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A New A-Team at NBC

'Friends' creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright have a hot successor in 'Veronica's Closet.'

October 05, 1997|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The view from the seventh-floor windows of the otherwise nondescript high-rise office building in Burbank is awe-inspiring. At near eye-level is the Warner Bros. water tower, emblazoned with the famous "WB" logo. Down below is the Warner lot, where people come in reverence to see the backdrops of legendary Westerns; the animation buildings that produced hundreds of immortal cartoons; the set of the most popular drama of the 1990s, "ER," and the set of the seminal Gen-X comedy, "Friends."

Behind those seventh-floor windows are the amazingly spare offices of Bright/Kauffman/Crane, the company that produces "Friends." The show has made the names on the company letterhead among the hottest--and most well-compensated--in the TV producing pantheon.

Marta Kauffman and David Crane, college buddies just a few years away from producing librettos for obscure children's musicals, and their partner, Kevin Bright, made the recent Forbes Magazine list of the 40 top-paid entertainers in 1996-97, with an estimated $39 million in income among them.

And now NBC has entrusted its most valuable launching pad--the 9:30 p.m. slot on Thursdays, between "Seinfeld" and "ER"--to the new Bright/Kauffman/Crane sitcom, "Veronica's Closet." Unlike some other recent denizens of that high-priced prime-time real estate, "Veronica's Closet," which stars Kirstie Alley in her first TV role since "Cheers," has gotten some sterling reviews and a lot of positive press.

The influential guide for advertising buyers from Zenith Media called "Veronica's Closet" the closest thing to a sure hit among the new 1997-98 series. "Kirstie is at her most adorable," it said. "The supporting cast is great, and we think viewers will not only buy it, but make it more than a time-period hit."

And viewers have responded as predicted. On a night when "Seinfeld" and "ER" got their highest ratings ever, "Veronica's Closet" premiered Sept. 25 with an audience of 35.1 million and ranked No. 3 for the week, with "Friends" close behind at No. 4.

"These folks will be running two series this year and have two shows in the top five in network television," said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. "As it has been said, that ain't chopped liver."

And yet it may not be enough for the producers. Actually, it may be too much, for Kauffman, Crane and Bright are looking down the road toward a little bit less of the Hollywood success climb.

Kauffman and Crane sit on a stage at a ritzy ballroom in the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton Hotel with Alley and the rest of the cast of "Veronica's Closet." Arrayed at tables before them are 150 of the nation's usually jaundiced TV critics, here at their annual summer press tour of the coming television season.

Kauffman, 41, and Crane, 40, first faced the nation's TV press seven years ago when HBO was launching a rather randy sitcom they created called "Dream On." "Dream On" told the story of New York book editor Martin Tupper, a somewhat hip version of a loser, whose daydreams were interspersed into the show in the form of black-and-white clips from the Universal Studios film and TV library. While this was a clever conceit, the press was focused on another aspect of "Dream On": its copious use of female nudity, something rather unprecedented in series TV, even on cable. Reporters condemned them as the handbasket-carriers leading the viewing public to an even lower level of televised hell.

Three years later, they were savaged again when they appeared at the press tour to promote another of their sitcoms, "Family Album." The CBS show starred Peter Scolari and Pamela Reed as a married couple who moved back to Philadelphia from California to be closer to their high-strung parents. One critic after another lambasted Kauffman and Crane for demeaning family life by having the sitcom's characters constantly criticizing and bickering with each other.

But the critics at the "Veronica's Closet" session at the Ritz-Carlton are subdued, even reverential. Kauffman is solicited for her views about content ratings for prime-time shows ("Obviously, my feeling about this is that the responsibility of monitoring our children's television watching belongs in the hands of parents, not to be dictated by the government"); Crane is praised for including a character unsure about how to cope with his homosexuality.

"Friends" has changed everything.

Whatever the critics thought about its content--and the aging national press crew was decidedly mixed in its reviews of the sex-filled young-adult show when it premiered in 1994--they knew Kauffman and Crane had produced a hit. Now, they were climbing into the category of producers like Steven Bochco who, after creating the seminal gritty cop drama "Hill Street Blues," is given some latitude by critics when he isn't quite up to snuff (see last year's disaster "Public Morals") because he has succeeded in reading the public's taste in the past.

Executives now give them similar leeway.

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