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CBS Pulls Back 'Ink' for Some Remixing

Television: Ted Danson's heavily promoted series will be delayed until Oct. 21, episodes scrapped and Diane English brought in as executive producer.

August 30, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new Ted Danson comedy "Ink" is indeed going back to the drawing board, with CBS drafting another "Cheers" graduate, Rhea Perlman, to take its place at the prime-time bar.

In a costly eleventh-hour move, CBS said Thursday that it will delay "Ink's" scheduled and heavily promoted premiere from Sept. 16 until Oct. 21 because the network and the stars were unsatisfied with initial episodes.

"Pearl"--a comedy starring Perlman as a blue-collar woman going back to college at an Ivy League school--will take its place at 8:30 p.m. Mondays for a five-week run, airing after the new Bill Cosby sitcom "Cosby."

As part of the overhaul, CBS and "Ink's" production company, DreamWorks SKG, will scrap the four episodes that have already been shot, starting over with "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English as executive producer. "Ink's" creator, former "Mad About You" producer Jeffrey Lane, is expected to leave the series. However, the premise will remain the same--with Danson and real-life wife Mary Steenburgen playing a recently divorced couple working for the same newspaper.

Sources estimate the cost of junking those episodes to exceed $4 million. In addition, CBS has been running extensive on-air ads touting "Ink" as part of its "Big Comedy Monday" lineup, a block of shows that, in addition to "Cosby," includes "Murphy Brown" and "Cybill."

"It was a tough decision," said CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, adding that "Ink" is "too important a project" to the network--with too much ratings potential over the long term--to proceed with a program generating a lukewarm response.

"Ink's" pilot episode was poorly received, and even the stars acknowledged doubts about that half-hour at a session with TV critics in July. They indicated, however, that they felt the series would improve in subsequent episodes.

Danson and Steenburgen are also producers on the series and said in a statement Thursday that they are pleased to get a chance to start over "rather than put on a show that we are all less than thrilled with." The couple has been at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and production of the series is now scheduled to resume in October.

"Pearl" was initially set for Wednesdays, and CBS said the show will return to that night, appearing after "The Nanny," when "Ink" is ready. The show co-stars Malcolm MacDowell as the lead character's snooty professor and will be shown twice--both Monday and Wednesday--the week it premieres.

CBS was already planning to delay some of its Wednesday programs because several presidential and vice presidential debates are tentatively scheduled for that night. The change is a potential plus for "Pearl," which figures to get more exposure Monday than in its regular slot Wednesday--a night jammed with 16 comedies from 8 to 10 p.m.

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Industry observers said the false start on "Ink" underscores the danger of such star-driven commitments, when deals are made with talent before the program is conceived. CBS ordered 22 episodes of the series to secure Danson after a bidding war with NBC, and ABC extended the same commitment to another DreamWorks project, "Spin City," starring Michael J. Fox.

CBS went well beyond that in committing 44 episodes to get "Cosby," which has also undergone considerable behind-the-scenes changes and re-shot its pilot episode. The standard order on a new prime-time program is 13 episodes or less.

English has a spotty track record since creating "Murphy Brown," which premiered in 1988. She subsequently gave up day-to-day involvement with that show and, under a multiple-series agreement at CBS, produced two marginally rated sitcoms: "Love & War," a romantic comedy similar in tone to "Ink," and "Double Rush." Earlier this year English produced a pilot, "Lawyers," which was passed on by the network.

Because of the glut of comedy programs, however, experienced "show runners" capable of guiding a prime-time sitcom are a scarce commodity. More than 60 comedy series are scheduled this fall on the four established networks plus the UPN and WB services.

Despite the expense and risk associated with star deals, the networks have continued to make them, hoping such big names will lure back viewers. NBC has major full-season commitments to Kirstie Alley and Tony Danza for next season, while CBS has signed Tom Selleck to star in a new comedy. ABC also landed Arsenio Hall for his first sitcom, which is expected to premiere early next year.

CBS had been working frantically to resolve the "Ink" situation. Opting to delay it now will at least allow the network time to alter its advertising in most weekend TV magazines and such publications as TV Guide.

Such last-minute changes aren't entirely uncommon. Last year, for example, ABC yanked the comedy "Buddies" only a few days before its scheduled premiere, after promoting the show on-air.

Still, the scope of CBS' commitment to "Ink" and its importance to the network's overall plans make the delay an obvious setback. When CBS announced its revised lineup last spring, officials said they hoped the new Monday shows would improve their performance by 20%, providing the basis in future seasons to spread that strength to other nights.

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