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Small Screen, Big Headaches

Talk about static. Three top series creators get together to discuss the future--and find an ominous new ratings system, intrusive network execs and increasingly demanding talent, among other concerns.

September 15, 1996|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer. He has also written a book about "The X-Files."

How do some of television's top producers feel about the state of the industry?

Seeking to take the pulse of TV's creative community on the eve of the new prime-time season, Calendar brought together three producers of current hits--Steven Bochco, Marta Kauffman and Chris Carter--to explore that question.

Bochco, 52, will soon be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and can claim one of the best batting averages in television history. Through the years, he has been associated with such hits as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D." as well as the returning ABC series "NYPD Blue" and "Murder One." Bochco has also earned a reputation as a risk-taker, someone who seems to welcome controversy. His latest show (and first under a new deal at CBS), "Public Morals," focuses on vice squad cops and is expected to air with a parental-discretion advisory because of its language and subject matter.

Kauffman, 39, with partners David Crane and Kevin S. Bright forms the producing team responsible for NBC's "Friends," an enormous ratings draw entering its third season, whose cultural influence has ranged from fashion to hairstyles. Before that, Kauffman and Crane created the popular HBO comedy "Dream On." In addition, the "Friends" trio has a deal with NBC to produce a new comedy starring "Cheers" alumna Kirstie Alley, tentatively scheduled for next fall.

Carter, also 39, created Fox's top-rated show, "The X-Files," which will move from Fridays to Sundays in late October. With the possible exception of "Friends," the series has become prime time's most-imitated program, with NBC alone introducing three new Saturday dramas designed to attract the same sort of audience. Carter's latest series, "Millennium," is an even darker hour about a former FBI investigator with a facility for profiling killers. With the series taking over "The X-Files" time slot, Fox's fortunes ride to a large extent on Carter's shoulders.

Calendar asked these producers--representing shows on all four major networks, as well as comedy and drama--to assemble for an informal round-table discussion about issues facing the industry. Bochco and Carter had met briefly, but neither previously knew Kauffman.

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge involved finding a time when all three could meet. The interview ultimately took place in Bochco's office.


Question: What issues, as the season approaches, are top of mind with you relating to television?

Kauffman: All three of us seem to have one issue in common, and that's the V-chip TV ratings system issue.

Carter: Or the C-chip: the content chip.

Kauffman: That's what I'm afraid of. That's what scares me. We have lesbians in our show; does that automatically give you a rating, just because there's an idea that some people may be uncomfortable with?


Q: Does it change the way you approach the shows? Each of you has shows that specifically have raised different issues.

Bochco: It's not going to affect what Chris is already doing or what I'm already doing.

Kauffman: Oh, yes it does. Very much so. We came under such fire once we moved to 8 o'clock. As the climate changed, it became more reactionary. It's affected us enormously.

Bochco: What I'm concerned about, and what I'm sure Chris is concerned about, is what's going to happen with development [of new shows]. That to me is the most chilling part. It's one thing to say, "Well, 'Friends' is 'Friends,' " and of course it's a big hit. If tomorrow they moved it back to 9 o'clock, you'd then be dealing with a different set of standards, more akin probably to what you started with.

The thing that I find so potentially distressing, and I've said this before, is that I don't think in this climate I could develop "NYPD Blue."

Kauffman: I couldn't develop "Friends" in this climate. One of the issues is we are suddenly being asked to write something we are not familiar with. The show makes certain demands on you as a writer. After a while that takes over.

Carter: I actually developed something that is definitely pushing the limits of standards, so I don't know that you can't develop [risk-taking programs] in this climate, although we have the luxury of having proven ourselves with what we do. A case has already been made, so I was able to push the limits of content to an extent--not violence per se but content.


Q: Isn't that the assumption: because you're associated with hit shows, you have more latitude?

Kauffman: I don't believe so. It may be different in the 8-10 p.m. hours. My fear is that once the TV ratings system is in place, people are going to say, "You know, I don't think we want to develop those kind of shows anymore, because we know that these advertisers are not going to want [to support them]." I think that this year is less of a concern than next year.

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