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'Reality' TV Shows Strip the Vegas Facade

Producers are gambling that goings-on behind the scenes at casinos will draw in viewers.

June 04, 2004|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

HENDERSON, Nev. — Michael Tata, a dark-suited fireplug of a man, could be a visiting senator, judging by the way two TV cameramen and a boom-mike operator are chasing him around the grounds of the Green Valley Ranch, straining to record his every observation.

But Tata is merely the fussbudget director of hotel operations at this 200-room upscale resort-casino a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. In the middle of a daily walking inspection, he is fixated on an ashtray -- a strategically placed ashtray, the first ashtray you see when you leave the lobby and head for the pool -- that contains 10 cigarette butts. Unacceptable.

Never slowing his speedy gait, Tata punches housekeeping on his cellphone. "Who's responsible for this area?" he demands. "They need to check it every hour."

The producer in charge of the TV crew pulls Tata aside for an interview, using the same post-game gravitas sportscasters employ while asking Kobe Bryant about Laker team morale: "Michael, talk to me about why it is so hard for some of the staff to grasp the finer details."

Is this the stuff of successful TV? The Discovery Channel, which has been shooting such mundane moments at Green Valley 18 to 20 hours a day for the last five months, has at least one reason for gambling that it is: The show, "American Casino," is part of a boomlet in Las Vegas-themed programming that is about to make Sin City as ubiquitous a backdrop as New York became with "Seinfeld," "Friends," "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order."

Evidence of Vegas' small-screen popularity is stacking up like tourists at a cheap buffet. Ten days after tonight's "American Casino" premiere, Fox will introduce its own casino-reality show, "The Casino," the newest offering from "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett. It follows two dot-com millionaires who try to glamorize the Golden Nugget in Vegas' fading downtown.

A new cable network devoted exclusively to the culture of gambling is seeking investors for a December launch (and promising liberal public-service ads for gambling addicts). A new CBS fall comedy, "dr. vegas," starring Rob Lowe, was inspired by the life of a Vegas casino doctor (and shot at Green Valley). And three other networks -- ESPN, Bravo and Discovery's Travel Channel -- will continue airing poker tournaments.

All that is piled atop two established network hits: CBS' "CSI," whose forensic cases are set in Las Vegas, and NBC's "Las Vegas," a drama about life inside a Vegas casino (although it's filmed in a Culver City soundstage that replicates the look of the Mandalay Bay resort).

TV is geographically fickle. Remember when Miami was the hot setting? New shows this fall are set not only in Vegas, New York and L.A. but Boston, Hawaii and Kansas. Still, Las Vegas' emergence in TV comes at an interesting time in the city's life. Beyond its spectacular population growth, Vegas has in recent years attracted numerous luxury hotels and restaurants, legitimizing it as a celebrity playground, not just a popular destination for Middle America. The city's marketing campaign to rekindle its "adult" credentials ("What happens here, stays here") has penetrated the nation's psyche. And, to some observers, Vegas' mystique is perfect for TV -- especially in troubled times -- because people flock here for many of the same escapist yearnings that make them turn on the set.

"TV and Las Vegas are a match made in heaven," said Robert Thompson, who runs the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "The two of them were made to go down the aisle of a little chapel with Elvis singing and walk into the desert distance."

How long TV's infatuation with Las Vegas will last is anyone's guess. Likely, many of the new offerings will end up the way most people do after a trip here -- broke and headed home.

Discovery's "American Casino" figures to be outshone by Fox's casino show. It's not just the presence of Burnett, whose track record with "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" makes him one of the most influential people in TV. Fox is seen in three times as many households as Discovery; its show uses far more and better cameras, and Fox has the advantage in lead-in programming.

Yet the Discovery project, which will spend seven months shooting compared with Fox's six weeks, provides an intriguing window on Las Vegas' style of reality. Only in Vegas, for example, would Tata's underling, the Green Valley Ranch's hotel manager, be the former Miss Nevada 1997. Her name is Ninya Perna and her relationship with Tata thrives on giving and receiving barbed comments. Think Catherine Zeta-Jones versus Tony Randall.

In the first episode, Tata threatens to fire Perna if her staff doesn't give high rollers better service. He becomes so upset when she leaves to take care of her dog that he wishes it dead, and says so with a tight smile. When she boasts that a newspaper was delivered to a high roller, Tata sarcastically congratulates the bellman who did it.

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