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Ellen DeGeneres wasn't the only TV gamble that paid off

It's usually a messy and public embarrassment when a TV gamble doesn't work out. Witness the slow-motion implosion of NBC's prime-time and late-night programs thanks to one bad gamble: that Jay Leno could succeed at 10 p.m. But the weeks of media brooding over Leno's failure may have obscured the many times such rolls of the dice did work out this year. In fact, smart television executives will tell you that taking intelligent, creative risks should be part of the job. The best television often results from putting on something either no one thought would work or everyone had good reason to believe shouldn't work (excepting Leno, which everyone but NBC knew couldn't work). So here are some TV gambles that are working out well so far this season, with a little detail on why. Just in case Leno or NBC wants to take some notes (okay, that's my last Leno joke. For this section of the Feed, at least).

, Ellen judges 'American Idol'

Yeah, she's America's Unlikeliest Sweetheart. But based on her jokey, lighthearted appearance judging Fox's So You Think You Can Dance last year, Ellen DeGeneres offered little warning of just how good she would be in taking Paula Abdul's spot on Idol. Focused, smart, perceptive and occasionally funny, she's turned fellow judge Kara DioGuardi into the sensitive one and even given top dog Simon Cowell a pause.

Giving Ray Romano another TV series

The number of television stars who have starred in two creative and commercial hits in one career is as short as Gary Coleman's temper. But Romano managed something even Jerry Seinfeld and Kelsey Grammer couldn't — following up his biggest success with the funny, painfully honest meditation on middle-aged manhood, Men of a Certain Age. The show's too-short first season ends Monday on TNT, with Romano's character facing the impact of his gambling addiction. Turns out, there's a reason he got all those Emmy nominations for that other show.

ABC's stealth anchor switch

In moving Diane Sawyer to its evening newscast and plopping Sunday host George Stephanopoulos into her spot on Good Morning America, ABC violated about a dozen rules of television — from destabilizing three news shows at once to downplaying the transition by doing almost no press interviews and tweaking the shows incrementally. The reward was little change in viewership and avoiding mistakes made by CBS rival Katie Couric.

Buying the Winter Olympics at a loss

Going into the Winter Games in Vancouver, lots of snarky columnists brayed about fourth-place NBC, predicting it would lose more than $200 million on a deal they cut 10 years ago. But the Games' ratings success has silenced them, handing American Idol its first ratings loss in six years on Wednesday and bringing ratings spikes not seen since the 1994 Winter Games. The eyeballs are crucial for a network reinventing its 10 p.m. time slot in a week. And let's be honest: How else are you going to get 97 million people to watch commercials for a Parenthood remake?

Leno's new bandleader?

Even as NBC struggles to rehabilitate Jay Leno's image, it was hit with a new challenge: Sidekick/suckup/bandleader Kevin Eubanks will reduce his role on the show, eventually requiring the program to hire somebody new. He'll be in his traditional gig when the show returns March 1, and says via Twitter "I'll still be around on the show, but less as of now." But that got me thinking: Who would be a good fit to take his place? Here are a few suggestions:

Prince. He wouldn't even talk to Oprah when he did her show, so don't expect him to trade quips with Leno. But the theme song will be kicking.

John Mayer. What better way to rehab his image than by appearing next to the only guy who may have a worse image in Hollywood?

Lady Gaga. Advantage: You have that elusive gay clubber demographic sewn up. Disadvantage: Wardrobe costs triple your production budget.

Max Weinberg. If Leno's going to take Conan's Tonight Show, maybe he should take his bandleader, too.

Snoop Dogg. Just stock his dressing room with blunts and expect tapings to start at least two hours late.

Branford Marsalis. Getting back the show's original bandleader would be great if NBC decided to try a fresh approach. Like quality.

TiVo

Men of a Certain Age, season finale, 10 p.m. Monday on TNT: As this season finale unwinds, all our stars are at a crossroads. Ray Romano's Joe has let a successful bet revive his gambling addiction, which is hurting his son and business; Scott Bakula's aging actor Terry is seeing knuckleheaded old acting buddies score the career he's never had; and Andre Braugher's Owen left his dad's auto sales business just as a younger rival took over as top manager. How each of these near-fiftysomethings deals with a life that never turned out how they hoped caps an amazingly insightful series about a time of life TV rarely pauses long enough to consider.

Ti-NO

The Family Crews, debuts 9 tonight on BET: Terry Crews was so good playing the tightwad dad on the CW's Everybody Hates Chris, some viewers probably didn't know he started as a journeyman linebacker and defensive end in the NFL. Too bad some of that acting skill didn't transfer to this reality show about his wife and five kids, which builds episodes around predictably contrived stuff such as his sudden decision to stage a second wedding with his wife of 20 years and an inexplicable desire to rent an RV and go camping.

Ellen DeGeneres wasn't the only TV gamble that paid off 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 5:10pm]

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