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Nervous Time for the TV Set

THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Cast and crew members of shows that are 'on the bubble' have their antennae up, as they wait to see if their series will be renewed.

May 08, 2002|DANA CALVO and PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In Hollywood, where self-involvement, self-doubt and contract-to-contract employment are facts of life, springtime brings a fresh set of anxieties.

The rest of America may spend these warm weeks gardening, barbecuing and going to baseball games, but the casts and crews of certain television programs are restless. Some smoke more, some eat more, but they all stay close to the phone.

Their shows are "on the bubble," which means their lives are on hold until network television executives decide whether their series will live or die.

As this annual ritual plays out, thousands of bubble people wait and worry about the outcome of this month's "pilot screenings"--a kind of mini film festival in which each network checks out the new crop of series prototypes competing for a slot on the prime-time schedule.

They can only wonder: Will one of those alluring new pilots bump them off the air?

The bubble shows--about 30 this year--float somewhere between established hit and ratings flop, between already forgotten and miraculous comeback story. Take "Everybody Loves Raymond," a CBS sitcom that premiered in 1996. By the spring of 1997, it was teetering on the bubble but eventually was renewed. The show gradually blossomed into a major hit, ranking near the top of the Nielsen Media Research ratings.

This year, shows on the bubble include the award-winning ABC sitcom "Spin City," the long-running CBS drama "Touched by an Angel," UPN's "The Hughleys" and Fox's lesser-known "Greg the Bunny," a sitcom with a cast of humans and puppets.

If the shows survive, each member of the cast and crew (typically, between 100 and 150 people) can depend on 10 more months of lucrative, high-profile work. If the bubble bursts? Most likely, months of unemployment.

The consequences of the process are easy to see in parts of a city in which so many people work in the industry or live with someone who does. By night, party talk is dominated by predictions of which shows will be picked up and which won't. By day, crowds begin to form on the wide, wooden staircase up to the Center for Yoga in the Larchmont Village neighborhood.

"A large percentage of our students are industry people. They are more stressed out," said center owner Lisa Haase. "The actors are running around to more auditions because they've got to land a part. The people behind the scenes are silently tensed up because they're waiting to see if their shows are getting picked up. It's part of the industry. I think they all have that bittersweet feeling. There's a part of them that wonders, 'What in the world am I doing this for?'"

Across town, at the Burke Williams Day Spa & Massage Center on Sunset Boulevard, business has spiked as well in the past few weeks for therapists servicing agents, directors and actors.

At this time of year, the industry's unforgiving Greek chorus of agents, publicists--even the guy handing you your latte--is speculating about which new pilots flopped in screenings and which "killed" (a good thing, in TV-speak). The talk is often misleading, but it has the effect of compounding the collective anxiety.

The pilot selection process, with the bubble shows waiting in its wake, culminates next week during presentations in New York, where more than $7 billion in advertising time is up for grabs.

The networks will deliver a glitzy roll-out of their fall prime-time lineup to advertisers who know the world can do without, say, "Titus" if the Fox sitcom isn't reaching a large enough demographic. Most parts of the ritual change little year to year, but this season seems to be producing a bit more anxiety at the network level, where an advertising slump has forced layoffs and belt-tightening and left executives even more risk-averse than usual. That could benefit some modestly rated series with a semblance of a following.

In any year, the mystery surrounding programming is unusually class-blind for Hollywood, leaving handsomely paid producers and stars facing the same gallows as technical personnel.

This time around, those awaiting verdicts range from Steven Bochco, co-creator and executive producer of the ABC legal drama "Philly," to Pashelle L. Clayton, costume supervisor on the CBS drama "The Education of Max Bickford." Bochco is a 58-year-old multimillionaire producer and television kingpin behind the long-running hit "NYPD Blue," while Clayton, 32, lives in an apartment in Harlem.

Both "Philly," shot in L.A., and "Max Bickford," which is shot in New York, have earned some respectable reviews. But they are hardly the ratings successes that guarantee renewal into another season--at least, not until their networks can evaluate possible replacements.

"It's always a kick in the gut," said Bochco, a veteran producer who has seen his dramas die, unrenewed, after just one season.

"Over the years, you start to realize you can't worry about the parts of the business you don't control."

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