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Sponsors Feel Squeeze Of 'Equalizer's' 'vice'

October 16, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Will the real "Miami Vice" clone please stand up?

At the start of the TV season, critics pointed at two new ABC shows, "The Insiders" and "Hollywood Beat," each of which featured a pair of attractive young male do-gooders a la NBC's "Miami Vice."

But neither of those new shows has the raw, sometimes shocking underworld grit that "Vice" now shares with CBS' "The Equalizer," seen Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Proof of that came last week, when several advertisers pulled their sponsorship of the episode titled "The Lock Box," which starred Adam Ant as a purveyor of bizarre and forbidden sex.

Though a CBS spokesman called it an isolated incident, "The Equalizer's" producers readily acknowledge that the show has become increasingly "Vice"-like in an "intense" and "minimalist" sort of way.

"The torch has been passed," supervising producer Joel Surnow, a former "Miami Vice" writer, kidded from his Universal Studios office when asked about "The Equalizer's" new look.

On the surface, the differences are striking. "The Equalizer" prefers the slime-infested shadows of New York to the bright pastels of Miami. It has as its lone lead 55-year-old British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, the former secret agent now using his skills to help the downtrodden.

But common to both series, Surnow said, is "the sense of a motor driving a show, the sense of a smoldering. You're writing this to a very visual style, a television style. Our vision is intensity. It's minimalist. It's film."

There's an underlying cynicism as well. At the end of last week's episode, for example, Ant, tracked down by the Equalizer after abducting a young woman and forcing her into service at his exclusive brothel, is set free. The U.S. government, it seems, finds useful the information he provides regarding foreign officials' proclivities.

It was reminiscent of a "Vice" episode last year in which Bruce Willis, guest-starring as a wife-beating arms dealer, eludes justice for the same reason. Both shows were written or co-written by Maurice Hurley, another "Vice" alumnus now on the "Equalizer" staff.

"While the show doesn't have the most reality-based concept, we are trying to do it realistically," executive producer James McAdams said. He characterized "The Lock Box" as exemplary of the episodes with the "strongest material" that are being aired now to attract viewers. "We were willing to take risks in getting them on the air," McAdams said.

Those risks were sanctioned by CBS. "This was an episode we moved up because we felt it was a very strong episode," said Harvey Shephard, senior vice president for programming. "I'm not talking about the subject matter . . . the vice element was secondary."

That element might not even have been a problem, Shephard said, if a print of the show had been available earlier. The screening services that report to ad agencies on the content of shows did not view "The Lock Box" until 1 p.m. on the day it was to air.

CBS Broadcast Group spokesman George Schweitzer, based in New York, elaborated: "Obviously, they wrote up the part about the women being held hostage, and some advertisers, because there was not time to have a back-and-forth discussion, reacted quickly and on the safe side and asked if their ads could go in another show."

Other advertisers were quickly substituted. "There's not a shortage of people who want to advertise on television," Schweitzer said.

CBS would not release the names of sponsors who pulled out. But New York media buyer Paul Schulman, asked for the ad agency point of view, said that it is not uncommon for a sponsor to withdraw from a particular show or episode. He noted that a series' relative success also determines the extent to which an advertiser fears viewer criticism. "Violence and sex" become "action and love" when they're part of a hit show, Schulman remarked.

It's too soon to tell, but "The Equalizer," like "Miami Vice," could be en route to just such status. It beat NBC's "St. Elsewhere" by a sliver in their only head-to-head competition, at the season's start; last week, opposite the National League playoffs on NBC and "Hotel," one of ABC's few bona fide hits, it pulled a respectable 25 share. More significantly, "Equalizer" was up several points from its lead-in, "George Burns' Comedy Week," while "Hotel" was down by a similar amount from "Dynasty." So at 10 p.m., some viewers are turning the dial from ABC to CBS.

The sex theme does not resurface in the next batch of scripts, McAdams said, but the show will definitely stay on the same track of grit and realism. CBS' Shephard confirmed that, "in terms of the energy, the music, the editing," the show is going precisely in the direction he has in mind.

Why the striking difference in the series since its pilot?

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