Oh, and by the way, it's set in Hollywood


America's insatiable obsession with celebrity has resulted in a glut of Hollywood-related "news" shows that are now growing beyond their syndication perches to CNN and, tomorrow, ESPN.

It has also spawned an increasing number of series based on an insider's look at showbiz, from Larry David forever trying to close a network deal on Curb Your Enthusiasm to Lisa Kudrow trying her best to fit in the modern sitcom world while starring in a fake reality show on The Comeback.

Both are on HBO, which last season presented an inside look at young actors in Hollywood called Unscripted. Next month, it will feature the debut of the newest comedy series from Ricky Gervais, star and co-creator of The Office, about life among Extras in film and TV. And HBO's biggest new hit is also about a young movie star and his posse of pals in Entourage.

That they are all about show business is "completely coincidental," says HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht.

Entourage has become such a hit that it has inspired catch phrases ("let's hug it out") and influenced the direction of at least one network sitcom, the NBC Friends spin-off Joey.

"This year will kick off with Joey finally making it in Hollywood," NBC Entertainment President Kevin O'Reilly announced in July. "We're adding a new actor friend to Joey's posse, and we have a one-hour season opener with some big-name guest stars."

But is there a saturation point for showbiz stories? Will America tire of stories about stars and agents, deals and auditions, pilots and publicists? Could there be life to depict outside the 17.2 square miles of Hollywood?

Built-in glitz

To be sure, TV offers far more TV shows about crime, crime-fighting, investigations and trials. But the showbiz focus offers the promise of built-in glitz, celebrity name-dropping and more natural reasons for any of the prevailing famous names to do guest spots playing themselves.

The tipping point may be coming, however.

Showtime entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt said part of the problem with that network's Fat Actress sitcom with Kirstie Alley was that it was about another actress in Beverly Hills. If the series continues, he said last month, it would be steered toward more "relatable" stories that "don't seem to be gravitating toward some of these shows that are about Hollywood."

"Viewers are fascinated about movie stars and knowing about what they do and where they vacation and whose wife they're sleeping with and what their movies are and all that," Greenblatt said. "I don't know how fascinated they are with a fictional reality of that."

He cites The Larry Sanders Show as one of the few series that succeeded despite being set in Hollywood because it had relatable characters and situations.

"You have to really key into how relatable you make it," Greenblatt says. "And some of these stars lend themselves to that better than others."

HBO's Albrecht says his ar- senal of showbiz comedies weren't really about showbiz at all.

"From our point of view, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show that's about this Scrooge-like character, Larry David, who happens to be a guy that's still in show business," Albrecht said. Actually, he's "like the great tradition of television, be it Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet; it's sort of not important what this man does."

Likewise, he said, Entourage is a show "that really deals with the issue of fame and friendship and, to a certain extent, the fact that youth might be indeed be wasted on the young."

Unscripted was "about people pursing those dreams and those dreams coming up against reality," Albrecht said, while The Comeback is "a great comic romp" that "has fun with a lot of the forums and some of the genres that exist on television."

Completely coincidental

What's similar about all the shows, he said, is not that they're set in Los Angeles, but that they "shed some light on the human condition," Albrecht said. "The show business part of it is one that, I assure you, is completely coincidental."

Gervais emphasized that his new HBO show, Extras, starting in September, isn't really about show business, either.

"It really is just a backdrop, rather like The Office wasn't about selling paper. It was about the interaction between the characters," he says. "It's not really a huge satire on the TV and film industry as such."

That said, his co-creator Stephen Merchant says "the obsession with celebrity and the obsession with fame and all of that is something which has just taken over the world. And everyone has an angle on it."

That's the reason there are so many showbiz news shows.

"There's way too much," says Ron Silverstein, producer of Access Hollywood, which is marking its 10th year on the air.

"There are so many shows. There are so many magazines," says its host, Billy Bush.

After CNN Headline News began its own nightly entertainment report, Showbiz Tonight, to compete with successful syndicated shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Extra and The Insider, what could there possibly left to report on ESPN Hollywood?

The new show, starting tomorrow at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 and based in Los Angeles instead of Bristol, Conn., will concentrate on "the ways in which the sports world and the world of entertainment intersect," according to a press release.

That means Hollywood stars who show up at sports event as well as sports stars who walk the red carpet.

"Our show covers what athletes are doing off the field, the fun stuff," says producer Andy Meyers.

Part of the reason is to draw a female demographic to add to its large male viewership of Sports Center.

Says co-host Thea Andrews, "people who like entertainment and who have never been interested maybe in sports celebrities before will take an interest in this show because they're attracted to the format. And then they'll find interest in these stars that maybe they've never even taken an interest [in] before. And who knows, it might even lead them to the game."

As with the intense interest in the private lives of celebrities, fans are interested in the lives of athletes.

"Everybody wants to know," says Meyers, "what are they doing when they're not playing baseball or playing football, you know? It's interesting. It's the People magazine. It's all the information you can't see when you're watching the game."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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