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The Quest to Keep Fingers Off the Remote

Television: With pilot season in high gear, the networks are looking to star power and the big screen in hopes of keeping viewers tuning in next season.

March 15, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite mixed results for high-profile new series featuring marquee TV names like Ted Danson and Michael J. Fox, the networks are again relying heavily on star power in their program development for next season.

Similarly, though this year's series versions of "Dangerous Minds" and "Clueless" haven't exactly set the ratings on fire, at least a half-dozen programs inspired by movies are in the planning stage, including one based on current Oscar nominee "Fargo."

Much of this has to do with a desire to find recognizable faces and concepts in a television landscape crowded by an explosion of cable channels, in which more than 90% of TV watchers now do so within reach of a remote control.

The next two months will mark a frenzied period for producers and executives, leading up to the annual announcement in May of prime-time schedules for the coming season.

All told, more than 120 prototypes for new series (known as pilots) are in development. Traditionally, at best 1 in 3 of those gets ordered for September, with each network buying a few more to premiere later in the year. (CBS will hold several new shows, in fact, to introduce after televising the 1998 Winter Olympics next February.)

Not all pilots are created equal. The deck is stacked in favor of certain projects because networks have already committed to multiple episodes, giving them an advantage in making the cut. Under those deals, a network must pay an actor or producer a "penalty"--in some instances totaling seven figures--if the show doesn't get ordered.

"Magnum P.I.'s" Tom Selleck, for example, received a 22-episode deal to return in a CBS comedy series, following the network's commitments last year to Bill Cosby (whose show has already been renewed) and Danson.

NBC has a similar agreement with "Cheers" alumna Kirstie Alley, who'll appear in a sitcom being crafted by the producers of "Friends"; while Fox has lured back "In Living Color's" Damon Wayans from a movie career to do a new half-hour series.

CBS also has a long-term deal with "NYPD Blue" producer Steven Bochco, who'll explore the life of uniformed officers in a new series titled "Brooklyn South." Though networks have become more guarded about hyping their development, CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, in a presentation to advertisers Friday, said, "This is going to be the hottest new drama of next season."

Bochco hasn't completely severed ties to ABC, with his company also working on a show for that network, "Total Security," starring James Belushi as an employee at a security firm.

CBS is living up to its "Welcome Home" slogan by building shows around veteran TV stars like Selleck (he'll play a publisher in his sitcom), Bob Newhart and "Empty Nest's" Richard Mulligan, who is paired with Olympia Dukakis in "Heaven Will Wait," which is set in a retirement village.

Others are returning to TV after a shorter hiatus, including Wayans and David Caruso, whose film career fizzled after "NYPD Blue," prompting this potential TV comeback as a tough U.S. attorney--loosely inspired by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--in a CBS drama. The producers include "GoodFellas" writer Nicholas Pileggi.

WB network shows feature Shelley Long and Cindy Williams, while CBS brings back Bronson Pinchot ("Perfect Strangers") in "Meego" as a Mork-like alien nanny--one of its candidates to pair with "Family Matters," the long-running ABC show the network has acquired for next season.

Another CBS comedy, "Style & Substance," demonstrates the sometimes-tortured path that programs can follow to the air. "Designing Women's" Jean Smart now portrays the Martha Stewart-type lead character, after ABC passed on the same show a year ago with Kathleen Turner in that role.

Several actors known principally for movies will headline series pilots, among them Ann-Margret, Penelope Ann Miller, Patrick Dempsey, Gregory Hines, Tim Curry, Mercedes Ruehl and Danny Aiello.

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Cable has proven a fertile breeding ground for network talent as well. NBC has high hopes for a comedy featuring MTV "Singled Out" hostess Jenny McCarthy as a Midwesterner who takes a job as a celebrity's assistant. Brian Benben also segues from starring in HBO's "Dream On" to an ABC sitcom, playing an actor who inherits a Texas ranch. (Curry's show also casts him as an out-of-work actor.)

In addition to film actors, several movie writer-directors have been wooed to create new series. Spike Lee and Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen") are both developing comedies for ABC, while "Northern Exposure's" John Corbett will star in "The Visitor," a Fox sci-fi drama from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the tandem behind "Independence Day," about an alien living on Earth.

CBS also has a concept in the works about two cops in New Orleans--one living, the other a ghost--from "Interview With the Vampire" novelist Anne Rice.

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