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ABC News plans big cuts as part of widespread digital age transformation

ABC News president David Westin announced big changes Tuesday.

Company-wide buyouts, further consolidation and a "fundamental transformation that will ultimately affect every corner" of ABC News were dropped like a bomb Tuesday by news president David Westin.

He tried to do it in a statesmanlike way, first praising the programs he presides over as "stronger today than they were 10 years ago." But in "the middle of a revolution" and in the heart of the digital age, ABC News must adapt or perish, he said in a memo to staffers. "We can have great success in the new world -- but only if we embrace what is new, rather than being overwhelmed by it."

To that end, ABC News will "expand our use of digital journalists" while also embracing "the example set by Nightline of editorial staff who shoot and edit their own material," Westin said. That will now be standard operating procedure "throughout all of our programs," mandating "digital bullpen training . . . on a scale that we have not seen before."

In other words, a new wave of more cost-effective, so-called "backpack journalists" is on the immediate horizon.

"When we are finished," Westin said, "many job descriptions will be different, different skill sets may be required and, yes, we will likely have substantially fewer people on staff at ABC News."

Voluntary buyout offers will be sent in the next few days to all full-time, U.S.-based, non-union, non-contract employees, the memo said. "The response to this voluntary program will determine the extent to which we will need to make further reductions."

"Overall, we will eliminate redundancies wherever possible," Westin said.

He positioned the upcoming bloodletting and leaner ways of newsgathering as a "rare opportunity to get in front of what's coming, to ensure that ABC News has a sound journalistic and financial footing for many years to come, and to serve our audiences even better."

"I won't pretend that all of this will be easy," he said. "But I do truly believe that it will be good for ABC News."

In Dallas-Fort Worth, ABC affiliate WFAA8 is the only major station not owned by its network. So that may ease the ripple effect, which no doubt will be felt far more keenly by stations with direct corporate ties.

The Olympian hair of Bob Costas: a seminar

Costas chronologically -- and currently on NBC from Vancouver.

First let's re-state the obvious: Bob Costas is one of the best sportscasters ever, perhaps the greatest of all time.

He's literate, versatile, quick with a quip and a precise interviewer and chronicler.

Now to the hair, which armchair color analysts have wondered about for years.

Costas, who will turn 58 on March 22nd, still has the full-bodied coif and shadings of a Rice Krispie Elf. It's varied over the years, veering from orangish to brownish to jet blackish. In other words, Costas either has achieved the impossible dream of defying virtually all gray areas or he's deep into dye-nial.

For the Vancouver Olympics, Costas' coif usually looks blacker than browner, with a small drizzle of gray in his short-ish sideburns. That could be called a new wrinkle, except that Costas otherwise doesn't have any.

Several Olympics ago, the oddly orange-ish color of Costas' hair came up at a Television Critics Association interview session. NBC officials blamed the in-studio lighting while Costas himself didn't think the subject was worthy of discourse.

There's also speculation that Costas long has worn a toupee, which seems more plausible in recent years. Otherwise, how is his hair seemingly getting thicker with age?

Appearances obviously are important when you're holding forth before millions of viewers each night. But Costas is at the point of crossing the Rubicon and looking ever more ridiculous while the passage of time works against him. I'd hate to see him start resembling Wink Martindale someday. Ooh scary.

Bob Barker had the fortitude to renounce his hair dye bottle during the height of his fame as host of CBS' The Price Is Right. After a slight adjustment on the part of viewers, his natural snow white hair seemed to make him all the more appealing. CNN's Anderson Cooper has gone prematurely gray/white at a much younger age than Barker or Costas. Unlike Costas, he's simply let it go to his head.

Shucking a toupee -- if that's the way Costas rolls -- is a dicier proposition. Marv Albert still hasn't given up the ghost. But former Hill Street Blues star Michael Warren took the plunge, as did Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, a frequent guest on TV's innumerable political roundtables.

One more thing. Women seem to get a lot more vexed than men about Costas' refusal to give Father Time an inch. My wife for one.

Um, female dye jobs long have been a part of this great country of ours. So maybe this is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black -- or burnt orange. But most women also seem to know when enough is enough. They've had far more experience in this realm, while men perhaps are still on a Just For Men learning curve.

Still, Costas should know better. Shouldn't he? As a further cautionary note to him, we close with two pictures of longtime CBS sportscaster Dick Stockton, now 67. The one on the left is from 2007 and the one on the right is from last year. Enough said.

A sorry apology from Woods? Not in this view

Tiger Woods during ESPN's coverage Friday. Photo: Ed Bark

Despite what some of the media vultures might think, it took real courage to do what Tiger Woods did Friday morning.

Yes, his live apology was tightly controlled, with no questions permitted. But in doing it his way, Woods did it the right way. He apologized repeatedly to his family, his friends, his fans. And as his mother looked on stoically from a front row seat among invited guests, Woods said emphatically, "I brought this shame on myself. It's up to me to start living a life of integrity."

Television's rag mags -- Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, Extra, etc. -- and innumerable gawking, gossiping web sites can still have their fun poring over Woods' many mistresses and whether his wife, Elin, will ever forgive him. But they won't get their pound of flesh from the admitted perpetrator.

"Please know that as far as I am concerned, every one of these questions and answers is a matter between Elin and me," Woods said before pointedly scolding those in the media who directed their glares on his immediate family.

They "staked out my wife and they pursued my mom," he said. His two-and-a-half-year-old daughter's school also was identified.

"Please leave my wife and family alone," Woods almost pleaded.

He did address some of the more pointed reports and rumors in the months since the exhaustively covered Thanksgiving night car crash and the facial wounds Woods sustained.

"Elin never hit me that night or any other night," Woods said emphatically. "There has never been an episode of domestic violence in our marriage. Ever."

His wife, who hasn't been seen with him since the incident, has shown "enormous grace," Woods added. "Elin deserves praise, not blame . . . I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable. And I am the only person to blame."

Near the end of his 14-minute statement, Woods said he will leave for more therapy Saturday. He plans to "return to golf one day. I just don't know when that day will be."

Above all, "I need to regain my balance and be centered so that I can save the things that are most important to me -- my marriage and my family," Woods said.

His final words -- "I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again" -- were punctuated with a long hug from his mother, Kultida, who also patted her son on the shoulder.

Yes, that may well have been pre-planned, too. But with the whole world watching, every movement will be dissected and analyzed for telltale body language and what did or didn't happen. Had Woods simply walked off, pouncers immediately would have damned him for bypassing his mother.

Before Woods' appearance, ESPN golf analyst Andy North was asked about the wall-to-wall network coverage of it.

"We have people flying planes into buildings, and that's not nearly as important as a guy reading a statement. I don't get it, really," he said, referring to Thursday's tragedy in Austin.

That's more than a little disingenuous. Particularly when North among many others is perfectly willing to yap about Woods until his employer dismisses him.

Another ESPN analyst , former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, initially ridiculed the "odd setup" for Woods statement, in which a blue curtain served as backdrop. "It looks like a magic show or something."

Afterwards, though. Reilly was full of praise for Woods: "I really thought it was excellent . . . It was a Tiger I've never seen before. He really accomplished something today, I thought."

On CBS, golf analyst David Feherty described Woods as "a creature unlike any other" who finally emerged from behind a "force field" that long had been "impenetrable" during his many successes on the PGA tour.

Feherty also predicted that Woods and his wife will reconcile.

Whether they do or not of course isn't only their business. But Woods is absolutely right in his decision to not go public about who he slept with, how Elin found out and all the other attendant juice that has so many media outlets slobbering.

Friday's appearance -- or performance if you will -- was convincing to this eye witness. Woods seemed to speak from the heart, knowing full well that some will continue to drive a corkscrew through it.

He doesn't owe any further mea culpas to Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer or Dr. Phil. I hope he never goes that route. His sole goal should be to remake himself for the sake of his family and loved ones.

"For all that I have done, I am so sorry," Woods said. "I have a lot to atone for."

It's time to stop throwing stones and let him get on with it.

Jerry's Palace anointed anew on truTV's NFL Full Contact

The NBA All-Stars packed 'em in at Cowboys Stadium. Photo: Ed Bark

It seems like only yesterday -- and in fact it was -- that Cowboys Stadium had a national platform as "the most glossy home ever to welcome the wonders of the game."

TNT used that hyperbole for Sunday night's 59th annual NBA All-Star game, which drew a world record basketball crowd of 108,713 fans.

Those who aren't satiated with Jerry's Palace yet can turn right around and relive the first regular season Cowboys game on the second episode of truTV's NFL Full Contact (Monday, Feb. 15th at 9 p.m. central).

"What the Roman Colosseum was to the first century is what Cowboys Stadium is to the 21st century," NBC Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels said by way of introduction to the team's eventual 33-31 loss to the New York Giants before an NFL record crowd of 105,121 on Sept. 20th.

Like last Monday's premiere hour, this second of six Full Contacts is over-stuffed with drama that's not that dramatic and characters who quickly grow tiresome. Principal among them is veteran NFL Films cameraman Bob Angelo, who makes a return appearance as a self-important, short-tempered jerk who carps that a Sunday night game "really screws up my schedule." Forget about having any empathy for him.

It's also tough to feel too bad about the plight of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose game-exiting bus is temporarily stuck in a traffic jam before a police escort comes to the rescue. Full Contact treats this as a full-blown calamity. Cheerleader maestro Kelli Finglass also is vexed when a band is late in arriving for a pre-game performance with her girls. But somehow the "final fluff 'n' puff" comes off without a hitch before the Cheerleaders eventually take the field.

Full Contact is visually first-rate, as was the first episode. But there's otherwise little to work with in terms of anything resembling a compelling storyline.

Entirely glossed over is the pre-game mess in which thousands of fans were turned away after the Cowboys sold too many $29 standing room only "party passes." Instead we get a drunken lout with a digitized face urging security captain David Trevino to "C'mon, assault me." He's refused admittance and staggers off in the company of an irked female companion.

Viewers also will meet "Miss Price" of Lancaster, the team's self-proclaimed "No. 1 fan." Her histrionics get old in a hurry, but the players all seem to know her.

Another featured player is comely blonde Lyndsey Jensen, a luxury suite server who doesn't know whether her tips will be enough to make a 16-hour shift worthwhile.

"I knew I was going to serve wealthy people. I didn't know this wealthy," she says after eying one of the complimentary, commemorative bottles of Dom Perignon left as special gifts by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Jensen later makes it known that "I have definitely been hit on a number of times, and alcohol is a major factor in that."

But she comes off as more than a bit flirty in some of her brushes with well-oiled suite patrons. And we never find out whether her tips made it all worth it.

Jones is glimpsed on occasion, most notably when a live picture of the owner and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is beamed up on the stadium's gargantuan video screen.

"I always like to be on these with someone uglier than me," Jones tells Goodell, who for some reason laughs hugely.

Cowboys Stadium now is likely to fade from national view -- for a few weeks at least. But a double dose of the NBA All-Star game followed by Monday's NFL Full Contact no doubt has Jones brimming with renewed joy as the master of his massive, much-glorified domain.

Cowboy Colby and friends (and enemies) go back to the bush for Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

Cowboy Colby Donaldson at Survivor anniversary party. Photos: Ed Bark

TELEVISION CITY, Calif. -- Colby Donaldson apparently didn't get the memo. Although cast as a good guy in CBS' 20th edition of Survivor, he arrives looking a little villain-esque in a black cowboy hat and matching shirt.

"I did have to get comfortable tonight," he says amid more than 200 former castaways gathered at a 10-year anniversary party thrown by CBS. "And my comfort zone is my hat."

Donaldson, a native of Christoval, Texas, had been running a car customizing shop in Dallas when Survivor: The Australian Outback roped him in nine years ago. He finished second during the course of becoming the second edition's seemingly most marketable star.

Heading west to Hollywood, Donaldson took acting lessons and popped up as a guest star on a few prime-time TV series before signing on with 2004's Survivor: All-Stars. Now he's back for a third rodeo with Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, which launches with a two-hour episode on Thursday, Feb. 11th (7 p.m. central). Instead of "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast," its companion taglines are "Return, Revenge, Redemption."

Donaldson, who will turn 36 on April Fool's Day, lately has holstered his acting ambitions and become a host/correspondent. His principal venue is The Rachael Ray Show, where he plays both himself and her "content buddy." He also presides over The Speed Channel's American Thunder series.

"So there've been these little bitty hosting victories," Donaldson says. "I haven't gone out on an acting audition in three-and-a-half years. I still would, but the hosting thing kind of took precedence."

Survivor host Jeff Probst, who's also been a friend of Donaldson's since the Outback edition, says that an acting career is "vibrant as long as it's vibrant in your heart. Colby could land a sitcom tomorrow afternoon. You never know. But you get reminded, even with all the fanfare that Colby got, that it's still a struggle. That's the lottery of Hollywood."

Donaldson says he's recently been spending roughly half his time on the long-held family cattle ranch, located between Christoval and Sonora. He still builds cars, too, during his dual existence in Los Angeles.

"My entire life has changed because of Survivor," he says. "That being said, I'm not any different as a person. But most of the things around me are very different."

Survivor: All-Stars pretty much knocked him for a loop. He was the fifth competitor voted off and the seventh eliminated after both Jenna Morasca and Susan Hawk quit ahead of him.

Probst "really talked me into doing that series," he contends. "I didn't want to go. I shouldn't have gone, and the results spoke for themselves. I did horribly. My head wasn't in it. I wasn't prepared. It was just a bad time in my life."

The Heroes vs. Villains edition is an opportunity for redemption -- or so Donaldson says. "I wanted to go back and prove that I can still compete with the young bucks."

Dayton, TX oilman Russell Hantz was Survivor: Samoa's arch-villain.

Donaldson's 19 foes on Heroes vs.Villains include Dayton, Texas oilman Russell Hantz, one of the oiliest guys ever to play the game. He pocketed $100,000 after finishing second on last fall's 19th edition, Survivor: Samoa. But Hantz lost the $1 million grand prize by a lopsided 7-2 vote to Natalie White.

Donaldson says it's not enough to survive until the end. Those who expect to win also must curry favor with the show's previously evicted jurors.

"You've got a guy like Russell who talks a lot of smack and has the ability," Donaldson says. "He's an incredibly crafty player. But from what I've seen, nobody likes the guy."

Hantz in turn says that Donaldson "don't know how to get into the zone to play the game. If you're the 'hero,' you're lucky to get to the end. When you're the villain, you make yourself get to the end. I don't think he (Donaldson) is able to step outside his character to play the game. I am. I know what I have to do to make it further. And I'm gonna do that. Nobody knows my technique of playing. I didn't even know it. But I figured it out when I got there."

Hantz says it's all a pose, though. TV's dirtiest-dealing oilman since J.R. Ewing insists that "I'm not like that in real life. I have a successful business. I have employees. They love me. They love to work for me."

Veteran vixen Jerri Manthey with CBS pres./CEO Leslie Moonves.

The Heroes vs. Villains mix also includes flirty Jerri Manthey, who tried to play Delilah to Donaldson's Samson in Australian Outback before he eventually conspired to cut her loose.

Manthey earlier re-appeared in the All-Stars edition, where she outlasted Donaldson. But on the reunion show, she left in tears during a commercial break after the studio audience booed her. Manthey had been complaining about the ways in which reality show competitors are edited to suit the whims of producers. Well, duh.

"I didn't want that to be my exit," a buoyant and very good-humored Manthey says at the anniversary party. "I'm very happy I went back. I really am. I had a really bad taste in my mouth after the All-Stars."

She retains an appetite for Donaldson after fantasizing about licking chocolate off of him in the Outback edition.

"Oh, he's still got it. And I'm interested in what he's got. Oh yeah!" Manthey enthuses.

Other than that, "nothing's ever happened between us" off-camera or on-, she says. "I don't usually date 'reality' people, especially when it's Survivor. They're essentially my family already. You know what they say, 'Don't sleep where you crap.' "

Competitors Rupert Boneham, Jerri Manthey and Russell Hantz flank host Jeff Probst and creator/executive producer Mark Burnett.

The 20th edition of Survivor, which also is tied to the 10th anniversary of the show, oddly is without anyone from the 2000 trailblazer, won by duplicitous Richard Hatch.

"I'm very surprised and really disappointed about that," says Manthey.

Creator/executive producer Mark Burnett says Hatch would have been included, but wasn't allowed to travel abroad after recently serving prison time for tax evasion. And cantankerous Rudy Boesch, a part of the All-Stars edition, was judged too old to risk his well-being.

"There's a level of responsibility" that works against putting an octogenarian in harm's way, says Burnett. But Boesch, who turned 82 last month, says he both wanted to be a part of Heroes vs. Villains and could have survived its rigors.

"They called me about it," he says. "Then they called me back and said, 'We've got somebody else. We don't need ya.' "

CBS has ordered two more editions of Survivor beyond this one, with Probst continuing as host.

"It changed the world," CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves says. "Without Survivor your TV sets would be dark today."

He then eases off the throttle a bit. Shows such as Project Runway, America's Top Model and various cooking competitions basically owe their existence to the success of Survivor, Moonves says. "So the TV world definitely changed. It's had a profound effect."

Burnett, whose post-Survivor credits include The Apprentice and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, says Survivor proved that "reality TV can be as exciting and as classy as big expensive dramas. Survivor is shot with love, like a movie."

Except with a lot more sequels -- and no immediate end on anyone's horizon.

Fox's Past Life needs to find a pulse

Kelli Giddish heads the cast of Fox's new Past Life. Fox photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Feb. 9th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox before moving to 8 p.m. Thursdays
Starring: Kelli Giddish, Nicholas Bishop, Richard Schiff, Ravi Patel
Produced by: David Hudgins, Lou Pitt

Paranormal is getting to be the new normal in television's continuing quest to weave out-of-body twists and turns into prime-time storytelling.

The latest culprit -- and that's the case here -- is Fox's Past Life, which gets the usual post-American Idol launchpad Tuesday night before being sent to Thursdays to fend for itself.

Inspired by the novel The Reincarnationist, this is a largely labored effort starring former All My Children regular Kelli Giddish as Dr. Kate McGinn, a psychologist "dedicated to the study of the science of the soul," according to Fox publicity materials.

Her base of operations is the Manhattan-based Talmadge Center for Behavioral Health, run by the reliably stern Dr. Malachi Talmadge (a basically extraneous Richard Schiff from The West Wing.)

McGinn of course is teamed with a polar opposite partner, former NYPD homicide detective Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop). Dismissed for drinking and brooding too much, he's been guilt-ridden since his wife died in a diving accident after he egged her on.

The two of 'em team in Tuesday's opener to tackle the riddle of a haunted kid named Noah. McGinn quickly diagnoses him with "classic regression trauma." But has he also been reincarnated after his previous self -- a young girl -- was murdered by a kidnapper?

Inquiring and troubled minds eventually merge, although rather tediously and preposterously. As McGinn tells her partner, "The clues are there. You just have to know where to look."

Meanwhile, the always welcome Judith Ivey briefly drops in to play McGinn's mama, Laney. Brandishing a hard liquor drink and a world weary 'tude, she says at one point, "As far as I'm concerned, husbands are like Jesus. Just another white man tellin' me what to do."

Ivey's quickly out of the picture, though, leaving Past Life to reach a resolution without enough bite, zip or basic believability to merit your continued patronage.

Fox sent the second episode for review. But after just a few minutes, it convinced your friendly content provider that life is too short for this -- even if reincarnation might be in the cards. A quick hit of the "Eject" button made everything all better again.


Super Bowl XLIV mashes M*A*S*H finale, says CBS

Saints coach Sean Payton hoists one at Super Bowl XLIV. nfl.com photo

Sunday's New Orleans Saints' win over the Indianapolis Colts at Super Bowl XLIV is being crowned as the most-watched program in TV history by CBS.

Averaging 106.5 million viewers in the preliminary national Nielsens, the game edges CBS' Feb. 28, 1983 telecast of the M*A*S*H finale, which had 106 million viewers.

The Super Bowl's final national number could go up -- or down. But it went up substantially last year, from 95.4 million to 98.7 million in the final Nielsen compilation. That was termed an "unusual and unexpected adjustment" by NBC, which carried the game.

There are many more potential viewers now than in 1983, when M*A*S*H set its record. But there also are many more networks vying for viewer attention. Super Bowl audiences continue to climb steadily, with new records being set by each of the last three telecasts. The Saints-Colts game is the first to top the 100 million mark.

"With all the memorable story lines going into Super Bowl XLIV combined with the awesome power of the NFL, we are thrilled with this rating," CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus said in a statement.

CBS also is bragging about the audience for Super Bowl XLIV's followup act, the new reality series Undercover Boss. It drew 38.6 million viewers, the third largest ever for a post-Super Bowl attraction.

The record-setter is still a 1996 extended episode of Friends, which had 52.9 million viewers on NBC. In second place is the premiere of CBS' second edition of Survivor (45.4 million viewers after the 2001 Super Bowl).

CBS says that the first episode of Undercover Boss is the most-watched series premiere in any time slot since ABC launched the variety series Dolly (starring Dolly Parton) on Sept. 27, 1987. It had 39.5 million viewers.

POSTSCRIPT -- The Super Bowl XLIV audience stayed the same -- 106.5 million viewers -- in final national results released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research. The audience for Undercover Boss went up slightly, to 38.7 million viewers.

Come together: Letterman and Leno play act with Oprah as buffer

Chips in their mouths and on their shoulders. Photo: Ed Bark

The surprise spot of Super Bowl XLIV came at the 9:34 mark of the second quarter, when Indiana native David Letterman in a Colts jersey whined, "This is the worst Super bowl party ever."

"Now, Dave, be nice," Oprah Winfrey admonished him before the camera moved to their surprise guest -- Jay Leno.

"Oh, he's just sayin' that because I'm here," Leno groused before Letterman mocked his words with a high-pitched Leno impression.

Winfrey sighed and put her hands up. End of genius spot, a sequel to a 2007 Super Bowl commercial in which Winfrey wore a Chicago Bears jersey while they pretended to be lovers. The two earlier had settled their differences after Letterman pointedly baited her to appear on his show.

Letterman likewise has been ridiculing Leno and defending Conan O'Brien during NBC's late night train wreck. Leno eventually fired back with a memorably blunt joke on how to get Letterman to ignore you. In short, "Marry him."

Winfrey took Leno's side -- at least in the NBC mess -- during a recent full-program interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show. So this was a perfect way for her to play referee, with Letterman and Leno at least appearing in close proximity to one another for the first time in more than a decade.

CBS says the 15-second spot, a promo for Letterman's show, was taped last week at Letterman's home base, The Ed Sullivan Theater. It will air only once, the network said.

Leno is scheduled to resume his competition with Letterman on March 1st, when NBC re-gifts him with The Tonight Show. Here's the spot:

Jobs well done: CBS' post-Super Bowl Undercover Boss pays as it goes

Walter the trashman meets Larry the COO on CBS' Undercover Boss.

Premiering: After Super Bowl XLIV, Sunday, Feb. 7th on CBS
Starring: Various undercover bosses and members of their workforce
Created and produced by: Stephen Lambert

See a chief operating officer get his hands dirty in a new reality series that doesn't feel dirty to the touch.

Still, you might feel a bit manipulated. But maybe edified, too. And you definitely can't say the latter about MTV's knuckle-dragging, fist-in-the-face Jersey Shore and star player Nicole "Snooki" Pilozzi.

CBS' Undercover Boss, which follows Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV, has found a dream executive for its premiere hour. He's Larry O'Donnell, positioned as the all-caring COO of Houston-based Waste Management, Inc.

Billed as "America's largest trash company," it has 45,000 employees, 20 million customers and an ample number of nasty jobs. O'Donnell tries his hand at five of them Sunday night -- and meets five wondrous workers in the process. It spurs him to make some changes in the corporate culture while also rewarding those who have made even Port-o-Let cleaning seem like a life's calling.

O'Donnell infiltrates his own company by posing as Randy Lawrence, whose adventures as an entry level worker are being recorded by a camera crew as grist for a possible reality series. Or so everyone's told.

Before he heads out into the field, viewers briefly meet O'Donnell's family. He's married with two children, one of them a daughter whose brain was seriously damaged during a medical procedure gone awry. This provides the star of this hour with some built-in empathy before he tries to master the art of picking recyclable cardboard off a fast-moving conveyor belt while being encouraged by a dedicated employee named Sandy.

During a daily half-hour lunch break -- after O'Donnell has fouled up some of the equipment -- he witnesses Sandy suddenly hurrying off to punch her time card. The clandestine boss learns that employees are docked two minutes of pay for every minute they're tardy. It seems inhumane to him. And besides that, "My back is hurting like you wouldn't believe," O'Donnell tells the camera before retiring early in his room at a cheap motel.

Undercover Boss succeeds in its depictions of both the sometimes hapless O'Donnell and the altogether genuine-seeming workers he encounters.

Walter, who tries to school him in the art of picking up hillside trash, has been on kidney dialysis for the past 20 years. Yet he perseveres.

Jaclyn is a cancer survivor who does multiple administrative jobs while striving to hold on to her family's home, which lately is up for sale. She even invites O'Donnell home for dinner, and he's touched by what he sees.

Buoyant Fred is a maestro at cleaning portable toilets. O'Donnell meets him at a Houston carnival, where he says, "I call it the battlefield of poop." And if you get some of it on you, "you're wounded but you keep going."

Finally, Janice has a sprawling trash collection route of a "little over 300" houses. To save time, she pees in a can. But she also makes time for some of her customers. O'Donnell gets choked up when a mentally handicapped woman reads Janice a thank you note.

It gets to you in ways that most reality series don't, can't or won't even try. In the end, the five employees are summoned to O'Donnell's corporate offices to find out who he really is. And to hear that he'll also be making their work lives better.

It might have helped -- from an overall believability standpoint -- if O'Donnell had encountered at least one heavy-duty malcontent. Instead, the first hour only singles out the fleetingly seen time card cop, who's told to be more lenient.

Undercover Boss will settle into its regular 8 p.m. (central) Sunday slot on Valentine's night, when Hooters goes under the microscope. That's a little easier sale than a waste management company. But the show's inaugural post-Super Bowl edition almost assuredly makes a better first impression. In continued tough economic times, its salt-of-the-earth supporting players are relatable and worth rooting for. And the bossman seems all right, too.


Danes in full bloom as autistic heroine of HBO's Temple Grandin

Claire Danes talks up the HBO film Temple Grandin at Television Critics Association "press tour" in Pasadena. Photo: Ed Bark

This is such a good film. And Claire Danes is simply great in it.

That's the condensed review of HBO's Temple Grandin (Saturday, Feb. 6th, 7 p.m. central), which on paper has a less than scintillating premise.

The name in the title is a real-life autistic woman whose singular achievements in animal husbandry have made it easier for cattle to proceed to their eventual slaughter. Her clarion call: "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be. We owe them some respect."

Danes, still best known for her starring role in ABC's one-season wonder, My So-Called Life, has a transformative role in Temple Grandin. Her hair short and curled and her speech slightly impaired, she not so much plays but inhabits her character. An Emmy nomination is a certainty, and it's hard to imagine anyone else measuring up. Few TV performances in recent memory have risen to this level.

The film begins in 1966, with Temple spending the summer at her Aunt Ann's (Catherine O'Hara) cattle ranch in Arizona before being asked to make an abrupt transition to Franklin Pierce College out East.

Temple's mother, Eustacia (Julia Ormond), has doted on her daughter since spurning a doctor's recommendation that she be institutionalized as a mute four-year-old diagnosed as an "infantile schizophrenic." College and further socialization for Temple are musts in Eustacia's view. But Temple prefers the company of animals, whose moods and routines she comes to understand.

While on the ranch, she builds a calming "squeeze machine" modeled after a close-quartered cattle restraint. It substitutes for the human hugs that Temple can't tolerate. The invention and its inventor become inseparable, but not without a fight for the right to keep it in her dorm room.

The movie also flashes back to Temple's high school years at a New Hampshire boarding school, where she's befriended and encouraged by a science teacher named Dr. Carlock (David Strathairn). He realizes that Temple thinks in pictures with a mind that retains visual records of everything she's encountered.

"Trust me, we know how different she is," Carlock tells Eustacia.

"Different, but not less," she responds.

No hat, all cattle. Danes as Grandin in comfort zone. HBO photo

Temple Grandin is touching without ever being cloying. Its plucky heroine loves both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the challenge of envisioning master plans for the humane treatment of cattle.

Her principal battles are with taunting students, automatic sliding doors and a brusque, condescending cattle boss named Don Michaels (Richard Dillard). Initially bemused, he refuses to approve her proposed master's thesis on mooing as an indicator of cattle behavior.

As noted, none of this seems like the stuff of riveting drama. It is, though. Still only 30, Danes shows she's now ready and able to take command of any acting challenge put in her path.

"I'm Temple Grandin," she proclaims at film's end.

That she is.


Jones 'n' Joplin -- still smokin' after all these years

All music awards shows on are big on mix 'n' match duets these days.

Sunday's Grammy Awards opened with Lady Gaga and Elton John together for the first time. Much less effective was the later off-key pairing of Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks.

For a truly blazin' hot twofer, though, return with us to 1969's This Is Tom Jones, during which the swivel-hipped underwear-catcher smoked TV screens with a wailing Janis Joplin. Their performance of "Raise Your Hand" remains a wonder to behold -- and that includes the unbridled joyous dancing and a full-blown horn section. You won't be able to sit on your hands. That's for sure. Here we go.
Ed Bark

Lost returns with double shots of intrigue (note: don't read if you still plan to see it)

It's two places at once for Lost's Jack Shephard. ABC photos

Aha, so Lost intends to have it both ways.

Tuesday's two-hour Season 6 premiere of ABC's ever-confounding conundrum conjured up a pair of each principal character from the show's maiden Sept. 22, 2004 voyage on Oceanic 815. Whether that turns out to be a complete flight of fancy will be determined over the next four months.

Viewers were left last season with a flash of white and the apparent detonation of a bomb aimed at preempting the crash of Oceanic 815 and therefore wiping out everyone's five-season tour on the mysterious island that bedeviled them. Did it work? Yes and no.

In a dual device that few fans could have envisioned, Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox); apprehended fugitive Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly); con man James "Sawyer" Ford (Josh Holloway); paralyzed John Locke (Terry O'Quinn); former torturer Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews); lottery winner Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia) and husband/wife Jin and Sun Kwon (Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim) were all back aboard their Oceanic 815 flight from Sydney to L.A.

Drug-addicted former rock star Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan) also could be seen, although federal marshals soon had other plans for him.

But as the plot twisted, all of them -- except Charlie -- also were back on the island, circa 2007. Kate initially was high up in a tree and Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell), who wasn't a passenger on Oceanic 815, remained buried beneath the rubble of the bomb detonation site.

Both Mitchell and Monaghan were seen only briefly -- but memorably. They're otherwise occupied on the respective ABC series FlashForward and V, whose March returns were promoted during commercial breaks. Speaking of interruptions, there were an awful lot of 'em. But in the end, actual program content probably got more time than the products that paid for it.

Judging from the first two hours, Lost intends to split its time between the island and the aftermath of Oceanic 815's landing in L.A. Kate already has made more serious trouble for herself after escaping her federal escort at LAX. And Jack, who discovered a mysterious cut on his neck in the plane's restroom, has no idea what happened to his father's presumably on-board coffin.

Then there's Locke, who on Tuesday night emerged as someone else entirely in addition to being the all-powerful "Smoke Monster."

"I'm sorry you had to see me like that," he told a cowed Ben Linus (Michael Emerson), who's been reduced to his intimidated gofer while fake Locke has emerged as the island's brusque, sometimes brutal overlord.

The rest of the island's denizens eventually found themselves at The Temple, where a gutshot, nearly dead Sayid supposedly could be healed. Two new characters, a no-nonsense Asian leader and his interpreter (John Hawkes from Deadwood), emerged to make things even more miserable for Jack and crew. But Sayid predictably returned from the dead after being forcefully held beneath the Temple's healing waters. It took quite a while, though, with Tuesday night's doubleheader ending with the lifeless Sayid jolting awake and then wondering what had happened.

The trick now is to somehow merge the Oceanic 815 principals with their island counterparts. That presumably has to happen at some point during Lost's climactic back-and-forth trips through the Looking Glass.

Meanwhile, fake Locke has an entirely different motivation than murdered Locke, whose body still lays sprawled from its coffin on island beachfront property.

"I want the one thing that John Locke didn't," he told Ben. "I want to go home."

Good luck with that.

***Amid the glut of Lost commercial breaks were several for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's been slipping in the polls. All were replays of Nolan Ryan's countrified endorsement of the sitting U.S. senator, who's still throwing a good deal of money into her race against incumbent Rick Perry. The guv didn't bother advertising during Lost. Perhaps he didn't like the title, which for now certainly fits Hutchison.

Better late than never? Conan's last week a ratings triumph (plus, the Grammys get the words out)

Conan O'Brien bled ratings gold for NBC during his final week as host of the network's Tonight Show.

Lobbing grenades at his employer before making nice in the end, O'Brien averaged 5.3 million viewers for the week of Jan. 18-22, lagging behind only his debut week (June 1-5) haul of 6.1 million viewers.

The Jan. 22nd finale marked O'Brien's personal best, with 10.3 million viewers taking the plunge. His previous single show record was 9.2 million viewers for the June 1st launch of the now defunct Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.

CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, which had been thumping Tonight in the total viewer Nielsens, came up well short of O'Brien in their final head-to-head week of original shows. Letterman averaged 3.9 million viewers.

O'Brien also smacked Letterman among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds, drawing 3.1 million for the week compared to Letterman's 1.2 million.

For their entire run against each other, Letterman had averaged 4.2 million total viewers a week, with ABC's Nightline second (3.9 million) and O'Brien far back with 2.8 million viewers. Among 18-to-49-year-olds, O'Brien managed to beat both Letterman and Nightline by just one-tenth of a rating point.

Jay Leno, who had dominated Letterman in both ratings measurements, gets a do-over on March 1st when he returns as Tonight host after a disastrous run in prime-time that will end on the Feb. 11th eve of the Winter Olympics.

***Sunday night's three-and-a-half-hour Grammy Awards on CBS again made Taylor Swift a big winner with the climactic Album of the Year trophy.

It might be best remembered, though, for the heavily censored preceding performance by rappers Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem. Introduced by a highly enthusiastic Quentin Tarantino, they were silenced a total of 12 times, often for several long seconds at a time.

That has to be some kind of broadcast TV record, even though the semi-frenzied live audience at the Staples Center got the full monty. Viewers at home might have wondered, though, why CBS and Grammy organizers couldn't get their shit together -- so to speak -- on how to handle both the lyrics and the performers. Here's the heavily expurgated CBS version transmitted to the country at large: