Sept. 1 to 4.

PBS and its flagship newscast, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will cover the conventions from their nightly 7 p.m. (central) starts to whenever they finish. ABC, CBS and NBC again will yield just an hour a night on most nights.

Monday's opening prime-time schedules are recited to both Lehrer and Woodruff in hopes of priming their pumps. ABC is offering this summer's ratings-starved biggest loser, High School Musical: Get in the Picture, and two repeats of Samantha Who?.

CBS will counter with reruns of The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

NBC, hoping to inherit a Summer Games afterglow, has a new episode of Deal or No Deal and the premiere of America's Toughest Jobs. Then come the Democrats in prime-time's closing hour.

Lehrer is asked how he'd rebut this.

"I would say to them, 'In other words, you are telling the American people that that stuff is more important than an every-four-year event at which the next president of the United States is going to be nominated?' Give me a break."

Woodruff is thrown the same hanging curveball.

"I don't need to take any shots at them," she says. "They have a mission that's different from us. They're serving an audience that's looking for entertainment as well as information. I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing. And I know that some of my friends at the networks wish they were taking more time for the conventions."

It's not as if every nook and cranny of each convention won't be exposed in one forum or another. Youtube didn't exist the last time around in 2004. Neither did Comedy Central's The Colbert Report or politico.com. The three all-news cable channels again will have all of their featured blabbers in place. Even the PBS coverage will have twitter and flickr components.

Lehrer, 74, figures that his approach is still the best way to cleanse the palate, cut through the noise and accentuate the issues of genuine import before its enlightened recipients "go and listen to the shouting" if they choose.

"I'm very comfortable doing it the way we do it," he says. "It's the old-fashioned way, no question about it. But in time I think it's going to be seen as the new-fashioned way.

"You've first got to understand what's going on. It's that first step, the straight news step. People want some place they can go, and people they trust. Credibility becomes increasingly important the more there is out there of blogs and iPods as well as cable television and satellite radio and all of that. There's a need to sort through the process first.

"You won't miss a thing from the podium that matters. We're going to show everything in its entirety that cries out in our journalistic judgment to be covered that way. But we're also going to do our own reporting and analysis. So you don't have to shop around. You can just go to one place, and you'll be covered."

Woodruff, 61, primarily will be a floor reporter at the conventions after a long career at CNN that took her through the 1996, 2000 and 2004 elections.

She's amazed at "how fast youtube has come on the scene" since the last pair of party conventions. "And I think it's accelerated this process of completely doing away with deadlines. Every candidate has to respond within seconds. It's the way it is. It's the result of a lot of smart technology. It's the wave of not just the future, but the wave of now."

Still, you're better off eating your nutritive NewsHour spinach before pigging out on all those youtube s'mores.

"We can't afford to abdicate all responsibility," Woodruff says. "For us it's taking the longer look, providing some analysis, turning over the rock, looking under the hood. That's our job. We're not in the business of worrying about reacting on a second's notice, even though we have to be aware of the effect that's having."

After the conventions, Lehrer will begin boning up for his record 11th appearance on an even grander stage. He'll be moderating the first presidential debate, scheduled for Sept. 26th, between presumed nominees Barack Obama and John McCain.

During a stop last Halloween in Dallas, Lehrer told unclebarky.com that he'd had his fill of these pressure-cookers.

"I don't want to do any more debates," he said at the time. "I've done my duty for my country. I've done 10 of those things, and they're scorching to the soul. So I'd just as soon not do any more."

Those words are read back to him.

"You bastard!", Lehrer retorts, good-naturedly it should be said. "You're never supposed to remember what anybody says. Remember what else they used to say? 'Never mind.' "

So what changed his mind?

"They asked me," Lehrer says. "I just feel that anybody who's asked to do that has to do it unless they have a damned good reason not to. And I just didn't have one. The reason I gave to you, that I've got a scorched psyche, just didn't seem good enough to me -- then or now."

NBC's Olympian ratings feats

Olympic gold miner Michael Phelps and toastmaster Bob Costas

Squash isn't an official Olympic sport, but NBC is playing it anyway with competitors at ABC, CBS and Fox.

The network's prime-time telecasts of the Beijing Summer Games dominated the most recent ratings week as never before, making NBC a cock of the walk among chickadees.

The network is crowing over the biggest margin of victory since Nielsen Media Research inaugurated its "People Meter" sampling in September 1987. Consider these gold medal numbers:

NBC averaged 28.7 million viewers nationally for its first full week of Olympic telecasts (Aug. 11-17). Runnerup CBS barely peeped with an average of 5.1 million viewers. That 's a record 463 percent margin of victory by NBC's reckoning. And unlike the gymnastics judges, it's safe to believe these calulations, which are corroborated by Nielsen.

CBS, ABC and Fox averaged a combined 11.8 million viewers for the week, trailing NBC by a 143 percent margin. Again, that's a record in the modern era.

NBC overall is averaging 29.6 million viewers for its first 11 nights of prime-time coverage. That's well ahead of the 2004 Athens average of 26.2 million.

The overall Olympics audience on all of the NBC Universal networks -- including cable's USA, CNBC and Oxygen among others -- has reached 200 million total viewers and been seen in 83 percent of all U.S. television homes. Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics hold the all-time record of 209 million viewers. But that took 17 days to achieve, says the NBC Universal release.

Beijing's opening ceremonies a ratings smash for NBC

What a night for NBC and Chinese takeout.

Friday's super-spectacular opening ceremonies for Beijing's Summer Olympics averaged 34.2 million viewers nationally to become the most-watched non-U.S. starter in the Games' history.

Four years ago on NBC, the opening ceremony from Athens averaged a comparatively paltry 25.4 million viewers.

The national household rating -- 18.6 -- beat the long-held "non-domestic" record of 18.1 for the 1960 Games from Rome. Nielsen Media Research didn't begin issuing total viewer ratings until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, which drew an average of 22.7 million on opening night.

The all-time champ in household ratings is still the 1984 first look from Los Angeles, which had a 23.9 and drew 48 percent of all homes with televisions in use. But due to ratings inflation over the years, Atlanta's 1996 opening ceremony, with a slightly lower 23.6 household rating, qualifies as the all-time total viewer champ with 39.8 million.

Beijing's curtain-raiser wasn't anywhere near Super Bowl proportions. This year's SB XLII on Fox, in which the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots, averaged an all-time total viewer record of 97.5 million.

Still, Friday's Olympics extravaganza easily outdrew last season's most-watched weekly series -- Tuesday editions of American Idol -- which averaged 27.7 million viewers.

NBC's Saturday prime-time coverage of the first full day of Olympics competition averaged a hefty 24.1 million viewers nationally compared to 19.8 million viewers for Day One of the Athens Games.

Saturday's total day-and-night Olympics viewership on all of the NBC Universal networks stood at 92 million viewers, up 14 million from Athens.

Joshua Allen's amazing feet

Fort Worth's Joshua Allen made it a North Texas trifecta Thursday night, winning the fourth season of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance over fellow hip-hop/popper Twitch Boss.

The 19-year-old will collect a $250,000 cash prize and also carry the arbitrary title of "America's Favorite Dancer." There's also a pending offer for a featured dance role in a future film directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray).

"Never let anybody tell you you can't do anything . . . With God you can do anything," Allen said before the show's finalists hoisted him in victory.

He's the third North Texas resident to win a network reality competition this week.

Melissa Lawson of Arlington took NBC's Nashville Star crown on Monday; on the same night, Ally Davidson of Dallas won the women's division of the network's American Gladiators.

HBO's Hard Knocks again shows it's the Fort Knox of sports reality series

Can the Dallas Cowboys be as good as Hard Knocks?

If so, they're the next Super Bowl champs.

The evocative, filmic, never less than first-rate HBO series returned Wednesday night with an hour of superbly crafted drama from the team's training camp in Oxnard, CA. Love or hate the Cowboys, you've got to marvel at the artistry at work while wishing it was your team on display for five episodes stretching to a Sept. 3rd finale.

Book-ended with shots of a ripped Terrell Owens running shirtless on an otherwise empty beach, Hard Knocks is the NFL the way Cecil B. DeMille would have drawn it up.

"This is no ordinary helmet," narrator Liev Schreiber intoned as blue star decals were affixed to a row of the team's silver headgear. "The star sets it apart. It symbolizes the most glamorous team in professional sport."

Oh how owner Jerry Jones loves this. Hard Knocks had the Cowboys in its sights during the 2002 pre-season before the team came up big losers under head coach Dave Campo. But his replacement, sourball Bill Parcells, wouldn't allow such nonsense, in his view at least. And even Jerry didn't buck him.

Now Jones and his team are willing participants once more. And in training camp's first team meeting, the owner lapped it up as HBO's cameras rolled where no others were allowed.

"The Cowboys are a big deal," he told his employees. "We're the No. 1 thing that people look at. 'Cause I don't know about you, but I like playing on Broadway. I like it."

Yeah, he does. Fox4 sports anchor Mike Doocy no doubt will relish the face time, too. On the first episode, his strategic placement next to QB Tony Romo again paid off as the team touched down on an Oxnard air strip. Last month "The Dooc" had been seen on two D-FW sportscasts other than his own during first-day coverage of training camp.

For his Hard Knocks debut, he was shown asking Romo, "How about this welcome, Tony?"

The opening episode also featured Doocy doing a pair of standups after tremors from a Southern California earthquake were felt in training camp. Left out of HBO's pictures were rival D-FW sports biggies Dale Hansen (WFAA8), Newy Scruggs (NBC5) and Babe Laufenberg (CBS11). There's got to be a promotion there somewhere.

Hard Knocks also knows how to compare and contrast. Before heading for Oxnard, star tight end Jason Witten could be seen changing his son's diaper before wife Michelle praised him as a "great dad."

Then the cameras shifted to rookie receiver Martellus Bennett cleaning up his puppy's in-house deposit.

"Bad dog," he said without rancor. "Yeah, you know you was wrong." Beautiful.

The sights and sounds of camp likewise were vividly captured.

"Few running backs can bust a blitzer better than (Marion) Barber," Schreiber said lyrically before he crunched a nameless No. 58 to the turf and left him woozy.

Wide receiver Patrick Crayton strove to match Adam (no longer Pacman) Jones' feat of catching one punt after another until he had six in his arms at once. He finally did it.

Off the field, rookies were required to hold cock-and-balls mikes (a banana and two plums) while performing for the veterans. Drew Atchison, a pale white tight end, won everyone over by singing The Temptations' "I've Got Sunshine on a Cloudy Day." Not that he'll make the team.

Hard Knocks consistently succeeds by dramatizing without over-selling it.

Narrator Schreiber is rock-solid and authoritative, never resorting to the caffeinated overkill of many in this line of work. The camerawork, by NFL Films, has long set the standard on various fields of play. Music is used to good effect. And of course there's no shortage of colorful Cowboy personalities to add extra flavor to the proceedings.

One more thing. There were no Jessica Simpson sightings in Episode One. Just wait, though.

Grade: A

At last it's Brokaw; again it's Lehrer

Debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer

For Tom Brokaw it's a first.

For Jim Lehrer it's his 11th.

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators Wednesday for this fall's three close encounters between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Lehrer, anchor of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, gets first crack on Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

The second debate, with a town hall meeting format, will be on Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., with Brokaw at the controls.

Then Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer takes the final turn, as he did in 2004, by moderating an Oct. 15 debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.

PBS veteran Gwen Ifill likewise will be doing an encore. The moderator of 2004's lone vice presidential debate again will quiz the running mates, this time on Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Lehrer, who moderated his first presidential debate in 1988 and presided over all three in 2000, earlier had sworn off doing another one. During a stop in Dallas last October, he told unclebarky.com, "I don't want to do any more debates. "I've done my duty for my country. I've done 10 of these things, and they're scorching to the soul. So I'd just as soon not do any more."

Instead he'll again break his own record as the runaway leader in a prestigious field.

Brokaw, the only virgin in this group, has moderated numerous presidential candidate debates during primary seasons. Now he'll finally play the big room after being outspoken in 2004 about both his and his network's exclusion from that year's general election debates.

"It 's not personal pique," Brokaw said in an interview with this reporter at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. "Obviously I would have liked to have done one of the debates. But my big outrage is that they excluded our entire network. And I just think that's unconscionable . . . Even our competitors say, 'What? They left out NBC?' Tim (Russert) has the No. 1-rated Sunday show, I've got the No. 1-rated evening news broadcast, and we've done more debates than any other news division in the course of the past year."

The presidential debate commission's executive director, Janet Brown, said at the time that a star anchorman (Brokaw was still in charge of the NBC Nightly News in 2004) might "overshadow" a presidential candidate debate.

Brokaw, now the interim moderator of NBC's Meet the Press after Russert's recent, shocking death, said in our interview that Brown's contention was nonsense.

"It's not like I haven't done them before," he said. "And when I have, I'm happy to say there's been very little criticism about the anchor trying to get himself in the way. I hope at this stage of my career I have a certain standing as a political reporter who knows what the issues are and tries to generate a dialogue about them."

Now he'll get his chance, although the town hall setup won't allow him to ask as many questions as Lehrer or Schieffer.

The latter two have strong North Texas ties. Lehrer anchored KERA-TV's groundbreaking Newsroom program from the station's Dallas studios before leaving for a national PBS stage in 1973. He also worked for both The Dallas Morning News and The Dallas Times-Herald.

Schieffer is a Texas Christian University grad whose alma mater's journalism school is named after him. He worked for both the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and WBAP-TV (now KXAS) before joining CBS in 1969.

Both men covered the November 22, 1963 assassination of President Kennedy during their formative times in Texas.

Lucy posthumously nears the century mark

It's a tough celebrity birthday choice today between Lucille Ball, who would have been 97, and Soleil Moon Frye of Punky Brewster fame, who is 32 on Wed., Aug. 6th.

Oh, but we kid. The First Lady of television remains a vital force in many lives, whether it's I Love Lucy repeats or all those ever-treasured collectibles out there.

She died on April 26, 1989, just three years after trying to make an ill-advised comeback in the short-lived Life with Lucy, produced by hitmaker Aaron Spelling.

Yipes, I was at the ABC press conference for that one, and also shared a dinner table with Ball and husband Gary Morton during a session for the CBS movie Stone Pillow, in which she played a snarly but kindly bag lady named Florabelle. She was pretty frail at that point, but being in the company of TV royalty remains an indelible memory.

Here's a clip from a CBS promo for I Love Lucy that highlights her impending delivery of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's first child. It's still a case study in deft physical comedy, with Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley all in full-bumble.

Gotta move on: Nashville Star winner Melissa Lawson not much longer for Texas

Night of nights: Arlington's Melissa Lawson is newest Nashville Star.

Some people go to Disneyland after winning big.

Arlington, TX mom-of-five Melissa Lawson instead will be in Beijing a week from today. Next she'll be forsaking her native Texas for Nashville.

Both moves are tied to her Monday night victory on NBC's Nashville Star, where she outlasted fellow Texan Gabe Garcia of Lytle during a live finale at Nashville's Roy Acuff Theatre.

"I almost get tired of myself saying 'surreal,' Lawson says during a teleconference on the morning after a mostly sleepless night. "It's kind of crazy. I've never been out of the country."

She amends that, remembering her honeymoon in Cancun 11 years ago with husband Rick. They've since had five sons together, ranging from Maverick, 8, to Ryker, 11 months. Lawson will be flying solo to Beijing, though, for a scheduled August 12th Today show performance at the site of the Summer Olympics.

Rick is "going to be taking care of the boys" while his wife becomes a world traveler for the first time.

"We call it 'team parenting,' because it takes two to raise them," Lawson says. "He's used to that. The only difference this time is it's on a much more magnified scale."

The Lawsons soon will be packing together for what's intended to be a long-term stay in Nashville. They put their Arlington home on the market and "just kind of left it in God's hands" when Melissa made the NBC competition's final 12.

"Now that I've won the show, there's really no choice but to move," she says.

Lawson's debut single, "What If It All Goes Right," already is in rotation on country music stations after she performed it for the first time at the close of Monday's Nashville Star finale. Spoils also include a red Toyota Tundra pickup and a Warner Bros. Records contract, with one of the show's judges, John Rich, producing Lawson's first CD.

"There's gonna have to be a lot of changes," she says. "There's no question in my mind about that . . . But I'm a pretty grounded person and I always want to stay that way. I know where I came from, and I'll never forget."

Her father is from Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. He moved to Texas at age 22 before Melissa was born. Her parents played The Oak Ridge Boys and Barry Manilow a lot, she recalls. But as an early teen, Melissa pretty much went all country, with Lori Morgan, Pam Tillis and Mary Chapin Carpenter among her favorites.

"Obviously I love those powerhouse ballads," Lawson says. Her ideal first CD would be a mesh of Trish Yearwood, Martina McBride and Faith Hill, she adds.

She previously tried out for American Idol, but that went nowhere. Later in life she finally grew tired of carrying her own weight, which topped out at 298.5 pounds.

"I saw that 300 mark coming up and I freaked out," says Lawson, who's made a resultant "weight loss journey" part of her official Nashville Star biography. She's lost close to 50 pounds after "a lot of years yo-yo dieting." Another warning signal was the day she threw her back out "just bending down."

"It's quite selfish of me to choose food and non-movement over playing with my kids," Lawson says. "I was teaching my children terrible eating habits. We were eating fast food three times a day."

She now eats whatever appeals to her, but in moderation. A cheeseburger and fries is still a creature comfort, but fast food eateries are off the menu.

"It physically makes me sick now to go to a McDonald's or Burger King," Lawson says. "I just can't do it."

The impending move to Nashville will mark the first time she's lived outside of Texas. Her husband and their five boys are on board, she says. Not that there's a whole lot of choice in the matter.

"I love the fact that even with the cameras being around, they've been so casual and so accepting of it," Lawson says of her sons, who joined her onstage during Monday night's triumphant moment.

The oldest two "just so wanted to see the truck that we won. It's got fingerprints all over it."

Two from North Texas prevail in back-to-back finales of NBC's American Gladiators and Nashville Star

Winners Melissa Lawson of Arlington, Ally Davidson of Dallas

NBC did a Texas two-step Monday night, with Arlington mom-of-five Melissa Lawson twanging to the top of Nashville Star after Dallas newlywed Ally Davidson became the last woman contender standing on American Gladiators.

The twin wins on the shows' season finales gave the state more bragging rights in the wide world of TV's reality competitions, where the champs also have included Burleson's Kellly Clarkson on Fox's first American Idol and ventriloquist Terry Fator of Mesquite on last summer's America's Got Talent.

Lawson, 32, prevailed over another Texas denizen, Gabe Garcia of Lytle, to win a recording contract with Warner Bros. and a performance slot on Aug. 12th at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, where she'll sing on NBC's Today show.

In an Idol-like climax, she performed a specially written debut single, "What If It All Goes Right," while confetti poured down and fellow contestants gathered onstage at Nashville's Acuff Theatre. Lawson then was joined by her husband and their five sons.

Davidson, a 24-year-old sales representative who tried out for Gladiators on her wedding day, out-dueled Tiffaney Florentine despite having a five-second disadvantage on the bruising show's climactic "Eliminator" obstacle course.

"The best honeymoon ever! Ever!" she exulted.

Her husband, Jeff, also made the cut and lasted until last week's Gladiators semi-finals. He impulsively dove into the Eliminator's splash-down pool to join her in victory. Ally won $100,000 and a brand new car before co-host Hulk Hogan bellowed, "Have a good Gladiator maniac night!"

Another North Texan, 19-year-old Joshua Allen of Fort Worth, will try to match Davidson and Lawson later this week. He's one of the four finalists on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, which has its two-part season finale on Wednesday and Thursday before the Olympics take prime-time's center stage for the next two-and-a-half weeks.

VH1's I Want to Work for Diddy raises an overriding question: WHY???

The title could use some not-so-fine tuning.

VH1 is calling it I Want to Work for Diddy. More accurately, this bleep-heavy junior apprentice of The Apprentice should be named I Want to be Diddy's Slave.

The premiere episode, airing Monday, Aug. 4th at 8 p.m. (central), gathers 13 would-be personal assistants whose groveling borders on astonishing. Clearly they'll do anything for the imperial Diddy, whom they're not allowed to even meet during the show's curtain-raiser. He hasn't yet asked them to bottle his urine or vomit and then market it as a body wash. But if he ever does, one expects a series of "Yassirs."

Why anyone would want this job is a mystery. Diddy underscores this impression when he's shown cursing an underling over the phone in an apparent preview of coming detractions.

"I demand the best," he says in a calmer moment. "Sleep is forbidden."

In his mind, though, "After you leave me, you will be CEO material."

That's debatable when the opening hour's "art of multi-tasking" challenge includes activities such as taking lunch orders for employees of Diddy's Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group; cleaning his vehicle inside and out; and polishing 20 pairs of his shoes during an around-the-clock gauntlet of menial tasks.

It doesn't always go well. As when loud-mouthed supplicant Kim (who dubs herself "Poprah") and Houstonite Brianna vigorously trash talk one another in the very early going.

"Suck it up, bitch, and let's get this done," Poprah demands. This is in keeping with the subtitle of next Monday's episode, which believe it or not is, "No Bitchassness Allowed."

Anyway, the show's judges -- two of them former personal assistants of Diddy -- eventually team up to banish a gofer after one lucky sap arbitrarily gets dumped before the gofer-ing even begins.

There are 10 scheduled one-hour episodes in all, culminating with one supplicant earning "the privilege of doing Diddy's bidding," as VH1 press materials put it.

Maybe they'll even get paid. But there's been no mention of salary yet.

Grade: D

It's "Nazi bitch" flip-off time: McKinney North High's "Fab Five" cheerleader scandal goes under assumed name in cheesy Lifetime movie

Presenting the "Fab Five" in a not so fab Lifetime movie.

Lifetime's latest movie about slutty teens and the chicken-hearted parents who enable them includes a big hoot of a scene at a ribald backyard pool party.

Momma comes home to see scads of bikini-clad high schoolers and attendant horn dogs swilling booze and posing suggestively. Damn right she's pissed.

"There had better be some tequila left in that bottle for my margaritas, or you are in big trouble!" she informs her daughter.

It likely didn't happen quite like that, but you get the picture. And Lifetime's Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal has plenty more where that came from before the music swells in the service of a tacked-on fairytale ending.

Premiering Saturday, Aug. 2nd at 8 p.m. (central), Fab Five puts Texas in the title but otherwise is neutered of all real-life names and locations. Most denizens of McKinney will know what it's all about, though.

In 2006, McKinney North High School was home to a juicy scandal surrounding five bawdy, bullying cheerleaders whose most infamous escapade originated from a Condoms to Go store. While in their school colors, they happily posed suggestively with various paraphernalia. Adding to the scandal: one of the girls was the daughter of school principal Linda Theret, who finally resigned in December of that year.

Fab Five casts Tatum O'Neal as cowed "Jackson High" principal Lorene Tippit. Her nickname is "BLT," short for "Blazin' Lorene Tippit," she informs new cheerleading coach Emma Carr (Jenna Dewan). That's an alias for real-life whistleblower Michaela Ward, who eventually went to the media with her allegations of girls gone wild while their ineffectual parents and educators basically went AWOL.

O'Neal since has had her own problems after being busted in late spring for allegedly trying to purchase crack cocaine. In Fab Five she's under the thumb of willful daughter, Brooke (Ashley Benson), a spoiled super-tart who makes Paris Hilton seem like Motel 6.

Brooke's posse is made up of Lisa (Aimee Fortier; Jeri (Jessica Heap); Tabitha (Ashlynn Ross) and Ashley (Stephanie Honore), who's later banished from the Fab Five in the interest of facilitating the movie's forced, redemptive climax.

The girls wear their cheerleader outfits just about everywhere, even to class. There's a notable exception, though. A principled but basically powerless young tennis coach/history teacher (Dameon Clarke as Adam Reeve) is made to endure the girls' arrival in his classroom as provocatively dressed "sluts."

"Are you looking at my boobs, you perv?" he's asked. What's a guy to do but throw his hands up before later telling Coach Carr, "Screw it. I'm done fighting. I don't care anymore."

Fab Five with lollipops; Tatum O'Neal as unprincipled principal.

It's all supposed to be a cautionary tale, but goofing on Fab Five is far preferable to taking it seriously. As when a Fab Fiver carps, "I've gotta finish my stupid paper on stupid McCarthyism." Or when Brooke vows, "We were here before that bitch. And you know what? We're going to be here after she's gone."

Much of the acting is of the stick-figure variety, with the raised-in-Grapevine Dewan doing her level best to look shocked and dismayed in the face of repeated indignities and disappointments.

You'll also get a strobe-lit cheerleader performance at a fall pep rally. "Jackson. Don't mess with us," they keep chanting. The resultant ovation from parents and students alike has Coach Carr all aglow for at least a few minutes. But her squad's bee-yatch brigade is soon plotting anew.

All of this and more likely will give Lifetime a nice ratings boost on another mostly barren Saturday night.

Fab Five, which starts with a sultry cheerleader routine to the tune of American Woman, is a dumb but enticing enterprise that's sure to inspire numerous viewing parties in and around McKinney.

The rest of the country will watch because it also has Texas and Cheerleader in the title. It's hard to go wrong with that.

Grade: C-minus

North Texans vie in three reality competition finals

North Texas finalists Ally Davidson, Melissa Lawson, Joshua Allen

North Texans are no strangers to any and all manner of reality competitions. Next week will be unusually well-populated, though, with local rooting interests competing in three finals.

Monday's two-hour climax of NBC's American Gladiators (7 to 9 p.m. central) finds Ally Davidson of Dallas toughing it out in hopes of becoming the show's top woman challenger. The 24-year-old sales representative and newlywed tried out with her husband, Jeff, who made it all the way to the July 28 semi-finals.

At 9 p.m. Monday, Arlington's Melissa Lawson, a 32-year-old mother of five, is among three finalists on NBC's concluding episode of Nashville Star.

And Fort Worth's 19-year-old Joshua Allen, whose specialty is hip-hop/popper, is one of four finalists trying to win Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. They'll perform on Wednesday (7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday), with a winner emerging on Thursday's two-hour finale.

All three shows are ending their summer seasons before NBC's summer Olympics coverage takes center stage with the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies from Beijing, China.