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TV networks vs. channel surfers

How can networks promote new shows when viewers keep a trigger finger on their remotes and bolt the instant a commercial appears?

For some time, program credits have been squeezed aside to make room for promos. Now more innovative methods are being tried. At the end of a recent episode of ABC's "Spin City," star Michael J. Fox was seen peering into a TV set. The show he was watching turned out to be "Sports Night," which follows "Spin City." The action moved directly into "Sports Night" without a break - or a chance to lose viewers.

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During lulls in the football action on NFL games on Fox last fall, cartoon characters from "The Simpsons" and "The PJs" appeared on the screen to advertise their shows. But last week, ABC seemed to cross another threshold. While the actors on "Dharma and Greg" and "The Drew Carey Show" were trying their best to prod laughs from their audiences, ABC put a crawling message (a "storm alert") across the bottom of the screen promoting the miniseries "Storm of the Century." According to AP, producers of the two shows were furious with the network. But ABC said it had received few viewer complaints.

Which means we probably haven't seen the last of these kinds of desperate stunts.

I loved "Rushmore," a quirky, low-budget, coming-of-age movie you may find at your cineplex because a major studio is putting a pretty big promotional effort behind it. Our movie critic, David Sterritt, agreed. But I just couldn't get excited about "The Truman Show," which I finally caught on video. Yet David (and many other critics) put it on his Top 10 list.

So what good are critics, if we don't always agree with them?

Here's how it works for me: Over a period of time, reading a good reviewer gives me a fixed reference point from which to judge movies. I then figure out what my own reaction to the picture probably will be from knowing the critic's likes and dislikes.

Some publications have two reviewers, allowing readers to choose the one whose tastes are closer to their own. We offer a second opinion through our "staff panel" rating. (And believe me, we have some serious moviegoers on the Monitor staff!)

All that the panelists get out of their job is a free ticket. They're becoming a pretty savvy group, and sometimes even that's not enough to get them to sign up. On a couple of occasions the Arts & Leisure staff has had to declare "Bad Movie Friday" and spend the late afternoon sitting through the worst of the worst in order to give you a panel rating.

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Believe me, that's dedication.

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