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April 17, 1988|Tom Shales | The Washington Post

A respected Hollywood producer working on a new TV series for the fall is miffed. Preparations for the show were going well and then network executives threw him a curve. They insisted that a certain actor be cast in one of the lead roles.

The producer (who insists on anonymity) has a choice: He can follow their instructions or he can forget about doing the show.

Deciding who should play what is just one of the ways networks can wreck a show. They don't intend to wreck shows, of course, and producers say network ideas can sometimes work to a show's benefit. But often, to producers, the orders from executive suites seem capricious and harmful.

Such choices are usually made well before a pilot film is shot. Producers pitch an idea to a network and network executives say, "We'll buy it if. . . ." Then all kinds of changes may be suggested. "It's the ifs," says one producer, "that can kill you."

Network brass may insist an actor or actress be featured in the cast even if the same performer has already starred in flop upon flop. The producer usually must accept what the network says or see the deal go up in smoke.

Many, many other changes besides casting can be ordered by a network. It can change the content and format of a show. A producer may arrive with a great story about a college professor and his wife and find before negotiations are over that it's a show about a small-town sheriff and a shaggy dog.

The meddling problems afflict specials and TV movies as well. Jack Paar did a very entertaining and successful special for NBC two years ago in which he sat around reminiscing about his heyday as America's greatest talk-show host and showed delightful clips from his old programs. NBC decided it wanted a second special, but it wanted Paar to do new live interviews, even though he didn't want to do them.

So Debbie Reynolds and Jackie Mason were hauled in and Paar had to make chitchat. Result: a less entertaining and less successful show. Also, an angry star, because Paar didn't like the interference.

Series producers may be told to use writers and directors they don't want because network nabobs think they're keen. What can happen after all this tinkering is that a producer has to make so many changes that he or she is left with a program totally unlike the original idea. And so, with the creative team demoralized, the show turns out lousy and may fail in the ratings.

This is a very strange system.

Networks have every right to make the changes, but it may be getting harder for them to get away with it as much as in the past. With the rise of the syndication market and the growth in cable, producers do have other places to sell their shows. The big three, though--ABC, CBS and NBC--are still the most sought-after showplaces.

One way NBC became known as a quality network is by backing off from producers and writers and letting them have more freedom. Have the other networks followed suit? Not enough, producers feel.

In an era when the economic survival of all three networks is in doubt, network executives may want to think twice before they give orders that could wreck a show. Otherwise they'll find themselves part of the wreckage.

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