CBS Follows the Scent of Missing Pearls

THE WASHINGTON POST

Elizabeth Taylor did not check in for liposuction treatments on the CBS hospital drama "Chicago Hope," but it wouldn't have been much of a surprise if she did. Taylor figured in all four of the CBS sitcoms that aired between 8 and 10 p.m. Monday, in a much ballyhooed stunt designed both to boost the shows' ratings and pitch Taylor's latest perfume.

First she showed up on "The Nanny," where according to the script she lost a $300,000 string of black pearls. Then she turned up on "Can't Hurry Love" looking for her black pearls. On "Murphy Brown," there was a tiny reference to her missing black pearls. Then, finally, on "High Society," the black pearls were found, although this time only Taylor's voice made an appearance.

Black Pearls is, it happens, the name of the new perfume. Or, as a discreet on-screen credit after "Murphy Brown" noted, " 'Black Pearls' is the trade name of a fragrance owned, in part, by Elizabeth Taylor."

The disclaimers after "The Nanny" and "Can't Hurry Love" were a trifle more elaborate: "Consideration has been provided by Elizabeth Taylor for reference to the fragrance 'Black Pearls,' which is owned, in part, by Ms. Taylor." After "High Society" the disclaimer said, " 'Black Pearls' and 'White Diamonds' are trademarks of fragrances owned, in part, by Elizabeth Taylor."

Who paid whom? Or did CBS and Elizabeth Taylor pay each other? The financial arrangements are no doubt complex. CBS and Taylor both stood to gain, but viewers stood to lose. They would have been right to resent the fact that advertising was being disguised as entertainment, that in addition to all the commercials that interrupted the shows, additional commercials had been tucked into the scripts.

"Murphy Brown," always the least inane of the four mediocre sitcoms, handled the awkward situation in the most efficient way. It got Taylor in and out at the very top of the show. She sauntered into the "FYI" newsroom just seconds past the hour and by three minutes past the hour, she was outta there.

On "Nanny," Taylor wore a figure-concealing cape kind of a thing. On "Love," she wore a billowy, hip-hiding caftan kind of a thing. On "Murphy Brown," she wore a girth-obscuring black suit kind of a thing.

Taylor didn't appear until 23 minutes into "Can't Hurry Love" and she was gone 26 minutes into "Can't Hurry Love." She offered one of the characters a sample of what she called "my fabulous new perfume." On "The Nanny," she had said she was off to a photo shoot "to promote my new fragrance Black Pearls." After her faked bit on "High Society" (just her voice and a hand that was supposed to be hers retrieving the pearls), one of the stars of the show marveled, "Something really smells good."

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CBS used to call itself the Tiffany Network, but then a few years ago it started staging annual tie-in ads with Kmart. Liz Night was strictly a Kmart night. CBS appears to have become almost entirely a Kmart network. And saying that may be insulting to Kmart.

In addition, the gambit was part of a relatively new trend toward "seamlessness" on prime-time network schedules. NBC started it by blending one show into another and compounded it with heavy inter-show cross-plugging; stars from "ER" turned up on "Friends" and so on. This, too, is a way of polluting entertainment portions of a program with promos for other shows and for the network itself as a brand name.

If only those big brains running the networks would spend half as much time trying to improve programming as they do dreaming up irritating new promotional tricks designed in part to deceive viewers.

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