In past years, TV series producers looked for good writers. This season, said a rueful Joel Shukovsky, one of the executive producers of CBS' new comedy series "Murphy Brown," which debuts Nov. 14, they're scrambling to find "good writers who can write fast !"
Last year around this time, the television networks began unveiling the first round of new TV episodes for the fall season. This year, in the wake of the 154-day strike by the Writers Guild of America, many new shows are just entering their first week of production.
Even though the networks have delayed the debut dates of most fall series--and have scrapped the idea of a premiere week for new shows in favor of rolling out programs one by one throughout the fall--many television producers are still short on time, scripts and, in some cases, money as they rush to meet their deadlines.
Some producers of returning shows report that this year's production schedule is almost on par with last year's, since their staff writers were already in place and familiar with the show when the strike ended. Others, particularly on new shows, did not hire writers until after the strike--and may not go before the cameras for weeks or months.
Most series producers say they plan to do a full 22 episodes this season (except new series, which traditionally get an order of 13 until they are picked up for the entire season) and say the networks have not asked them to cut back on the number despite the abbreviated season. And producers hope the networks do not change their minds on that--they need all 22 episodes in order to sell the 1988-89 season's shows into syndication.
"The shows I think that are going to be affected the least are returning, three-camera comedies," said Andy Borowitz, executive producer of NBC's returning, three-camera comedy "Day by Day," which premieres Oct. 30. "Anything that's new, anything that's shot on film (as opposed to tape), anything that's an hour show is likely to have problems."
"I'll tell you what it's like," said Bruce Paltrow, executive producer of NBC's new hour drama, "Tattinger's," which began filming its first episode last Tuesday at 7 a.m. in New York. "You're in college, you've had a great semester, but you cut too many classes, you went on a vacation and now you're faced with two papers and a final. That's where we are."
Paltrow, formerly an executive producer of NBC's "St. Elsewhere," said what the creative team faces on this new show following strike delays is "like night and day" compared to the luxury of the last season of "St. Elsewhere."
"By the time we cranked up for 'St. Elsewhere,' we always had a few scripts that were complete," Paltrow said. "My second episode of 'Tattinger's' (just started prepping), and my director is saying, 'But I haven't read a word yet!' I have in my hand a script right off the Xerox. I hope we can hone it in time."
"Murphy Brown's" Shukovsky said that, although production will begin on schedule, the staff will have to scrunch a usual five months of preproduction down to three weeks. "It's going to be murder," he said. "Our decision is that quality will not suffer--our private lives will suffer; we will have none." Shukovsky and others noted that even if scripts are ready in time, they will be forced to air episodes in the order in which they are shot, rather than having enough episodes available to shuffle around to counterprogram the other networks.
"The truth is, the 'Full House' episode we taped Friday is finished, but we only have a rough draft of next week's show," said Tom Miller, co-executive producer of the ABC comedies "Full House" and "Perfect Strangers" and NBC's "The Hogan Family," all of which are already in production and scheduled to debut in October.
Miller's problems were complicated by the fact that the Oct. 14 premiere for "The Hogan Family" got pushed up to Oct. 3 by NBC to allow the network to premiere the show on the same night as the premiere of "ALF," which went into production early under an independent contract. NBC wanted to promote both of the Monday night shows as a "comedy block" during the Olympics, which end Oct. 2.
Elliot Schoenman, an executive producer of the new as-yet-untitled Mary Tyler Moore comedy for CBS, which debuts Oct. 26, also will have to work in sequence, shooting each week's script as it is finished. Producers had also hoped to show several episodes to critics in advance of the premiere to give them a better overall picture of the show; instead, only the pilot episode is available in advance. "I hope people give us a chance, that they really look at the totality of what we're doing," Schoenman said.