On a sound stage at Hollywood's Metromedia Square, where "Three's Company" and "All in the Family" once videotaped, cameras were trained on 10-year-old Tiffany Brissette.
The young actress spoke in a monotone befitting her role as a lifelike, little-girl robot. Off-camera, executive producer Howard Leeds, formerly with "Diff'rent Strokes," made some notes.
It looked much like the set of any one of a number of network sitcoms now in production for the fall season.
But "Small Wonder" is different. The show is completely bypassing ABC, CBS and NBC for its development, production, distribution and renewal. Instead, a consortium of station groups headed by Metromedia Television is backing and broadcasting the show.
"Small Wonder" is being born directly into the syndication world dominated by old episodes of "MASH," "Leave It to Beaver," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bonanza" and dozens of other series that had begun life on the networks.
Faced with a dwindling supply of fresh "off-network" shows, as these former network series are called, syndicators are increasingly looking to first-run production as a reasonably priced alternative.
"First-run," said Joseph Zaleski, president of domestic syndication for Viacom Enterprises, "is the future of our business."
The trend toward original programming for the syndication market has been developing over the past few years, but largely in the area of game shows ("The $100,000 Name That Tune") and magazine programs ("Entertainment Tonight," "PM Magazine"). Now, however, it is expanding to include the more expensive forms of comedy and drama. Some varied examples:
--"It's a Living," starring Ann Jillian, soon will join "Too Close for Comfort" and "Fame" on the list of shows that found life after network cancellation.
Although it lasted only a year on ABC before being canceled in 1981, "It's a Living" did well when its original 22 episodes were syndicated last summer by Golden West Television. As a result, original producer Witt-Thomas now is creating new episodes to be distributed by Golden West and financed by guarantees from LBS Inc., a New York firm that sells the commercial time on the shows.
Columbia Pictures Television intends to follow suit with "What's Happening Now!! " all-new episodes of former ABC series "What's Happening!!," which ran from 1976 to 1979.
--Paramount Television, producer of "Cheers" and "Family Ties," has guaranteed that at least 94 episodes of each show will be available for syndication even if NBC cancels either one prematurely. Though the shows already have been renewed for a respective fourth and fifth year (with about 22 new episodes each year), Paramount is prepared to finance new episodes with a surcharge for syndication broadcasters.
Broadcasters seem only too happy to pay it. The more episodes that are available, the longer the show can be "stripped"--broadcast every weekday at the same time--a requisite for building an audience following that translates to high revenue.
--"Brothers," a homosexual-themed sitcom that airs on Showtime, recently received the largest renewal order ever--for 50 new episodes. Thus, this non-network show--which emanates from Paramount's TV syndication and home-video division--will be ripe for lucrative commercial TV syndication after finishing its run on the pay cable network. It will have the additional advantage of not having been seen by nearly as many viewers as if it were a commercial network show.
Twentieth Century Fox's "Paper Chase," formerly on CBS, also is building its potential syndication value via new episodes airing on Showtime.
--Twentieth Century Fox Telecommunications, Columbia, Lorimar and Paramount, along with station groups owned by the Tribune Broadcasting Co. and Post-Newsweek, are getting into first-run magazine-format shows in a big way. At least two new 60-minute shows and three half-hours will be on the air by the fall. The most ambitious project is Paramount's $20-million "America," a satellite-fed, five-day-a-week show being targeted as a news lead-in, primarily on network affiliates (including KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles).
Producer Donald L. Taffner, who successfully switched "Too Close for Comfort" to first-run syndication after ABC canceled it in 1983, believes that the distinction between network and non-network fare is disappearing. "The public doesn't even know 'Too Close' is off the network," he said.
"It's no longer a choice between A, B and C," added Anthony Cassara, president of Golden West Television. Cassara and others foresee a not-too-distant future when independents build entire evenings of syndicated first-run shows opposite the networks' prime-time fare. "The public is the benefactor," he said.
The situation did not, however, arise out of concern for viewers.