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'SNL' Gets Message and Relays One : Television: Changes will be made, says 'Saturday Night Live' creator Lorne Michaels. But he's not happy with public criticism from NBC executive.

March 23, 1995|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," says he plans significant changes next fall for the late-night show, which has been panned by TV critics for the last two seasons.

But he expressed hurt and anger over a recent statement by NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield that the show needs a complete creative revamping--and that "there were a lot of things that were left undone" despite discussions between NBC executives and Michaels.

"I was taken aback. It was infuriating to me and, I believe, uncalled for," Michaels said in an interview. "I had a meeting with (NBC West Coast President) Don Ohlmeyer in January to discuss the changes in the show. With Don there is a certain amount of give and take, but he was very clear on what he wanted me to do.

"Having had that meeting, I was taken aback (to see Littlefield's recent statement in the New York Times). It's hard enough to be taking the rough press we've been taking this season--and to be trying to fix the show on the air--without public criticism from the network.

"The show has had trouble this season," Michaels acknowledged, "but we've had bad seasons before, and we'll make the changes that will make us better and stronger. You're talking about a show that won the Emmy for best comedy show two seasons ago--and it's been on the air for 20 years. That's longer than some networks."

"Saturday Night Live" remains a big moneymaker for NBC, which owns the show with Michaels' Broadway Video company. But, while the ratings have remained steady, it has taken a critical drubbing, and network executives believe an overhaul is in order, especially at a time when competitors, sensing vulnerability, are developing programs to go after the Saturday night franchise that "SNL" has owned since 1975.

Michaels declined to specify what changes will be made for the fall. "We're going to finish out the next five weeks of this season, as planned," Michaels said, before turning attention to casting new stars or adding new writers.

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But he noted, "We're already making some changes. Mark McKinney joined the show in February when Mike Myers left. (Performer) Molly Shannon joined several weeks ago, and Morwenna Banks is joining the show this week, when John Goodman will be the host. We've added a number of new writers within the last year. We're going to take the core and build upon it for next season."

Michaels said that he hoped longtime producer Jim Downey and longtime writer-performer Al Franken will return, although he noted that recent criticisms of the show--including a New York magazine cover story that included negative comments from former performers and writers--"have been pretty brutal."

Michaels, who has produced "SNL" for most of its 20 years, said that he is personally committed to staying with it.

"I'm going to dedicate myself to making this show the best it can be," Michaels said. "I've been involved in three shows in late-night TV: 'Saturday Night Live,' 'Kids in the Hall' and 'Conan O'Brien.' I'm proud of that record--and too many people have worked too hard on 'Saturday Night Live' to have it attacked in the press as if none of the last 20 years mattered."

And Littlefield made clear Wednesday that he wants Michaels there. "There have been times when the show has needed only tinkering and times when it's needed an overhaul," he said in an interview. "But NBC doesn't produce the show; Lorne does. He's the master at it, and we have confidence in him."

With "SNL" facing the task of rebuilding, other networks are considering shows that might challenge it.

CBS is developing a late-night soap opera produced by Bill Bell Jr. ("The Bold and the Beautiful") and Zalman King ("Red Shoe Diaries") that might go into the Saturday slot. And the network reportedly has had discussions with radio host Howard Stern about a possible show, although industry observers say that Stern would likely meet resistance from advertisers and some affiliates.

Fox executives have said that Michael Moore, who is doing "TV Nation" specials for the network, also has a late-night development deal.

ABC, however, says it has no shows currently in development for late night, either to follow the successful "Nightline" during the week or to compete with "Saturday Night Live."

The reason--which is part of why "SNL" remains a formidable foe--is resistance from its affiliated stations. "The problem is not talent; it's clearances," said ABC executive Phil Beuth, who noted that the network has difficulty getting stations to carry its late-night "In Concert" series on Fridays. "ABC affiliates traditionally have made money with syndicated shows in these time periods."

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