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Bochco-ization of the Networks?

'88 ARTS Outlook- One in a series exploring the issues that will be making news in the arts in the new year.

December 29, 1987|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEWS FLASH: 1988 presidential hopefuls see political hopes dashed when pollsters predict the job will go to Steven Bochco.

Hopefuls regain hope, however, when Bochco declines to run to accept a more lucrative deal with ABC.

No, Steven Bochco--co-creator and executive producer of the Emmy-winning "L.A. Law," co-creator of "Hooperman" and "Hill Street Blues," is not in the running for President, but within the insular world of network TV, it might seem so. In 1987, Bochco became network television's most powerful candidate. In 1988, he may emerge as TV's chief executive.

In early November, just when exclusive deals between networks and producers had been officially declared dead following the dissolution of ABC's 18-year contract with Aaron Spelling, that same network turned right around and bought Bochco--with an unprecedented, just-under-$10-million, 10-series development deal. And, if Bochco chooses, he can now sell that same deal to any production company in town for even more multimillions of dollars.

Only time will tell whether that deal will pay off for distant-third-place network ABC, or whether the network will someday have 10 concurrent shows featuring Bochco's trademark large ensemble casts, gallows humor and frequent references to unconventional sex. One may be sure, however, that only extremely nice things will be said about him in public during 1988.

(Except perhaps by Terry Louise Fisher. 1987 has been a banner year for stellar TV lawsuits; Fisher, co-creator of "L.A. Law," is suing Bochco for $50 million because shewas recently barred from participating in the show; Valerie Harper is suing Lorimar Television for $75 million following her dismissal from NBC's "Valerie," now titled "Valerie's Family.")

The ABC-Bochco deal is just another in the continuing series of desperate moves in the Big Three's continuing battle for viewers. Although one shouldn't expect radical revisions in the immovable mountain called network television --don't worry, "The Cosby Show" will most likely remain the No. 1 show in America next year, and NBC the No. 1 network--a few budding trends begun in 1987 may blossom in '88.

Both third-rated ABC and second-rated CBS seem to be struggling to adopt the "quality television" policy that has made NBC the current No. 1 network. Although neither is likely to unseat NBC from its comfy top perch in 1988, ABC snagged Bochco and has introduced such critical hits as "Hooperman," "Slap Maxwell" and "thirtysomething"; CBS has declared its intention to stick with innovative but middle-of-the-ratings pack shows such as "Frank's Place," the Vietnam series "Tour of Duty" and "Beauty and the Beast."

The quest for quality also led to a proliferation of new so-called "dramedies" in 1987--laugh trackless comedies including "Hooperman," "Slap Maxwell," "Frank's Place" and NBC's "Days and Nights of Molly Dodd." The trend will most likely bring new dramedies to the air in 1988, even though the current ratings show that not all viewers can decide when to laugh all on their own.

Even though the new network policy seems to be to stick with innovative, critically acclaimed programs, CBS made no promises to stick with its executives--and didn't. After a year of rumbling rumors, B. Donald (Bud) Grant was forced out of his position after heading the entertainment division since November, 1980; he had been with the network since 1972.

And once more, the attempt at blanket "Bochco-ization" of the TV universe became apparent--Grant's job was offered to Bochco, who turned it down to sign the ABC deal. After an uncomfortable delay, Grant was replaced with Kim LeMasters, formerly vice president of programming and the driving force behind most of the new season's shows.

In addition to these ongoing network battles, expect the fight against alternative viewing sources to heat up in 1988 as the big Cable TV Monster, the sightly smaller but equally vicious Videocassette Monster and the small but menacing Fox Broadcasting Co. Monster seek to tempt viewers away from the networks. Although Fox continues to lose money and only has two nights of prime-time programming (Saturday and Sunday), the network programming chiefs continue to take the distant possibility of a competitive fourth network seriously.

Unfortunately for Fox, the company's most publicized event in 1987 was a failure--"The Late Show With Joan Rivers." And its most recent incarnation, "The Wilton North Report," created by "David Letterman" producer Barry Sand, got off to a rocky start.

Expect the cable industry to get even more aggressive in 1988, stressing original programming rather than theatrical films, muscling into network territory. Although the major cable companies say they will stress event programming, stand-up comedy and "reality programming" rather than trying to compete with network series, their varied menu makes them an increasing threat to the networks.

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