The long-running Western drama "Bonanza" will be blazing its way back onto TV screens later this year when the grandchildren of Ben Cartwright return home to save their old spread from disaster in a TV movie tentatively titled "Bonanza: The Return."
That's good news for viewers whose hearts are longing for home on the Ponderosa range. That's also good news for NBC, which passed on the property last year but recently reconsidered following the success of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the new CBS series on Saturday nights that has suddenly opened the gate for Western TV projects.
But news of the TV movie is more tempered for its producers.
Tom Sarnoff, who oversaw "Bonanza" when he was in charge of production for NBC in the 1960s, was hoping to sell 26 episodes of a series called "Bonanza: Legends of the Ponderosa" directly to TV stations around the country in first-run syndication for next fall.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation," another revival of an old NBC series, is one of several syndicated dramas turning a healthy profit in syndication.
NBC turned down the updated "Bonanza" series last year because it wouldn't appeal to younger viewers, the network claimed.
But then a dramatic about-face occurred two weeks ago at a TV programming convention where "Bonanza" was being showcased. Word leaked out that Sarnoff's company, Legend Entertainment, had taken its show off the block.
Since then, a deal was reached with NBC for a single two-hour TV movie, targeted for the November ratings sweeps, with an option for two more NBC movies and possibly a series.
Why did Legend take the show out of syndication, where profits are potentially higher? Various sources claim that the producers simply couldn't come to terms with anyone to sell, distribute and market a syndicated "Bonanza."
"They were really shopping this around domestically, talking to four or five different companies," said one syndicator who was in negotiation for the project. "Under the terms they wanted, they couldn't get it sold. They couldn't find a major distributor. The financial deal they were offering was impossible."
The proposed series, to be co-executive produced by the original creator, David Dortort, was budgeted at a hearty $1.1 million per episode. Ordinarily, one-hour syndicated dramas raise the bulk of their budgets by selling broadcast rights in overseas markets. One source claimed that only $300,000 worth of foreign money for "Bonanza" was in place.
The producers had similar poor luck in syndication five years ago with "Bonanza: The Next Generation." That TV movie, airing on a rag-tag lineup of independent stations, failed to produce significant ratings.
Sarnoff did not give a clear reason why he went back to NBC to work out an agreement. And NBC executives were not available to comment on why they changed their minds--although the network has recently made sweeping revisions in its strategy to target only younger viewers in prime time.
"I don't think there is one reason," Sarnoff said this week. "I think we are trying to take a broader view and see if we can make a success on the network. It would be better ultimately, in view of the past history of 'Bonanza' on NBC, if it stayed on NBC.