Steve Harvey insists he didn’t freak out last fall when he learned that his new WB Network series, “Steve Harvey’s Big Time,” had been scheduled for Thursdays opposite two of TV’s biggest hits.
“You know, 8 p.m. on Thursday is a [tough] time slot, unless you’re ‘Friends’ or ‘Survivor,’ ” Harvey concedes, “but like I said in [the first press conferences promoting the series], if you’re able just to survive in that kind of setting, you get something as a reward.”
He got that “something” in May, when the WB announced that “Big Time” had been renewed for the 2004-05 season, moved to a more congenial Sunday time period and expanded to an hour.
“I’m really excited about it, man,” Harvey says.
“My stuff is always kind of just under the radar screen anyway. A lot of people don’t really know what to make of what it is that I do. I’ve managed to stay on TV and keep my career going, and it’s interesting to see what new things are happening.”
He catches himself almost immediately, reflecting on how the current television schedule is peppered with variations on antique formats such as game shows.
“I mean, maybe ‘new’ isn’t the best word, because as Bill Cosby said to me one time, there’s really nothing new you can do on TV,” he says. “But they’re taking new chances and trying new things with old forms. Like Drew Carey has a sketch comedy show, but he’s adding animation to it.
“Everybody thinks [in terms of] ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and that’s kind of what we’re doing with ‘Steve Harvey’s Big Time.’ ”
If Harvey has heard the conventional wisdom that TV variety shows are dead, he clearly pays no mind -- and WB executives think he may just be the very person to pump new life into “the V-word.”
“Steve always has wanted to do ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and he actually is exactly the right kind of host for that,” says Keith Cox, the WB’s senior vice president of alternative programming. “So much of the success of a [variety show] hinges on who is hosting it. On Steve’s radio show he talks to everyday people, but he also has performers and celebrity friends come on the show. We want that same kind of blend on TV.”
Even while occupying last season’s killer time period, “Big Time” occasionally managed to pull some respectable ratings with its quirky format that found Harvey introducing everyday Americans who either had some jaw-dropping ability (such as the 4-year-old current-events expert) or a propensity for the truly nutty, like the 32-year-old builder from Louisville, Ky., who smashed brick walls by running into them at a full sprint.
“The guy running into the brick wall just put me out,” Harvey says. “I mean, that bit just went somewhere else. That was just it for me, and I love that one the most, no question.”
Originally envisioned as an hourlong program, “Big Time” was cut to a half-hour by nervous WB programmers who weren’t sure if the freewheeling format could sustain a full hour.
That was a mistake, Cox acknowledges, and he knows how he wants to fill the extra time next fall: more Steve.
“If the show lacked anything last season, it was that it was only half an hour, so Steve’s personality and his point of view got muted,” Cox explains. “We knew there was something there, but the main thing certainly was that we were aware that we had a star and we didn’t want that star to go away.”
“That star” is delighted to be entrusted with another half-hour of prime-time WB real estate, and he already has ideas for his “people next door” segments.
“I’ll probably come out and do a three- to five-minute monologue, something I believe I might be qualified to do,” he says dryly. “We’ll have other comedians on as well from time to time, and every week the hottest pop act for that week, like Britney Spears or Beyonce.
“We’re also gonna have some more of what we’re doing, these crazy things, plus some celebrity guests. We did that with Stevie Wonder and it was a big success, so I thought, well, why not have some more of my friends come hang out with me?”
Getting ready for the fall relaunch, due in late September, WB has already moved “Big Time” to its new spot, running back-to-back reruns of last year’s shows at 7 and 7:30 Sundays.
Of course, the cherry on this sundae is that “Big Time” has moved to a night that Sullivan owned on CBS for many years. That’s not too shabby a model to use for his own series, Harvey acknowledges.
“We make a conscious effort to make ‘Steve Harvey’s Big Time’ good family entertainment,” he says firmly. (Parents should note the network has given the show a TVPG rating, indicating the show may be unsuitable for young children.) “I like watching TV with my kids. It’s hard to find something that won’t bore me or be over [their] heads. My job is to make people laugh, and that’s what our show does and will continue to do, with great entertainment [and] no [profanity]....
“In some reality TV, a man picks one woman over another, so you see the real pain of the woman who wasn’t selected.... I don’t want to see that, certainly not all the time, and I don’t want to see a guy eating a bug every week.
“Are you stupid enough to let yourself be covered with a thousand scorpions? Fine, but don’t expect me to care. We’re not putting people on to shock them or the viewers at home; we’re there partly to give a chance to people who deserve to have a shot at ‘the big time.’ ”
John Crook reports for Tribune Media Services.