In a move that will bring one of TV's most successful and innovative producers back to the medium, Columbia Pictures Television announced Wednesday that it has formed a joint venture with Norman Lear.
Lear was dubbed the "sitcom king" in the 1970s, when his companies turned out a string of often provocative and socially conscious hit shows, including "All in the Family," "Maude," "Sanford and Son" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
"The time just seemed right," Lear said Wednesday of his return to TV. "We're heading into the '90s, which will be a time far different from the '70s and, God knows, the '80s. I think it will be a far more reflective time, when people are thinking about where they're heading and where our culture is heading. What's it all about, Alfie?
"I just wanted to make some what's-it-all-about-Alfie TV shows again."
No financial details were disclosed, but the agreement calls for Columbia to retain all domestic and foreign distribution rights to programming produced by the new venture, Act III Television, which will operate "with total creative and business autonomy," according to the announcement.
"You can call it a deal with multiple zeros in it," Lear said. "We want to do 360 degrees of television--concentrating on situation comedies, but not to the exclusion of (early evening), late-night and children's programming."
In 1978, Lear announced that he was taking an "extended leave" from the grind of TV production and left his creative post at Tandem Productions and T.A.T. Communications to focus on feature films and the business side of entertainment. He's made only two forays into TV since then, the unsuccessful "a.k.a. Pablo" in 1980 and a two-hour special called "I Love Liberty" in 1982. The latter show--which one critic called the "first left-wing patriotic celebration"--was an outgrowth of People for the American Way, an organization that Lear helped found in 1980 to promote freedom of expression.
On the business side, Lear and his T.A.T. partner, Jerrold Perenchio, purchased Avco Embassy Pictures for $25 million in 1981 and merged the two companies to form Embassy Communications. He sold Embassy to Coca-Cola Co. for $485 million in 1985.
About 2 1/2 years ago, Lear launched Act III Communications. It now owns 12 communications-industry trade publications--including Channels magazine and Marketing & Media Decisions--six TV stations in the Southeastern U.S. and about 400 movie theaters in Texas, Washington and Oregon. Last week, Lear announced that he had sold a 20% stake in Act III Communications to Tractebel, a Belgian firm.
Act III also produced two successful movies, "Stand by Me" and "The Princess Bride," which were directed by "All in the Family" alumnus Rob Reiner and distributed by Columbia Pictures. Act III recently completed production of a new Burt Reynolds movie called "Breaking In."
"The last piece of the puzzle was TV production; we always planned to come back," Lear said.