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So Long, 'She Wrote'

Low Ratings Did In Lansbury's Show but Her Character Isn't Dying

May 18, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 12 seasons, 264 episodes, 286 murders and more than 1,400 guest stars, CBS is closing the book Sunday on its light-hearted mystery series "Murder, She Wrote."

But it's not the final case for Angela Lansbury's intrepid mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. CBS expects to produce about two "Murder, She Wrote" movies a year, and fans can catch vintage episodes four nights a week on cable's USA Network.

"Murder, She Wrote" was done in by low ratings. CBS, courting the highly coveted 18-to-49-year-old audience, decided to move the older-skewing mystery series to a new time slot last fall. After 11 successful years on Sunday evenings at 8, "Murder" found itself airing on Thursdays opposite NBC's red-hot "Friends."

The highest-rated drama series for nine consecutive seasons, "Murder" saw its ranking plunge this year from No. 9 to No. 65.

The time change wounded Lansbury, who also is the series' executive producer. And for good reason. During its tenure on Sunday nights, "Murder" emerged triumphant over 43 competing series.

"She was very upset," says her son, David Shaw, co-executive producer of "Murder" and president of Lansbury's Corymore Productions. (Lansbury declined to be interviewed.)

"The truth is, if you go into a market with her, you will find young kids coming up and saying, 'That's Jessica.' We pointed that out to CBS when all the demographic things started. Most of the people have seen 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' five times. Most people know what 'Beauty and the Beast' is all about. 'Murder, She Wrote' is family entertainment. It's certainly not older demographics."

A few years ago, Shaw says, Lansbury was informed that the Sunday slot was hers for as long as she wanted; even after "Murder, She Wrote" ended, CBS said, it would put her next show there.

But there was a different president of CBS Entertainment then, and a different owner of CBS. The network was riding high in the ratings, too; now it's struggling in third place.

In any case, CBS doesn't regret moving "Murder" to Thursdays (though it did return the series to Sundays for the final four installments).

"By moving 'Murder, She Wrote,' we had hoped to accomplish two things," says Maddy Horn, head of current programming at CBS. "That was to establish a comedy block on Sunday and also to strengthen Thursday night [with] the only viable alternative to the NBC comedies. We actually accomplished both."

Lansbury slyly spoofed the demographics dilemma earlier this season in an episode titled "Murder Among Friends," which revolved around a Generation X-type TV series called "Buds." And Sunday's finale finds Cabot Cove's famous sleuth solving a murder at a San Francisco radio station that recently changed its traditional format to lure younger listeners.

But don't look for any offbeat plot twists or surprises in the last episode.

"We just didn't want to do any stunts or anything," Shaw says. "Angie said, initially, 'I would rather not talk with any press. I would rather not have people on the set filming. I just want to spend this last episode with the friends I have worked with for 12 years.' And some have really been there for 12 years."

Known for attracting such veteran guest performers as Van Johnson, Bradford Dillman and Mickey Rooney, "Murder" was also a good showcase for such then-up-and-comers as "Friends" star Courteney Cox and "ER's" George Clooney.

"It's good for Jessica to interact with all people," Shaw says. "She has tried to keep an even balance. We have always tried to do that along the way."

Although Lansbury began making overtures about leaving the series several years ago, Shaw acknowledges that the 70-year-old actress is saddened that "Murder" is finally coming to an end.

"The one thing that drew her back was the audience," Shaw explains. "When you see the numbers it does, it makes you feel a real connection with the audience. I think this year, it was obvious she wasn't reaching the same numbers and it was just time to move on."

CBS executive Horn says that the network is "sentimental" about the series and Lansbury. "It was really a classy signature piece for us for 12 years," she says. "She is such a part of our family. It will be very strange not to have her here [every week]. I hope she always feels that she wants to be here with us."

She certainly does for now. All of the projects Lansbury is considering at present are for CBS. Besides the proposed "Murder" movies, she will be doing an original musical, "Mrs. Santa Claus," featuring a score by Jerry Herman, and a script has been written for a sequel to her hit 1992 TV movie, "Mrs. 'Aaris Goes to Paris." The four-time Tony Award winner has no immediate plans to return to the stage.

"I think our audience is at CBS if they can just get their act together," Shaw says. "I think [CBS Entertainment President] Les Moonves is giving it a hell of a go."

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