Seinfeld's 'Marriage Ref' vows clean fun

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NBC finally posted some winning ratings with its Winter Olympics coverage the past two weeks, but after this weekend viewership for the peacock network will likely come back down to Earth as Jay Leno returns to hosting "The Tonight Show" and the 10 p.m. hole is plugged with assorted series returning and new.

Hoping to hook viewers on a new show before they flee, network executives have scheduled a sneak peek at the frequently promoted "Marriage Ref" for 10:30 p.m. Sunday following the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Former NBC star Jerry Seinfeld executive produces "The Marriage Ref," and he'll also appear in some episodes. So what exactly is the show? Hard to say without seeing it, and NBC did not make an episode available in advance for review.

At the TV critics winter press tour in January, Mr. Seinfeld said it's a little bit of a lot of things: reality show, panel show and comedy show.

The basic concept: A married couple in dispute pre-tapes their disagreement -- it's supposedly not a marriage-threatening argument or something involving children or anything that would make a viewer too uncomfortable -- and then celebrity guests offer their reactions and choose sides. Celebrity panelists will include Mr. Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, Tina Fey, Larry David, Eva Longoria and Charles Barkley.

In the end, only the Marriage Ref himself, comedian Tom Papa, can render judgment of who's right and who's wrong. The winner gets a prize that may relate to the predicament at hand.

"All of those subjects at dinner that you would feel comfortable talking to your couple friends with, that's what we deal with," Mr. Seinfeld said. "Really 85 percent of marital difficulties is ridiculous problems."

One disagreement centers on a husband parking his motorcycle in the living room. In another, spouses squabble about whether to have their deceased dog stuffed.

Mr. Seinfeld said the idea for the series was born when he and his wife were arguing while one of her friends was present. The friend started to leave, but Mr. Seinfeld invited her to stay and offer an opinion. He could not remember what the argument was about, but he's pretty sure he lost.

"It was better because it was over," he said. "That's kind of the idea of the show: to shorten the fight. And we're not presuming to help these people. We're not going to fix your marriage."

There's actually something healthy in that acknowledgement. It doesn't sound like "Celebrity Rehab" or "Sober House," where a life may be truly on the line.

"This is a comedy," Mr. Seinfeld. "We really feel laughing at yourself, laughing at your marriage, seeing other marriages that are also in absurd situations is a wonderful medicine."

After Sunday's preview, "The Marriage Ref" moves to its regular time slot: 10 p.m. Thursday.

When animals attack

If there's one thing local TV news loves more than an animal story it's the story of an animal in pain or danger.

I've long thought local news, especially WTAE, features animal abuse stories to an almost fetishistic degree. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 reported on animals abused somewhere in the viewing region with lovely descriptions of them attacking and mauling one another. That same night, WTAE reported a story about a horse trapped in a pond.

Last Thursday, Channel 4 wasted chopper fuel hovering over an awning collapse that may have trapped or killed or injured a dog. In what's become typical "breaking news" fashion, WTAE was reporting without having hardly any facts. If they ever reported the outcome, I did not see it.

"We've heard a dog may have been trapped here," said anchor Wendy Bell.

"We're not quite sure if that's the dog in particular," said Andrew Stockey when the chopper shot showed a dog running about on the ground.

If you're not sure, why are you including it in a newscast? That's not reporting, it's gossiping.

None of this is to suggest animal abuse stories are not worth covering. I'm sure there are instances where there is news value in such reports. But should it be breaking news? And should newscasts air reports regularly that amount to tales of animal torture porn, especially when the incidents have personal impact on few viewers?

To be fair, it's not just Channel 4 that does these stories, which I'm sure do have the desired effect of drawing some viewers in. Last Friday morning, WPXI had Lori Houy offer a live report on firefighters' successful rescue of a dog named Scrappy. (Maybe this was the same dog trapped in the WTAE live report?)

WTAE embraces sensation

Perhaps it stands to follow that a TV station that appears eager to report the grisly details about endangered animals also will resort to showing video of a person being hit by a car.

Monday during the 5 p.m. news Channel 4 ran a story on the guilty plea of a motorist in Connecticut who hit a 78-year-old man who died a year later. The report, which included black-and-white security camera footage of the 2008 incident, did not make clear whether the man died of injuries sustained in the accident, but that's what viewers were left to infer.

It's hard to imagine the news value of such footage on a Pittsburgh newscast except as a sensational element used (and promoted in advance) to appeal to some viewers' basest, "Faces of Death"-loving instincts.

WPXI's non-news

In another example this week of breaking news rushed to the air absent of facts, WPXI announced Tuesday during the 5 p.m. news that there were reports of a collapse at the Iron City brewing plant in Lawrenceville. Later the station recanted, saying what was happening was scheduled demolition.

Making the story even more ridiculous, the view from the station's helicopter was clouded (by fog?), making the visuals as tenuous as the report itself.

Soap charity event

"Shower With the Soap Stars," a benefit for the Young Women's Breast Cancer Foundation and the Cancer Caring Center, will be held at 11:30 a.m. March 27 at LeMont on Mount Washington.

Jerry Ver Dorn (Clint Buchanan on "One Life to Live"), Terri Colombino (Katie on "As the World Turns"), Ron Raines (Alan Spaulding on "Guiding Light") and Frank Dicopoulos (Frank Copper on "Guiding Light") are scheduled to attend. Tickets are $60, available through www.youngwomensbreastcancerfoundation.com or by calling 412-490-9808.

Channel surfing

Fox has canceled supernatural drama "Past Life." ... FX ordered a 13-episode second season of the hilariously deranged animated comedy "Archer." ... ABC Family ordered a fourth season of "Greek." ... A&E has ordered a second season of "Steven Seagal: Lawman." ... TLC ordered a third season of "The Little Couple," starring former Pittsburgher Dr. Jen Arnold. ... Season five of A&E's "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" premieres at 9 p.m. March 21. ... Classic '60s sitcom "Bewitched" joins the TV Land lineup next week, airing back-to-back episodes weekdays at 5 p.m. ... PBS's "Masterpiece" will remake '70s hit "Upstairs, Downstairs" in three one-hour episodes. ... NBC's "Saturday Night Live" returns with a new episode Saturday as Jennifer Lopez pulls double duty as host and musical guest. March 6 Zach Galifianakis hosts with musical guest Vampire Weekend; on March 13 Jude Law hosts with Pearl Jam. ... A new season of Food Network's "What Would Brian Boitano Make?" premieres at 1 p.m. March 7. ... Three locals appear on CBS's "Let's Make a Deal" (10 a.m. weekdays, KDKA) next week: Pittsburgher Justin Newman is on Monday and Thursday's episode features Antriece Hart of Carnegie and Johanna Boariu of Ellwood City. ... 1988 Point Park University grad David Perrozzi is a senior producer on Tuesday's "20/20" (10 p.m., WTAE), an Oscar-themed edition about actors before they were famous.

Tuned In online

In today's online TV Q&A, there are responses to questions about ratings, WQED-HD and TV stations turning newscasts into commercial vehicles. Tuned In Journal includes posts on Simon Cowell of "American Idol," "Men of a Certain Age" and special effects in non-sci-fi shows. Read online TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss the Olympics on TV, mid-season shows and "Spartacus." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.


TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published February 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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