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TV critics gather in L.A. to get a taste of networks' future fare at annual TCA tour
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/14/2001 7:00:00 PM
When TV Writers Attack the Buffet Line. A new reality series? No, the annual Television Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles. As to what's on the minds of TV writers and programmers at this time: scores of tempting reality shows as well as a threatened Hollywood production strike.
Network executives unveiled their strategies in case of a strike by the Writer's Guild and/or Screen Actors Guild and many of their contingency plans seem to rely on reality programs. Six major broadcast networks have some sort of reality series in development, including The WB, which had been steering clear of the genre until recently.
"You're going to see people go a lot of different ways. There are going to be changes in the way we are doing business right now" says WB CEO Jamie Kellner, whose network is launching Pop Stars this month and has a wedding-themed reality series in the wings. "In the event that there's going to be a strike, you're going to see people begin to save their originals from May..We've got a lot of plans on how to schedule against a strike."
The WB has ordered 13 original episodes of four series (For Your Love, Dead Last, The Steve Harvey Show and Baby Blues) that are currently in production but won't be used until next fall. And NBC executives are counting on Law & Order producer Dick Wolf to help carry them through a work stoppage.
NBC has ordered 13 episodes of another Law & Order spin-off (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) which Wolf and Studios USA will have finished by summer. The network will also have at least six extra episodes of Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for the fall. But NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa says it's a "tricky" game preparing for something that might not happen.
"You can't order shows that will take six months to produce because the strike might be over before you get there," he notes.
Though strike talk dominated, the critics also got to meet and greet new NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, hear about a batch of new Survivors at CBS, ponder the future of WB drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer and were introduced to an African-American version of Melrose Place at UPN.
And then there was Temptation Island. Fox's sexy reality series caused quite a stir with critics, who question Fox Broadcasting and 20th Century Fox head Sandy Grushow on what gives, given that the network all but swore off the genre after the Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? fiasco.
"Something happened this summer, something I don't think any one of us could have predicted," says Grushow. "A little show called Survivor came along and to a far more limited degree, Big Brother, and really turned the prime time network landscape on its ear..And so this is a business and I'm responsible to a lot of people, including the investors in this company. And it would be negligent on my part to not allow [Fox Entertainment President] Gail Berman and her programming team to try to pursue what is obviously an incredibly powerful trend in the industry."
Something's happening with 20th Century Fox-produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well. The critically acclaimed show's contract is up at The WB in May and there has been speculation that Buffy could wind up at Fox in the fall. The WB's Kellner says he wants to keep the series and will make a "fair" offer for it. But the following day Grushow tells critics that The WB has yet to make that "fair" offer.
"Obviously we value the relationship that we've had with The WB and we have a very deep relationship with them as a studio, not only with Buffy, but Angel and Roswell too," says Grushow. "It's our hope, our desire to make a new deal with them for the show. Having said that, I'm honestly a little bit disappointed that Jamie decided it was time to start negotiating in the press. Since he opened the door, I find myself in a position of having to respond to some degree. If, in fact, The WB is prepared to make a quote-un-quote fair proposal to 20th Century Fox, then there is no reason to believe that this show isn't going to continue on The WB's air for many years to come."
Here are highlights (for ABC, which was still in progress at press time, see Top of the Week):
NBC: Former Today executive producer Jeff Zucker meets the media for the first time as NBC's new Entertainment President. Zucker, who vows to program from his gut, says his first prime time move will be on Thursday nights in an effort to hold off CBS' latest Survivor and C.S.I. Zucker says he's going to try to punch up NBC's 8:30 p.m. ET/PT Thursday slot during the February sweeps with "special" original episodes of top NBC sitcoms. The Weber Show, from ATG and NBC Studios, has been pulled from the time period for the sweeps, though he says it will be coming back in March. "We are not going to roll over," Zucker stresses. "The easy thing for us to do would be to just put a repeat in there and, at the end of the day, maybe we'll end up there. But that's not what we're about and that's not what I want to be about." NBC's other new sitcom, DAG, has the next few weeks to "prove itself" worthy of another season.
NBC has renewed freshman drama, ED, for 2001-2001, giving a 22-episode order to the Wednesday night series, which is co-produced by NBC Studios. Daytime soap Passions also got a full-season commitment for its third season. Saturday morning teen series Just Deal has been given an additional 13-episode order.
On the reality front, Scott Sassa says the network is developing four projects (two with Endemol Entertainment and two at NBC Studios), including The Weakest Link -a BBC-produced quiz show that features a dominatrix as host, at least in the British version, and will have Survivor winner Richard Hatch in a pivotal role (see story, Top of the Week). On the status of Destination Mir, Sassa says the project with Survivor producer Mark Burnett is still alive and may air in the first quarter of 2002 with or without the Russian space station (which would suggest a title change in that case). Will NBC run Saturday Night Live live after XFL games on the West Coast? Sassa says the answer will come at the network's upcoming affiliates meeting in Las Vegas.
CBS: Just as the second Survivor is set to debut, CBS executives announce deals for Survivor 3 and Survivor 4 with producer Mark Burnett. CBS TV President and CEO Leslie Moonves says, "We are very excited that we can announce this and hopefully in the near future we can announce Survivor 19 and 20." Moonves says the location of the next two have not been decided and that Survivor 3 will land on CBS' fall lineup.
On CBS' coverage of the Super Bowl, Moonves notes, "Super Bowl Sunday will be the highest-grossing day in the history of network television." The network also announces it is moving freshman drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to the lucrative post- Survivor 2 slot on Thursday nights. CSI, which has been airing at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fridays this season, will debut in its new 9 p.m. Thursday slot on Feb. 1. 48 Hours will return to its Thursday 10 p.m. slot on Feb. 1 as well. As for Friday, CBS is moving new series The Fugitive to 9 p.m. from its 8 p.m. slot on that night and moving Diagnosis Murder into the 8 p.m. time slot.
Moonves also gives an official farewell to Saturday night series Walker, Texas Ranger -which star Chuck Norris announced earlier in the week would not be returning for a ninth season in the fall. Walker will remain on the schedule through the end of the season and the network will probably produce a handful of Walker movies. A second installment of reality series Big Brother is likely coming this summer. "If we can fix the product, we feel there is great potential there for that show to work," Moonves maintains.
The WB: Entertainment President Susanne Daniels says her network is working with Viacom on a potential reality project, The Cube, and is in business with Endemol Entertainment (Big Brother) for a Valentine's reality special, Kiss The Bride: The Ultimate Valentine. The special could also be turned into a series, Daniels adds. For the fall, Daniels unveils a number of drama projects in development, including a new series from Dawson's Creek creator/producer Kevin Williamson, a pilot from Aaron Spelling (Charmed) entitled Deep, and a new series from Popular producer Ryan Murphy.
On the comedy side, The WB is developing a pilot with American Pie creators Chris and Paul Weitz, Clueless producer Amy Heckerling is developing a comedy for Tori Spelling (Beverly Hills 90210), and Action creator/producer Chris Thompson has been given a comedy pilot commitment. At Kids WB!, the network has given a 39-episode order for new animated series Jackie Chan Adventures. In addition to its current Saturday morning spot, the freshman series will join Kids WB's weekday lineup in the fall.
Fox: Network executives announce an exclusive concert with the usually concert-shy Barbra Streisand for Valentine's Day and say Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace will kick off Fox's May sweeps. Star Wars Episode I will premiere on Fox on Sunday, April 29, bypassing airings on cable and pay-per-view. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman also announces that The X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen will debut March, 4 and says that the network is entering into negotiations with X-Files creator/producer Chris Carter for the 2001-2002 season. The network is also developing a new drama with 20th Century Fox/Jersey Films about a young American woman working at the U.S. Embassy in London.
UPN: The network has added a couple more reality specials, is developing an "African-American" Melrose Place and is launching its first-ever national public service campaign-aimed at teenage sexual health. UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan unveils two new midseason reality specials, Cheating Spouses II and When Chef's Attack: America's Filthiest Restaurants. Nunan says production on Endemol-produced reality series Chains of Love will begin at the end of the month and that the network has ordered six episodes of Manhunt, a reality game show from WWF head Vince McMahon and 7 Days producer Christopher Crowe.
On the development front, Nunan says UPN is working with Imagine Television and music video producer Hype Williams on the African American Melrose Place series. Something About Mary producer Mike Steinberg and Dreamworks Television are developing a series, The Immigrant, and UPN is working on a project based on Steven King's The Dead Zone. Horror-film producer Wes Craven is also working on a series for UPN with co-owned Viacom Studios.
Pax TV: The network is developing two new series for the fall and has ordered another 22 episodes of drama Mysterious Ways for the 2001-2002 season. The two-year-old network is developing The Ponderosa, a western series based on the NBC classic series Bonanza. The Ponderosa will chronicle the early years of Ben Cartwright and his sons. The series is written and created by David Dortort, the original creator and producer of Bonanza. The second series in development for the fall is Left Behind, based on the fictional best-selling books by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
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