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Company Town : How ABC Let a Hot 'Rock' Slip Away

February 16, 1996|SALLIE HOFMEISTER

Let's set the record straight about who passed up the hot TV show "3rd Rock From the Sun" and why.

ABC failed to lock up the comedy about aliens come to Earth when it had the exclusive chance last spring. And it ultimately lost the series to NBC because of a guaranteed time slot that tied its hands to a show called "Champs," which turned out to be a dud, from its partner DreamWorks SKG.

How the show landed on NBC's Tuesday night schedule has been a heated topic in Hollywood for several weeks. After only a month on the air, "3rd Rock"--from the same team that turned out "Cybill," "Roseanne" and "Grace Under Fire"--has been glorified as one of the season's few bright spots, already ranking in the top 10 with key demographic viewers.

Time will tell if it can sustain its sizzle. But in the meantime, ABC desperately needs a hit after a two-year dry spell that cost the network its lead this season to NBC.

Every day brings a new rumor that Ted Harbert, the head of ABC Entertainment, could lose his job, although letting one good show slip has rarely killed a Hollywood career. (Every network but NBC summarily rejected "ER," which has become the most popular show on TV.)

But there is a bigger lesson in the "3rd Rock" saga.

That a loser such as "Champs," which is partly owned by ABC, could prevail over "3rd Rock" speaks to what many in television see as a troublesome trend: that networks will give special treatment and coveted time periods to the shows they can now own, shutting out those from outside studios that might be better. It's also one of the byproducts of the craze for "vertical integration" sweeping the entertainment industry.

Though "Champs" was roundly slammed by many executives who saw the pilot last year--and harshly referred to as "Chumps" by some critics--ABC put it in the cherished Tuesday night slot following the blockbuster "Home Improvement." "Champs," the first program developed through a joint venture with DreamWorks, was pulled after only a few weeks--proving, the network says, that it will readily kill one of its own shows.

By contrast, "3rd Rock" began Jan. 9 on NBC with a bang, although it has steadily declined in the ratings as ABC moved "Coach" into opposing position to help blunt the blow.

"Competition is so fierce that time slot guarantees, unfortunately, will continue," said Harbert. "And they will continue to be detrimental to the long-term health of the networks."

That "3rd Rock" should become so popular so fast has put Harbert in the hot seat, with rumors circling that his job is on the line now that Walt Disney Co. has taken over the network. "It's taken me 18 years to get onto the A-level rumor mill," Harbert said dismissively. "Gee, I finally made it."

Harbert said his new contract was not completed until December, giving Disney ample time after the ratings started sliding to pull the plug.

Some at ABC also remember that ratings at the network spiked downward in the first two years that Robert Iger had Harbert's job. Now he is president of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., with the blessings of Thomas S. Murphy, who stepped down as chairman after the merger to become a Disney board member.

What is more, Harbert did not technically pass on "3rd Rock," as many in Hollywood have suggested in recent weeks.

In fact, he helped nurture "3rd Rock" from the seedling stage--spending more money on development than is typical for a network.

ABC had originally hoped to schedule the show for a year ago January, but held off because the pilot wasn't quite right. Among the changes it asked for was one that landed Jane Curtin in the cast headed by John Lithgow.

Though pilots are rarely reshot, because of the expense, ABC paid for two at a cost of about $2 million. Part of the patience, no doubt, stemmed from the track record of creator Carsey-Werner.

But when it came to handing out time slots for last fall, Harbert found none. Prized weekday periods for comedies went to Tony Danza's disappointing new series "Hudson Street" and to two other more promising shows, one of which came from another ABC partner, Brillstein-Grey.

Instead, Harbert placed an order for "Rock" for January--midseason--when dropped shows create vacancies.

But the failure to find a suitable fall slot triggered a clause in Lithgow's contract that allowed the project to be shopped to another network or risk losing his services.

NBC responded with passion, offering to use "3rd Rock" as its first midseason replacement. By then, ABC had made "Champs" its first replacement, with a guaranteed time slot too. Carsey-Werner bought the pilot back from ABC and sold it to NBC.

Iger was in on the decision to give the time period to DreamWorks, sources say. He had made the original pact, and after the network failed to find a place for "Champs" on the fall schedule, they say, he was eager to show his full support for the new partnership.

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