The Pope Projects: CBS Versus ABC

In the Dueling Popes Derby, CBS now has the lead, breaking ahead of ABC last week in the home stretch, with only days to go before their competing bios of Pope John Paul II hit the air.

After trailing for months, CBS surged ahead on Thursday when its miniseries was screened at the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI. That was a publicity coup in itself, but the resulting story from the Associated Press was a network publicist's dream.

It started with the headline “Pope Watches Latest John Paul II Movie” and only got better: The story mentioned spontaneous applause during the screening but didn't reference ABC's rival production, Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II.

It was a late comeback for CBS, which broke out of the gate in first place last April—not long after Pope John Paul II passed away—when the network signed up a project being pitched by the European (and Vatican-connected) producers of a successful CBS miniseries on the life of Jesus in 2000.

But then, as B&C reported in the June 6 issue, ABC enlisted a splinter group from the Jesus production and was rushing its own project into production—and, unlike CBS, they had a script ready to go.

That put ABC ahead of CBS, as far as we were concerned. But this fall, CBS made a bid for the lead when it announced that its four-hour Pope John Paul II would air on two nights, Dec. 4 and 7. Clearly, ABC had fallen behind.

But no! The network battled back, galloping ahead with its own air date: Dec. 1. We thought that settled it, but CBS' late move in Rome may bring home the roses.

In the event of a photo finish, we'll let the stewards at Nielsen Media Research pick the winner.

Dish on Dish

On Tuesday last week, Bill Merritt was the mayor of Clark, Texas, and few people outside of Clark had heard of him or the town of 125 people about 30 minutes north of Fort Worth.

On Wednesday, Merritt became the mayor of Dish, Texas, and he and his freshly renamed town were world-famous, thanks to interest in the community's willingness to take up an offer from EchoStar Communications: Ten years of free basic satellite TV service from Dish Network, along with equipment and installation, in exchange for the name change.

“Before, nobody ever heard of Clark, Texas, even five miles away from here,” Merritt told B&C on Friday. “Yesterday I got off the phone from a live radio show in Melbourne, Australia. So I think we're on the map.”

Move to Dish and you, too, will get the Dish service for free. That enticement, Merritt believes, could spur some needed growth: “To say our town was stagnant—well, 'stagnant' would be a compliment.” A frustrating situation for any mayor, no doubt, but especially so for one who's a real-estate developer. Merritt happens to be building some homes right outside Dish, and if those new owners want to annex themselves in, he'll help, he says, but he won't push.

Meanwhile, Merritt's wife, Amy, cancelled the family's DirecTV service last week. Merritt says when the DirecTV customer-service rep figured out his wife's connection to the Dish deal, DirecTV executives got on the phone and pleaded with her to keep their equipment in case she changed her mind.

“She told them that wasn't going to happen,” Merritt says.

Here's something else that isn't going to happen: publications like this one cooperating with EchoStar's insistence that Dish be spelled with all capital letters.

Greenwich 'Forensics'

When Paul Dowling, creator and executive producer of Court TV's highly rated Forensic Files, showed up at Greenwich High School in Connecticut last Thursday, there was no great mystery about his appearance there. He had been asked to speak to a special student assembly by Gary Lico, president/CEO of CABLEready, which holds global-distribution rights to the show; Lico's son, Steven, is a freshman at the school.

Possibly in an attempt to pique the interest of kids who might regard school assemblies as opportunities to, say, make a quick trip to Burger King, Dowling's visit also included the promise of a random drawing to select one lucky student for a walk-on role on Forensic Files. In a development that might arouse the curiosity of a trained investigator, the lucky winner of the drawing—from among 250 students—was one Steven Lico.

But before anyone could say “secure the area” and start stringing the yellow do-not-cross tape, a second drawing was quickly held, and senior Myra Stafford won a walk-on as well. Case closed.