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Pre-buzz buzz

Reaction is already crackling on the Web as bits of NBC's coming `Studio 60' series get leaked. It's enough to fray even Aaron Sorkin's nerves.

July 19, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

IN Hollywood, there used to be a period of time called the "bubble," which described the quiet months between the making of a television pilot and the launching of it as a new series.

That bubble has burst. And no one is feeling the ramifications more than Aaron Sorkin and his new series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

Set designers are still at work building a massive theater inside a sound stage for his drama about a troubled sketch comedy series set in an old vaudeville house. Production on the show begins today. And yet, two months before NBC premieres it, vocal segments of its not-yet-existent audience are divided: Chatter on the Web has declared alternately that "Studio 60" is the fourth-place network's savior and that Sorkin's return to TV is dead on arrival. To Internet bloggers, it is both "the biggest hit of next season" and "an underwhelming disappointment."

For Sorkin, 45, who has been away from television since he left "The West Wing" in 2002, the experience has served as an education in the new, bumpy world of promoting a show.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip": A story in Wednesday's Calendar about Aaron Sorkin and his new show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," said Sorkin had performed in a stage production of his play, "A Few Good Men," in London. Sorkin was not in the show. The story also implied that actress Amanda Peet had not worked in television before; Peet starred in the WB's "Jack & Jill" from 1999 to 2001.

"It's unusual for backlash to begin before the show starts," said Sorkin, sitting in his office with his longtime producing and directing partner, Thomas Schlamme. "But I'm hoping now that the timing will work out that there will be a backlash against the backlash by the time we open."

"Studio 60" is not alone in such scrutiny. TV is being filtered, analyzed and debated on the Internet like never before, resulting in savvier viewers who feel fully invested in even the smallest of programming decisions. Already there are dedicated fan sites for another upcoming NBC drama, "Heroes," created by viewers who are hailing it as "the next 'Lost.' " In an attempt to keep up, networks and studios are developing new levels of fan interaction using a variety of digital platforms.

"The Internet has created something that didn't exist five or 10 years ago, a direct dialogue with the creators or actors of a show," said "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof. "For fans, they feel they have this access and they are empowered. When we do our podcasts, and we explain what we're doing, they disagree with us and they tell us, 'Well, it's my show too.' "

It would seem to be a network's dream to have people identify so closely with a show, to hear them debating the finer points of a pilot episode around the water cooler. But in the case of "Studio 60," the premature analysis is making an already struggling network's job even harder.

Someone leaked early drafts of the script for the show's pilot to the Web before a single scene had been shot. Casting announcements were disseminated on the Web faster than you can say "Get me Matthew Perry." Things spun further out of the network's control when NBC decided to parade the cast to advertisers at a development session in March, then showed a six-minute trailer to advertisers and reporters at the television preview conferences in May. Those clips hit the blogosphere in nanoseconds, as did a rough cut of the pilot. Reviews popped up immediately.

Even in the age of the Internet, the focus on "Studio 60" seems unusually sharp, undoubtedly because of the involvement of Sorkin, its award-winning creator. "Studio 60" would be just one of dozens of television series launching in the fall if it weren't for the writer whose past is as colorful as the words he puts on paper. A playwright and screenwriter ("A Few Good Men" and "The American President"), Sorkin, a recovering cocaine addict, has stayed away from television since he left "The West Wing" under a cloud of NBC complaints that he was delaying production by routinely turning in scripts late. So intense interest from the media, especially from television critics, was to be expected.

Still, he could not have envisioned that the script he wrote almost entirely in a London hotel while he was performing in a revival of "A Few Good Men" last summer would generate this kind of fury from so many pajama-clad bloggers months before viewers get to even see his new show, which stars Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet and Steven Weber.

"I try not to look at it," Sorkin said, and then half-joked: "It scares me."

But, like it or not, this modern court of public opinion isn't going anywhere. As NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly warns, "We've only just begun on that front."

The early feedback was a virtual love fest. One 35-year-old blogger at craigbe.com declared he was "fully prepared for an embolism to hit" after reading a draft of the script. "It's like 'Entourage' meets 'Larry Sanders' meets 'The West Wing' all wrapped up in 'Sports Night.' Good God, this is going to be amazing," he wrote.

Then came the clip presentation for advertisers and a self-deprecating skit that Sorkin wrote for the actors designed to mock their own heady buzz, and the rumbling began.

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