Article from: The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)
Article date: January 18, 2001
Byline: Larry Bonko/VP

CULVER CITY, CALIF. — Since CBS hasn’t the guts to tell her, let me be the one to break the news to Bette Midler.

Bette, honey, your Wednesday night sitcom is failing. Failing. They dropped a smaller bomb on Hiroshima.

Midler, the bawdy one who has conquered film, the concert stage and pop music – her recordings sell in the millions – hasn’t exactly captured the hearts and minds of TV America.

The last time I checked, her sitcom (“Bette”) was No. 49 in the Nielsens. It’s been as low as No. 64. The fact she’s won a People’s Choice award and is nominated for a Golden Globe has not helped the ratings for “Bette.”

The CBS suits who met with the Television Critics Association during the mid-winter press tour act like everything is hunky-dory with “Bette,” and that it’s only a matter of time before it begins posting “Survivor” numbers.

“The show had trouble finding its way. It got a bit too broad. But we’ve made the necessary corrections and feel very good about `Bette.’ We have great hope for the show,” said CBS Television president Les Moonves.

That’s akin to the vote of confidence that the owners of baseball teams give to managers with teams in the second division.

“I have no idea if our show will be renewed for next season. I’d like to come back. I won’t go down without a fight,” Midler said while welcoming the TV press to the soundstage at Culver Studios where “Bette” is filmed before an audience settled into theater-type seats.

Sitting alone on a canvas chair with her name on the back, Midler in the middle of the “Bette” set looked every bit the diva – all 5 feet of her.

She wore a scarf that flowed. She answered questions with the flair of Norma Desmond decending the staircase in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Midler gave “Bette” a mid-term grade.

She said it’s a solid B edging up to a B-plus with ambitions for an A-minus. “ `Bette’ is a freshman show looking for its legs. Things will fall into place. The last episode we did was really wonderful.”

What she’s hoped to do, said Midler, is deliver a sitcom that makes viewers laugh out loud. To laugh until they cry, said Midler, like, say, on “Malcolm in the Middle,” which she applauds.

“Who likes mild comedy? Laughing is fabulous for the heart, soul and body. Everybody needs a couple of good yucks. So far we’ve managed to put that big laugh in there at least once in each episode.”

Bette gets all tangled up in her exercise gear. Big laugh. Oprah Winfrey does a guest turn. Another big laugh.

CBS wants more big laughs.

CBS wants Lucille Ball.

But Midler can’t be Lucy.

“Please don’t even make a comparison. I don’t have half the skills she had. She set the bar very high. She set the standard for television over the last 40 years. What she did was art.”

What Midler is doing is less artful as she plays what many assume is the real Bette Midler – an insecure, hard-to-please, flamboyant entertainer in her 50s who worries about her weight and the march of time. The writers on “Bette” have relied on one-liners about tummy tucks, facelifts and boob jobs.

“Maybe in the beginning our show was too big, too ambitious, too broad and too hard to do,” she said. Midler has cut back on the singing and dancing. She’s less the Devine Miss M, less the trash with flash, the sleaze with ease. CBS has made her a TV mom with a 13-year-old daughter. There’s also a manager and an accompanist to support Midler.

The actor who played her husband was written out of the show. He wanted to leave, said Midler, to work elsewhere.

“We haven’t found a replacement.”

She’s thinking about having a different actor in every week to play her husband. CBS said forget about it.

“I appreciate Bette wanting a different husband every week. I’d like a different husband every week. But we’re trying to make the series as real as we can. We’re looking for a new husband. Only one,” said CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem.

Midler, in her infancy as a TV star, is both fascinated and appalled by CBS, the nit-picker. Somebody at the network has something to say about everything that happens on “Bette.”

“They take this very, very seriously. Don’t they know that it’s just pictures in the air? That it’s ethereal?”

Midler by now should realize that a TV show is a mini-industry in which 200 to 250 people find work. That it’s a network property in which millions have been invested with the aims of making millions more should it be successful. That many careers are made or broken by a single 22-minute TV comedy.

Making people laugh is a very serious business in Southern California. Geena Davis, another movie star attempting to become a TV star, also has a sitcom that’s gasping for air. ABC will replace her show on March 27 with a comedy starring Joan Cusack, an Academy Award nominee as is Midler.

Davis has won the statuette. The TV audience has shown that it’s not impressed by Oscar.

Midler said she expected “Bette” to soar from the opening episode. It did just the opposite.

“We were on the air for six weeks before anybody noticed. Nobody said boo about us. It was as if I died.”

She’s slowly learning the ways of TV, said Midler who in the 1970s played Chrysler Hall in Norfolk with Barry Manilow accompanying her on piano. What did she learn first about TV? “That I’m inept in the business.”

Midler, like other movie stars who come to weekly television, soon discovered that she was working in a salt mine.

“The pace is absolutely brutal. I had no idea it would be so hard. I’m worn out. The show has taken over my life. I reached a point last year where I couldn’t go on. But don’t worry about me. I’m such a whiner. I’ll be fine.”

Her home is on the East Coast, She tapes “Bette” here in Southern California, commutes cross-country. Call her bi-coastal Bette.

“I don’t like to travel. Maybe next year we can do the show in New York.”

If there is a next year.

Midler is thinking about pumping up the ratings of “Bette” during the February sweeps. “Wouldn’t it be great if we brought Mother Teresa back from the dead, had the Pope sing a duet with Britney Spears, and broke up the marriage of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw on my show?”

Or maybe the producers will just ask Danny DeVito to do another guest shot.

Share A little Divinity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights