If you were a TV executive, what would you do after deciding that a new show you've spent $1 million or more creating is not quite right for your network?
Traditionally, you would probably kill the project, take the write-off and go back to the drawing board.
But with increased pressure to find cost-cutting alternatives in the network television business, which is growing riskier with each season, executives are revising some of their timeworn practices to make more economic sense.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 27, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong credit-- Katharine Green created the Fox television series "Rachel Gunn, R.N.," not the Fox series "Woops!," as was stated in a Calendar story Friday. "Woops!" was created by Gary Jacobs.
That's why "Rachel Gunn, R.N.," premiering Sunday night, and "Woops!," coming this fall, are showing up on Fox when they were originally developed for other networks.
When CBS executives screened the six "Rachel Gunn" episodes they had ordered last year--the comedy series stars comedian Christene Ebersole as a no-nonsense nurse--there was a feeling that the show's outrageous attitude did not quite fit on the stately CBS network.
"It looked more like a Fox show than one of our shows," a CBS executive said.
Similarly, when NBC executives took a look at the pilot for "Woops!" last spring--a sort of post-apocalyptic "Gilligan's Island"--they didn't feel that the show's goofy premise meshed with any other programming on the network.
Normally, proceedings would have ended there. Rather than let their shows slip into the hands of the competition, CBS and NBC would likely have written off their development costs--estimated at $3 million for six episodes of "Rachel Gunn" and $1 million for the "Woops!" pilot.
But the economics of the business are rapidly changing, said Rich Frank, president of the Walt Disney Studios, and networks can no longer afford that kind of thinking. So CBS and NBC allowed their series to be swept up and added to the Fox schedule at the last minute to save them from what might have been a permanent shelf life.
Columbia Pictures Television returned the license fees that CBS paid for the right to broadcast the "Rachel Gunn" episodes--essentially buying them back--and sold the series to Fox. Similarly, Touchstone Television returned NBC's investment in the "Woops!" pilot and was reimbursed by Fox, which ordered 13 episodes.
Executives at both studios suggested that these kind of deals could become commonplace industry practices in the next few years.
"In the past, a network might have been willing to swallow a $1-million or $2-million cost as a defensive move," said Frank, whose studio is producing "Woops!" with Witt-Thomas Productions. "In other words, the network would have said, 'We know they want it, but let's not let them have it.'
"That doesn't make sense anymore," Frank said. "I think all the networks are offensive-minded now: 'If we like a show, let's do something with it. And if we don't like it, let's cut our losses or even get our money back.' It gives them that $1-million or $2-million investment back to do something else with the money."
Although TV series periodically play network hopscotch, they usually do so after airing for a season or two and building up a regular following. That was the case with NBC's "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Golden Girls"--retooled and retitled "Golden Palace"--which are moving over to CBS this fall.
Now TV series are making the switch in their earliest stages of development. CBS first began developing "Rachel Gunn" for last year's fall season with country singeT. Oslin in the lead role of the feisty nurse (Oslin eventually pulled out and was replaced by Ebersole). The pilot for the Norman Lear sitcom "The Powers That Be," which premiered on NBC earlier this year and is returning next season, was also shot and developed for CBS last year.
And "Woops!" is believed to be the first time that a series has switched networks in the same fleeting development season.
"We didn't want to fall between the cracks," said co-executive producer Tony Thomas, whose show is a social satire about the world's six diverse survivors of an accidental nuclear holocaust. "NBC said they would consider the show for mid-season, but mid-season is iffy. And the pilot would have been sitting for a year, and it's hard to breathe life back into it. We didn't want to take that chance."
So NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, who has established a friendly relationship with Thomas on such hit NBC series as "Empty Nest," "Nurses" and "Blossom," agreed to let Thomas go to Fox, where "Woops!" creator Katherine Green had served as co-executive producer of the hit series "Married . . . With Children."
This new network willingness to swap projects, industry sources observe, may be borrowed from the movie industry. Feature films developed by one studio regularly go into "turnaround," where the original studio releases rights to the project and another studio takes over production.