Eyebrows were raised in the TV industry when ABC signed Steven Bochco to a 10-series deal in 1987.
For one thing, most producers fail more than they succeed--it's the nature of TV. For another, Bochco was best known for the most expensive kind of shows--hourlong dramas such as "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law"--so ABC's financial risk was even greater.
Thus, the strong ratings and critical acclaim that greeted Bochco's controversial police series, "NYPD Blue," this past season were crucial in validating the network's commitment to the original deal.
As Bochco himself acknowledges, it's only the second of his first six series for ABC that can be considered a popular success. The other was "Doogie Howser, M.D.," a half-hour sitcom about a teen-age doctor that was a moderate hit with viewers.
"If you do 10 shows and four succeed," maintains the 50-year-old Bochco, "that's pretty remarkable. When's the last time anyone (in baseball) hit .400? We've got two out of six, and that's not bad."
It's ironic, as Bochco notes, that his first hit for ABC turned out to be "Doogie Howser." One-hour series from his production company, including the experimental drama-with-music police show "Cop Rock" and "Civil Wars," about two attorneys specializing in divorce cases, "didn't succeed, and those are expensive failures," he says.
Others that didn't make it in the ratings were the recent family drama "The Byrds of Paradise," about a widowed Yale professor who moves with his children to Hawaii, and "Capitol Critters," an animated show about a mouse and his pals who live in the White House.
But "NYPD Blue" revved up the deal again as it quickly established itself as a Tuesday night must-see. After all the \o7 Angst \f7 over protests about its language and nudity--mild compared to cable and films but relatively strong for networks--it would have been especially rough for ABC if it had failed, says Bochco: "Not 'Tough luck, kid,' but 'What the hell are you doing to us?' "
Despite strains during the years of the multi-series deal, says Bochco, ABC has been "pretty good" considering that "nothing generates the kind of clout that success generates. Let's face it: At the end of the day, that's all that anybody pays attention to."
What "NYPD Blue" did more than anything else for ABC--and, in fact, for all the networks--was demonstrate that traditional TV can compete with cable by breaking from its old standards to win back viewers.
"NYPD Blue" (which Bochco created with David Milch) also helped restore some faith in network drama at a time when the form is considered too expensive and is being replaced by cheaper-to-produce newsmagazines.
According to Bochco, his overall deal called for him to do seven series for ABC and then give the network first crack at future shows to round out the pact, although he then can take rejected projects elsewhere.
His seventh series for ABC, another hour drama, is a postponed commitment targeted at the fall of 1995. Since last Jan. 1, he says, he has been free "to take anything else elsewhere" after ABC "has looked at it and decided whether they want it."
Insisting that it's been a "pretty terrific relationship," Bochco says complications arose in his deal with ABC "not because of the deal but because the industry has changed profoundly, and that has required tremendous patience and flexibility on everybody's part." Recalling the late 1980s and the networks' changing economic picture, he says:
"It was still pretty much perceived to be a three-network industry, with Fox a little upstart network, and that has proven to be a mistake. And the audience erosion that was beginning to appear wasn't being taken as seriously by the networks.
"The network share of the audience was higher. And the state of one-hour television was a hell of a lot better. The bottom virtually dropped out of the hour television business."
In addition, says Bochco, such factors as "the rise of cable and competing entertainment outlets" made it "a very complicated universe in which to service a contract which may have made a certain amount of business sense to ABC in 1988 but which perhaps made less sense in 1990, 1992, 1994. I think the deal was a function of my success in terms of hours (hour-long shows)."
In the late '80s, for instance, the networks' airwaves were jammed with such one-hour dramas as "thirtysomething," "Moonlighting," "MacGyver," "Matlock," "In the Heat of the Night," "Midnight Caller," "Murder, She Wrote," "China Beach," "The Equalizer," "Wiseguy," "Dynasty," "Beauty and the Beast," "Dallas," "Miami Vice," "Hunter," "Cagney & Lacey," "Tour of Duty," and "Magnum, P.I."
But the changing network atmosphere that followed and the demise of dramas, says Bochco, had a definite impact on his attitude toward making "NYPD Blue"--and, in fact, whether to do the show at all.