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'Flash' Suits Up for a Sizzling TV Ratings Race

September 19, 1990|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo love "The Simpsons."

"I think 'The Simpsons' is the best thing on TV," said Bilson.

But Bilson and De Meo probably won't be seeing a lot of Bart and clan this season. The two are the executive producers of CBS' lavish new action series, "The Flash," which has the unenviable task of competing not only against the hot Fox cartoon series on Thursdays at 8 p.m. but also NBC's ratings powerhouse, "The Cosby Show."

"We have no control over (scheduling)," said Harvey Shephard, president of Warner Bros. TV, the studio behind "The Flash." "We are clearly not thrilled."

CBS had an understandable strategy in mind when it announced the show's scheduling last spring. Based on a DC comic book character who is the fastest man alive, "The Flash" was intended to challenge "The Cosby Show" for young viewers.

"The day after we announced," Bilson said, "Fox announced 'The Simpsons' (would be moving from Sundays to Thursdays). Nobody knew they were going to do that."

"It was a total ambush," De Meo said.

"They weren't ambushing us; they were doing the same thing we are--ambushing 'Cosby,' " Bilson said. "The last thing we want to do is to be up against 'The Simpsons.' It's our audience."

To combat their predicament, CBS and Warner Bros. have been aggressively marketing "The Flash" in advance of its two-hour premiere Thursday at 8 p.m.

"It's a tough time period, and every effort has to be made," said Doug Duitsman, vice president in charge of promotion, advertising and publicity for Warner Bros. television.

A few weeks ago, Warner flew banners over beaches on both coasts. The studio also unveiled the pilot last Saturday with a big bash at its Burbank lot.

CBS started its promotion in July during baseball's All-Star game, said George Schweitzer, senior vice president of communications at the CBS Broadcast Group. "It's not being sold as a comic book. It's being sold like 'Batman'--dark and mysterious and exciting. The promos have a theatrical quality."

CBS also launched ad campaigns on radio and cable TV, Schweitzer said. "We bought commercials during the wrestling matches on USA Cable and during the old 'Batman' shows on the Family Channel."

But the hype doesn't stop there. The current Flash comic books feature ads for the series, and "Flash" posters are being displayed in malls and in 2,300 K-marts across the country. Four-minute promos of the series have aired at all Six Flags amusement parks.

"The Flash" had its genesis as a TV series two years ago, when Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics, tried to develop TV movies based on some of the characters for CBS. Bilson and De Meo conceived one that featured several superheroes, including the Flash, who had first been introduced to readers 50 years ago. None of the projects was made, but when Jeff Sagansky became CBS Entertainment president last January, he expressed interest in creating a series featuring the Flash.

"It had been so long since there had been a great superhero," Sagansky said. "I was a regular reader of the Flash and all the DC comics."

In the pilot airing Thursday, the life of a police forensic scientist (former soap star John Wesley Shipp) is transformed one night when his lab is struck by lightning. The resulting chemical spill causes him to become faster than a speeding bullet; he uses his new-found power to fight criminals under the guise of the Flash.

Bilson and De Meo wrote the pilot in January and began filming in May. It was finished only late last week. "There are 125 special effects," Bilson said. "It's done on a grand scale. Even the score is done on a grand scale."

And so is the budget. "The Flash" is quite literally the Six Million Dollar Man. The pilot cost $6 million, and it's been reported that each one-hour episode will cost about $1.6 million. The superhero's suit alone cost approximately $100,000.

"The suit itself is a makeup effect," De Meo said. "John had to have his entire body cast. The suit is made out of latex. It was quite a process getting it."

"The suit was critical," Bilson added. "You can't, after 'Batman,' have a guy running around in tights."

Both agree that audiences probably have a misguided notion of what the Flash is really all about. "We are fighting against preconceptions of other superhero shows that have been on TV in the past," De Meo said. "The simplest analogy is that it's close to 'Batman' the movie, not 'Batman' the (TV) show. We never get silly."

CBS is giving "The Flash" ample chance to succeed.

"It's a very tough time period," Sagansky said. If viewers miss the premiere on Thursday, they can catch a repeat Sept. 28 at 11:30 p.m. And, as a test, the second episode will air next Thursday at 8:30 p.m., opposite less formidable competition: Fox's new series "Babes," NBC's "A Different World" and the second half hour of ABC's "The Father Dowling Mysteries."

"They (CBS) are not going to waste this show," Bilson said. "Look at what else they have on. Not only does this cost a lot of money, it has the potential of being the first action-adventure show to work at 8 p.m. since 'The A-Team.' The bottom line around here is that when 'The Simpsons' was announced, everybody said, 'Just make a good show. If it's a good show, it will stay on the air.' "

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