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Dive! Dive! Dive! : If Jules Verne had only had access to the high-tech goodies at Steven Spielberg's disposal, he might have come up with 'seaQuest DSV'--the producer's latest foray into TV, and NBC's big hope for a fall hit

July 25, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer

"Man only uses 20% of the planet," proclaimed an excited Robert D. Ballard, one of the world's preeminent underwater explorers. The tall, distinguished Ballard, grinning like a schoolboy, was riding high behind the wheel of a golf cart in a mad dash across the back lot of Universal Studios.

"There are more people alive today than ever died," said Ballard, 51, his voice rising to a fever pitch. "In the next 25 years, we will have quadrupled the world's population."

As his body suddenly lifted over a speed bump, the senior scientist for the department of applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, reached up and pulled the cap on his head down tighter--a cap emblazoned with the colorful hammerhead shark logo of producer Steven Spielberg's new TV series, "seaQuest DSV."

"Where are those people going to go?" he continued on his messianic roll. "Are they really going to go into space? Really? "

Ballard took a hard left at one of the sound stages, cutting off a studio tram full of gawking tourists.

"Of course not! We're going to go into the ocean and colonize much sooner than space. The ocean is truly the last frontier. We're going to go there for recreation, food, natural resources, geothermal energy, waste management."

For the moment, Ballard was just trying to go to the Universal commissary for lunch. Spotting it through a narrow alleyway, he abruptly cut across a sidewalk, bounced down a curb and shot through the alley before braking sharply in front of the commissary.

He paused for a moment and caught his breath.

"I think of myself as a futurist, but I've been constrained by current technology," he said with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "This is an opportunity to live the future I may not be around for."

If Capt. Nemo sprang to life from the pages of Jules Verne and stepped into the 20th Century, he would probably look and sound very much like Robert Ballard.

That's precisely why Spielberg--who has been fascinated with underwater adventures ever since he read "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as a child and later saw the Walt Disney movie--tapped Ballard as the inspiration, scientific consultant and all-around cheerleader for the fall season's most ambitious new television series.

Spielberg and his executives at Amblin Entertainment want "seaQuest DSV" to be an entertaining adventure for the whole family, a technically superior revision of such campy Irwin Allen series from the 1960s as "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "Land of the Giants." Spielberg calls the series "one part science, two parts fiction and one part fantasy."

Budgeted in excess of $1.5 million an episode (compared to about $1 million for most drama series), "seaQuest" boasts an array of computer-generated special effects and production spread over five gigantic sound stages at Universal. Spielberg turned to Roy Scheider, whom he had not worked with since directing "Jaws" in 1975, to captain his ship.

Presented with those credentials and the threat that Universal was prepared to take the project to other networks or syndication, NBC agreed to the studio's demand that it order a full season's worth of 22 episodes at a license fee of $1 million each--before a frame of film had been shot. The network then opened up a time slot when viewing is at its peak: Sunday nights at 8 o'clock.

As a result, "seaQuest" has an ocean of expectations to fill.

Star Roy Scheider, left, real-

life underwater explorer and

series consultant Robert D. Ballard and producer Steven Spielberg on the bridge of the seaQuest DSV. The show's creators have fashioned no mere submarine, but a living, oxygenated organism that can descend to great depths.

" 'SeaQuest' is clearly the biggest (television) undertaking this studio has ever had, in terms of size and production and economics," said Tom Thayer, president of Universal Television. Thayer's studio has extensive plans to license and merchandise the bountiful hardware and characters in "seaQuest"--a comic book, action toys, plastic model kits and video games for Nintendo and Sega are all due by Christmas--and possibly create a Universal Studios tour attraction.

If "seaQuest" sinks, all those dreams will go down with the ship.

And the pressure has only mounted with the phenomenal success this summer of Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," which has grossed nearly $300 million in the United States and Canada and is expected to become the highest-grossing film ever worldwide.

"Our biggest concern is self-generated press," said one studio executive. "There's a direct correlation between self-generated press and people's expectations. The expectation level is so high on this show already that people have to be aware they are watching television. They're not going to be seeing 'Jurassic Park.' But given that this is television, people will see things they never have before."

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