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They Fed the TV Monster

Creators and producers of some of prime time's biggest recent hits are giving way to new network darlings. For some, it's a matter of having a life.

June 28, 1998|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

The year Bill Clinton was elected president, Diane English--whose "Murphy Brown" sparred with Dan Quayle about "family values"--and Clinton friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creative force behind "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade," produced five series between them, including all of CBS' popular Monday-night comedies.

Six years later, those shows are gone. English's new sitcom is slated to premiere in a difficult Friday time slot on Fox, Bloodworth-Thomason is seeking to rescue her latest pilot from programming limbo at CBS, and Clinton is wrestling with his own problems.

In Hollywood, as in Washington, fortunes change quickly, as stars of the moment fade and are soon supplanted. Joshua Brand and John Falsey--the tandem behind "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away"--became the standard-bearers for quality drama in 1992, with those shows combining for 30 Emmy nominations that year. The team has since parted, and David E. Kelley--the astoundingly prolific writer-producer behind "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice"--reigns as the current darling of critics and network executives alike.

Nothing demonstrates how prime time's cast of characters keeps evolving better than scanning a list of television producers who dominated the airwaves a half-dozen years ago and now find themselves playing more marginal roles.

When the 1992-93 television season began, Brand and Falsey, English and producing partner Joel Shukovsky, Bloodworth-Thomason (who works with husband Harry Thomason), Witt-Thomas Productions and Miller-Boyett Productions jointly accounted for nearly 20 prime-time series.

Producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas had a half-dozen series on the air alone, including "Golden Girls" spinoff "Golden Palace," "Empty Nest" and "Nurses." Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett's roster peaked at six series in 1990, when the duo supplied ABC's entire "TGIF" Friday lineup--anchored by "Full House," "Family Matters" and "Perfect Strangers"--as well as two CBS comedies.

With such programs having run their course, the coming season's output from those five stand-out producing teams consists of three new comedies: Shukovsky-English's "Living in Captivity," a topical sitcom in which a black family moves into a mostly white planned community; ABC's "The Secret Lives of Men," Witt-Thomas' latest from "Soap" and "Golden Girls" creator Susan Harris; and "Two of a Kind," a reunion of ABC, Miller-Boyett and "Full House" twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Meanwhile, it's the likes of Kelley, John Wells ("ER"), Chris Carter ("The X-Files"), and comedy trios Bright-Kauffman-Crane ("Friends," "Veronica's Closet" and the new comedy "All My Life") and Angell-Casey-Lee ("Frasier" and Nathan Lane's new sitcom "Encore! Encore!") that now blanket vast parcels of prime-time real estate.

Various factors explain this changing of the guard, beginning with the nature of the television business itself, which English describes as "a big monster that has to be fed constantly." Other reasons include shifting programming strategies and audience tastes, the daunting challenge of replicating success, and turns of the revolving doors leading to network management suites.

The producers themselves, meanwhile, uniformly point to the sheer exhaustion brought about by the task of overseeing multiple TV series simultaneously.

"I think television just exhausts anybody who's creatively committed to it," says Bloodworth-Thomason, who estimates that she wrote more than 250 sitcom scripts for her various shows during an eight-year period.

"Three [shows] is just too much. You really can't maintain the quality. . . . I think people just want to have a life, and if you have three shows on and are truly involved in them, you can't have a life."

English also acknowledges that the desire to carry such a workload invariably diminishes in the wake of generating a major hit. Producers of such shows not only draw millions of dollars in salary annually from producing fees but can earn tens of millions more from the sale of programs into syndication.

At this stage in her career, English is happy to play a more supervisory role with her latest series, which was created by Tom Palmer. The responsibility associated with running every aspect of a show, she says, is better suited to "someone who wants to sit in a writers' room until 2 o'clock in the morning seven nights a week. . . . You really have to sacrifice a lot personally and professionally."


Most of these producers concede they may have over-extended themselves during their most active periods, as network and studio executives kept clamoring for their next program.

At one point, Brand and Falsey were producing three programs scattered across the globe: "Northern Exposure," filmed in Washington state; "I'll Fly Away," shot in Georgia; and "Going to Extremes," a whimsical ABC drama about medical students on a tropical island, produced in Jamaica.

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