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COVER STORY : He's Got the Juice : Tim Allen's mantra on 'Home Improvement' is 'more power,' but it's the show's co-creator Matt Williams who suddenly has it. His smart and sunny family humor is just what Hollywood wants to hear these days

May 23, 1993|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

That TV producers are not the stuff of celebrity should be a matter of evidence: In television argot, they occupy the uneasy terrain between the suits and the talent. Fame is not their usual province.

But in the white heat of the Disney executive dining room, amid a sea of black chairs carved with mouse ear silhouettes, such axioms do not hold. Not the day after the People's Choice Awards, where the studio's flagship series, "Home Improvement," took top honors, and the suits have converged in an impromptu homage to the comedy's key creator: Matt Williams, an ex-football player, a Hoosier, a producer. A star.

"The man's a genius, a genius ," says studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, leaning across Williams' seafood salad to bark his mantra. "Aren't I having lunch with you tomorrow? See, my life depends, revolves, around him."

If Williams is startled by this display, he shows no sign of it. Bland and regal in his buttery suede jacket and with his honey-blond hair swept back, he is the star quarterback deftly giving all credit to his coaches. Smiling easily, he rises to acknowledge this visitation from the Disney powers that be. "The Katz-Man," he says, casually extending his hand.

Williams has good reason for his insouciance. At 41, the college athelete turned playwright turned TV producer is one of the few legitimate stars to emerge from the Disney stable. Williams--a former head writer on NBC's "The Cosby Show" and creator of ABC's "Roseanne"--developed "Home Improvement" with partners Carmen Finestra and David McFazdean for Disney two years ago. The seemingly innocuous family sitcom, which stars comedian Tim Allen and airs Wednesday nights on ABC, has become the biggest network hit since "Roseanne" premiered in 1988.

With three hit sitcoms on his resume, Williams has quietly moved beyond serving as the unseen Boswell of high-profile talent to being one of the most sought-after producers around.

"I cross paths with a lot of people, but this guy is in a class by himself," Katzenberg says. "Matt is the most successful writer-producer working in Hollywood."

Not that everything Williams touches turns to gold. "Carol & Company," which he created for Carol Burnett at Disney before "Home Improvement," was a short-lived ratings disaster on NBC in 1990. And although Williams created "Roseanne," his imprint on the series lasted for all of 13 episodes before he departed the show after disagreements with star Roseanne Arnold.

But as the architect of ABC's two top-rated series, Williams is credited with helping power the second-place network on its improved ratings this season. "Home Improvement" has consistently ranked among the week's Top 10 shows, as measured by the Nielsen ratings (it ended the season last month in the No. 3 position behind CBS' "60 Minutes" and "Roseanne") and its advertising rates, $200,000 for 30 seconds this season, are expected to climb to become among the industry's highest come September.

ABC has already renewed the series for an additional three years--an unprecedented move that has given Disney a jump on its syndication sales campaign. Based on initial sales figures this week, "Home Improvement" is expected to become the second-most-successful syndicated series, after "The Cosby Show," with grosses between $400 million and $600 million. Meanwhile, ABC also has contracted Williams and his partners to produce two additional comedy series within the next three years. (The first series will air in January as a mid-season replacement.)

Williams' entree into television's upper echelons--whose ranks include producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, Diane English, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, James L. Brooks and Steven Bochco--has also changed the terms of the usual producer-network alliances.

Earlier this spring, he renegotiated his expired $10-million Disney contract with an unusual three-part arrangement involving the studio, ABC and Williams' Wind Dancer Production Group, which is being closely watched as a possible template for the industry at a time when network television continues to struggle with declining viewership, falling ad revenues and budget cutbacks.

Unlike the network's previous arrangements with Bochco and Brooks--which cost ABC millions with the failure of Bochco's "Cop Rock" and Brooks' "Sibs" (both producers have new series premiering next season), the deal with Williams not only includes the three-year guarantee for "Home Improvement" but also sets up a profit-sharing arrangement directly between ABC and Wind Dancer for the two future series. The contract, which also ensures Disney's role as syndicator of all three series, does not involve ABC Productions, the network's in-house development unit. Instead it positions the network to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as the co-owner of a hit series.

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