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Networks' Star Ship Lands Again

Television: Laurie Metcalf, the latest big name to benefit from a spending spree, will have her own ABC sitcom, expected for next season.


Laurie Metcalf, who co-stars on "Roseanne," will segue from that series after this season into a starring role in her own situation comedy on ABC.

The commitment, which ABC confirmed Tuesday, underscores the TV networks' desire to sign recognizable stars to headline new programs, a practice expected to heat up based on strong initial ratings this season for shows starring Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Brooke Shields and Rhea Perlman.

Metcalf--a three-time Emmy Award winner as best supporting actress for her role as Jackie, the title character's sister, on "Roseanne"--will play a different character in the new show, which is still being developed.

To secure the actress' services, ABC has committed to 13 episodes of that program and to another series that Metcalf will produce through her company.

"We've just been deluged with calls from studios," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert. "The writers recognize her talent and are dying to work with her."

Metcalf's series is expected to premiere next fall unless "Roseanne" returns for a 10th season, which appears unlikely. Co-star John Goodman has already reduced the number of episodes in which he will appear this year, and the show's contract with ABC extends only through the current season.

All the networks are looking for stars around whom to build new programs. CBS, in fact, has made the practice a cornerstone of its strategy to rebuild its prime-time lineup, following its Cosby and Ted Danson deals for this season with a similar commitment to Tom Selleck, who will star in a new comedy next season.

Similarly, NBC has deals in place with Kirstie Alley, Tony Danza and Charles Dutton for fall 1997, and ABC has already lined up Arsenio Hall for his first sitcom, which will premiere early next year.

The only drawback--and considerable risk--associated with such deals is that the networks are paying major sums to get into business with that talent. In most instances, the network agrees to pay a seven-figure "penalty payment" to the star if the project doesn't go forward.

As a result, those major commitments tend to dictate that certain shows are going to get on the air, while programs lacking that sort of leverage have a significantly reduced chance of making the schedule.

Star talent, in fact, isn't all that's driving such deals. The networks are also paying what several executives say are staggering sums for high-concept drama series and sitcom projects with only producers attached.

Fox, for example, has made two major commitments for drama series, including a science-fiction project from the producers of the hit movie "Independence Day" (which Fox released) and "Roar," a mythic action-adventure from Shaun Cassidy (who created last season's "American Gothic") and former "Beauty and the Beast" producer Ron Koslow. The network would reportedly have to shell out several million dollars if each series doesn't get produced.

Harbert said ABC believes there's relatively little risk in the Metcalf deal given the "ton of equity she has built up with the audience" from her stint on "Roseanne." In addition to that show, Metcalf's credits include the movies "JFK," "Internal Affairs" and "Pacific Heights."

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