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The Spy Who Came In From the Warm
November 14, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
 

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[In which our TVWW correspondent, recounting a long-untold story from the days when he'd left the TV critic beat and become a publicist for Walt Disney World, finally reveals details of the time he was recruited as a "spy" to gather information about a new competitor to the equally new Regis Philbin syndicated TV talk show.

To mark the final week of Regis Philbin's reign on Live! With Regis and Kelly (9 a.m. ET and elsewhere in syndication, or check local listings), now the story can be told. And is... - DB]

By Tom Brinkmoeller

As morality plays go, this one isn't particularly moral, nor does it contain a whole lot of drama. But with the departure of Regis Philbin this week from his daily talk show, it is, at the very least, topical.

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It was the summer of 1988 -- three years since I'd left the TV beat at my old paper and become a publicist for Walt Disney World. What was then called the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park was a year from opening. I was dong a lot of the publicity for the project, and because the sound stages and other production components already were running, we were getting a good amount of attention for what was then being called "Hollywood East." (We didn't coin that phrase. But though it was born outside Disney, we didn't discourage its use, either.)

That summer, it was time for another trip to Los Angeles to interview the Imagineers who were designing the park. Because the Disney World marketing bosses wanted to get as much exposure for their new park in the face of Universal's announced plans to build its own studio theme park up the street, I was told to make the trip to coincide with the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour. My mission: to stay at the same hotel and to show up at the Disney Channel's session with the critics, and take whatever opportunities that opened to shill the new park.

As a very righteous critic three years earlier, I wouldn't have thought much of such tactics to get inside the heads of critics. But wearing mouse ears is similar to being lobotomized, so I handed out press kits and lapel pins to critics who had sat through Disney Channel's session. (I should note here that no one who now writes for TVWW attended the session, as I remember, and therefore should not be thought compromised by accepting a cheap pin.)

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I mistakenly thought my encounter with the critics had ended. But Disney, at the time, was deeply into the launch of the new syndicated talk show co-hosted by Regis Philbin, and was nervous about plans by Gannett (my old newspaper employer) and Grant Tinker (who previously led MTM Productions and NBC, in both cases by stressing high-quality programming) to debut another talk show, based on the USA Today concept.

The fear was that USA Today: The Television Series would eat into, and maybe surpass, the ratings Disney was hoping to get for Philbin's show. And somehow, word got to Disney's Burbank offices that they had a spy on their side.

I was told to attend the other show's press session and get as much information as possible. I was nervous about facing my old colleagues as a interloping flack. I was afraid they might see me in the Tinker-Gannett session and decide I'd lost all integrity. But no one seemed to notice as I walked into the room at the end of the session, picked up a tape of the pilot episode and a press kit, and disappeared.

I had been told to take whatever I gathered to the Disney Burbank studios. Like a dog sent back to headquarters from the war front with a packet of intelligence, I did so. Three or four men (who might have been the prototypes for Neil Patrick Harris' Barney character on CBS's How I Met Your Mother) grabbed the tape, dispatched me to a seat in the corner (at least the courier dog would have been given a bowl of water), and put the tape in the player. Though they never spoke to me, I was allowed to listen.

They were apprehensive at what they might see. But they quickly decided what they were watching wasn't anything to worry about. (I thought the show wasn't bad, but no one there was interested in hearing from a talking dog.) The worry quickly turned to bravado -- a victory party before the game had even begun.

When someone happened to notice I was still there, he told me I could leave. I left the building, and Burbank, for good, and left Disney altogether a little more than a year later.

Had these men been as apprehensive after they had watched the tape as they were beforehand, the talk show Regis leaves this week might, in its infancy, have been forced to undergo some hefty formula changes. Had Disney's TV syndication division not had the services of a spy at its call, the justifiable apprehension about going against the creative partnership of Grant Tinker and the then-mighty Gannett empire might have resulted in a totally different kind of show for Regis.

Regis' Live! show -- then with original co-host Kathie Lee Gifford, now with Kelly Ripa -- settled into what it has become, without fear. If that bothers you, feel free to blame me.

If the formula it has followed for more than two decades thrills you, however, please find someone else to thank.

 
 
 
 
 
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