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CBS in the 'Family' Way Again : Miller-Boyett Sitcom Gets Another Go in Prime Time

June 10, 1991|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Family Man," a CBS sitcom that few viewers saw during its brief Saturday-night run last fall, and one that nobody has heard much from since, would not seem a likely candidate for revival.

But in an uncommon programming move, CBS will air original episodes of "Family Man" on Mondays and Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., beginning tonight.

Why, with viewers crying out over the cancellation of such acclaimed shows as "thirtysomething," "China Beach" and "Twin Peaks," would CBS bring back a series that was panned by critics as a limp remake of "My Three Sons" and that ranked 113th out of 141 in the prime-time ratings?

Part of the reason has to do with the show's creators, the prolific comedy producers Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett, whose slapstick credentials range from "Happy Days" to "Mork and Mindy" to "Full House." Miller-Boyett Productions will own 90 minutes of ABC's Friday-night lineup this fall with "Family Matters," "Step by Step" and "Perfect Strangers" airing consecutively from 8 to 9:30.

Although CBS picked up the final season of "The Hogan Family" last year from NBC, "Family Man" is the first series Miller-Boyett has developed exclusively for the network, which wants to warm up its schedule with more family programming.

"We've been trying to get Tom and Bob to do a show for CBS for a long time," said CBS programming vice president Peter Tortorici. "We, and they, believe, given some time, that 'Family Man' has a chance at being as strong as their shows on the other networks, particularly the ones on ABC."

Tortorici admitted that on the surface, "The Family Man," which stars Gregory Harrison as a widowed firefighter raising four children with the help of his lovable father-in-law, may not have the earmarks of a groundbreaking sitcom. "This isn't a show critics are going to talk about," he said.

But Tortorici pointed to Miller-Boyett's track record, combined with CBS' belief in the show, as deciding factors in the network's attempt to jolt life into "Family Man" this summer with two episodes per week.

"None of Tom and Bob's shows have been Emmy winners or critics' choices," Tortorici said. "The only people that like them are the audiences. As much as I love the critics, and as much as I love to collect gold statuettes, I'd rather forsake both to have 30 million people a week say, 'I want to see that show again next week.' "

Leslie Moonves, president of Lorimar Television, which produces all of Miller-Boyett's current comedies, said that "Family Man's" original 8 p.m. time slot on Saturdays, when TV usage traditionally is low, never gave viewers a chance to discover the sitcom.

"Historically it's very, very hard to launch a new comedy cold out of an 8 p.m. time period," Moonves said. "With rare exceptions, it just doesn't work. Generally, you prefer to put a new comedy in a protected time slot."

So when CBS pulled "Family Man" in December after three months, the network ordered 13 additional episodes with plans to bring the series back in March. The plan then was to team "Family Man" with "Family Dog," the long-awaited Steven Spielberg animated series, and promote them together as "The Family Hour."

But when "Family Dog" fell behind schedule, a new strategy had to be formulated. Tortorici recalled that for a brief period in 1988, ABC slipped "Full House" into cushy time slots twice a week--behind "Who's the Boss?" on Tuesdays and after "Perfect Strangers" on Fridays.

"In truth, that's when 'Full House' started to grow into the monster it became on ABC," Tortorici said. "Before that it was an 8 p.m. show, just like 'Family Man.' To me, it's proof that this is a method to examine closely. The best scheduling has no ego. You look for programming ideas that work, no matter what source you can find them."

In search of protected time slots on CBS, the network has temporarily rearranged its successful Monday night comedy lineup, where "Family Man" will follow "Major Dad" reruns for five weeks. And on Wednesday, "Family Man" will start out behind half-hour reruns of the hit "Rescue 911."

With so much time to plan, the producers of "Family Man" were able to tailor episodes for each time slot. "Those are slightly different demographic nights," executive producer William Bickley said. "Monday following 'Major Dad' is a slightly older, more adult audience. Wednesday night is slightly younger.

"Consequently, we produced a very balanced variety of episodes. We have a two-parter where Gregory Harrison falls in love with a local news anchorwoman, and those will air on Monday. And we have several teen-age episodes--one where the guys organize a betting pool in school that gets out of hand--and those will air on Wednesday."

"Family Man" is not on CBS' fall schedule, but the network has already ordered an additional 13 episodes as mid-season replacements. And Tortorici said that even if "Family Man" doesn't take off, CBS is planning to do another series with Miller-Boyett.

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