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Aaron Sorkin's back, with a bite

The former 'West Wing' creator nips at the hand of TV in his new series 'Studio 7.' NBC evidently doesn't mind a bit, snapping it up on spec for fall 2006.

October 17, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Writer Aaron Sorkin knows something about fighting with TV executives. Now he's decided to make a show about them -- and has persuaded NBC to fork over big money for the idea.

Two years after leaving "The West Wing," the long-running White House drama he created for NBC, Sorkin clinched a deal with the network for "Studio 7," a behind-the-scenes sendup of a late-night comedy series very much like NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

NBC, which beat out CBS for "Studio 7" after a lively bidding war, will pay at least $1.6 million per one-hour episode and is aiming for the fall 2006 schedule, according to an executive familiar with the deal.

Warner Bros. Television, Sorkin's longtime studio home and the maker of "The West Wing," will produce. Sorkin and frequent collaborator Thomas Schlamme are both aboard as executive producers, with shooting likely to start early next year.

"This project is a noisy, compelling combination of bold drama and laugh-out-loud comedy," NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said in a statement on Friday. "We're thrilled to again partner with this team on their next great NBC show." Sorkin and Warner Bros. declined to comment.

The deal has Hollywood veterans chattering for several reasons, including the fact that it represents the first TV series Sorkin has sold since leaving "The West Wing." "Studio 7" also underscores an emerging trend of television executives buying "spec," or speculative, scripts, which are written before a network has agreed to back a project.

Typically, established writers will not spend much time working on a program idea until a network has committed to the project in some fashion. But ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and NBC's "My Name Is Earl" -- both bought on spec -- have persuaded executives to pay more attention to writers' pet projects, according to several agents and executives interviewed for this article.

CBS, for example, earlier this month paid top dollar for a spec comedy called "Class" from former "Friends" executive producer David Crane.

"Studio 7" promises to take more than a few swipes at network executives and programming, and viewers likely won't have much trouble figuring out real-life inspirations for characters and plot points. In many cases, it's NBC taking it on the chin.

In a copy of the pilot script obtained by the Los Angeles Times, the executive producer of the "SNL"-type show has an on-camera meltdown, saying on live television: "This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it's gotten lobotomized by a ... broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience."

Later, the producer attacks the network for programming that involves "eating worms for money." That might be construed as a none-too-veiled reference to the gross-out stunts on NBC's reality show "Fear Factor."

Hollywood satires have a mixed record on TV. HBO's comedy "Entourage" has strengthened its ratings, but a number of other recent experiments -- including Fox's "Action," the WB Network's "Grosse Pointe" and HBO's "The Comeback" -- have failed.

But Sorkin may have more colorful show-business experiences to draw on than most writers. When ABC insisted on using a laugh track to punctuate his short-lived ABC comedy "Sports Night," the writer-producer told the New Yorker that the experience made him feel "like I've put on an Armani tuxedo, tied my tie, snapped on my cuff links, and the last thing I do before I leave the house is spray Cheez Whiz all over myself."

A respected playwright and screenwriter (his play "A Few Good Men" was turned into a hit movie with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson), Sorkin became one of the most talked-about figures in the industry during his days running "The West Wing," which presents a fictionalized -- some might say idealized -- White House starring Martin Sheen as President Bartlet.

Sorkin was known as a workaholic who insisted on writing -- or rewriting -- virtually all the "West Wing" scripts himself. Critics particularly relished his rapid-fire dialogue and ability to manage large numbers of characters.

But his work habits took a heavy toll; scripts were frequently delivered late, which caused widely reported production delays and costly budget overruns that were thought to be a factor in Sorkin's eventual exit from the series.

After "The West Wing's" second season, Sorkin was arrested at Burbank Airport on charges of possession of cocaine, hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana (the charges were later dismissed after he completed a rehabilitation program).

He once told TV Guide that he smoked crack every day while writing his 1995 film "The American President." "That is why it took me three years to write the script," he said.

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