Are TV’s top writer-producers suffering from airtime overload?
In their never-ending quest for safe bets, the networks and Fox this season parceled out about 15% of their available primetime to a handful of pedigreed writer-producers. Most of these creative favorites are shuttling between two or three shows, while a few are developing even more.
Not since the early ’70s, when Norman Lear presided over four shows at a time, has so much airtime been concentrated in so few hands. And unlike such prolific producers as Carsey-Werner and Miller-Boyett, these individuals also do the unglamorous job of writing the dialogue.
But can even the most creative TV lights do justice to more than one show at a time? “I’m really not sure,” sighs Barry Kemp, writer and producer of “Coach” and “Princesses.” “It would seem not if you look at the evidence.”
Kemp’s second show, “Princesses,” was placed on hiatus after low ratings and creative difficulties that culminated recently in the departure of actress Julie Hagerty.
Kemp also is developing two more shows with network commitments, including a new series for Delta Burke. “I really don’t know if a person can give enough attention to two or more shows at a time,” he admits. “It’s something we talk about a lot here behind closed doors.”
Of the 78 primetime hours programmed weekly by the webs and weblet, a total of 12 1/2 have been entrusted to the established TV writer-producer talents:
* Jim Brooks and Sam Simon: Fox’s “The Simpsons” and ABC’s “Sibs,” which goes on hiatus this month to make room for “Civil Wars,” the new show from fellow mass-producer Steven Bochco – himself splitting his time between that show, “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and an animated show for mid-season called “Capitol Critters.”
* Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: CBS’s “Evening Shade” and “Designing Women.”
* Stephen J. Cannell: ABC’s “The Commish” and CBS’s “Palace Guard.”
* Josh Brand and John Falsey: CBS’s “Northern Exposure” and NBC’s “I’ll Fly Away.”
* Michael Jacobs: ABC’s “Dinosaurs” and NBC’s “The Torkelsons.”
* Barry Kemp: ABC’s “Coach” and CBS’s “Princesses.”
* Susan Harris: NBC’s “The Golden Girls,” “Empty Nest” and “Nurses,” and ABC’s now defunct “Good And Evil.”
Some onlookers suggest that the shows themselves already prove that people are spread too thin.
“Look at ‘Northern Exposure’ this season,” laments one advertising analyst. “It’s a lot more cloying and predictable and a lot less unique than it was last season, and that’s obviously because Brand and Falsey are spending so much time on ‘I’ll Fly Away.'”
Falsey insists that he and Brand are still intimately involved with “Northern Exposure.” “We work with the other writers, plotting out stories for both shows,” he says. “It’s sort of a divide-and-conquer approach. Josh [Brand] flies up to Seattle one week and I’ll fly down to Atlanta.”
Yet the incentive to overextend themselves is strong: More shows mean more money, from network license fees to the chance for that elusive syndication gold ring.
Brand and Falsey will soon be spreading themselves even thinner: They have a pilot commitment from ABC for another hour show called “Going to Extremes,” about a medical school on a tropical island. “[Having multiple shows] is profitable, but you could reach a point where it’s just not worth it any more,” says Falsey.
Perhaps the most overworked writer-producer in Hollywood is Bloodworth-Thomason. Legendary for her ability to churn out scripts overnight, she has been dividing her time between “Evening Shade” and “Designing Women” for the past year, shouldering a large portion of the writing duties on both shows.
“It is hard to have more than two shows on the air, and hopefully by next fall I’ll have three,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. “But three is the limit. I can’t see how you could devote yourself to more than that unless you just become a supervisor.”
Bloodworth-Thomason, who last year signed an exclusive multi-series deal with CBS for an estimated $30 million, says she writes so many episodes herself due to “pure and simple masochism.”
But some writers in town fault her for hoarding so much of the work.
She responds, “It’s certainly not because I think I’m the most fabulous writer in the world,” explaining that her shows require her personal attention because “they’re very Southern and very eccentric.”
Jacobs spends his days shuttling between the staffs of “Dinosaurs” and “The Torkelsons” on the second and third floors of a Burbank office building. “It’s sort of like bench-pressing 400 pounds every day,” he says. “There was a six-week period this fall when I literally didn’t go home from the office.”
Jacobs just sold a third series to ABC for next fall, a sitcom tentatively called “Where I Live,” starring standup comedian Doug E. Doug, to be co-exec produced by Erich Van Lowe. Admits Jacobs: “I don’t know how long my energy will hold out, but I’m hoping to become delirious because I know that’s when I’ll be doing my funniest work.”
According to Simon, “The reason you see the same executive producers running a lot of shows is that ideas for a series are pretty worthless. What a network really wants is someone who can execute a good show on an ongoing basis, and that requires a lot of skill and experience.”
But Kemp expects that the networks will not bequeath so much airtime to so few producers for much longer, no matter how impressive their track records.
“It’s a cycle that’s going to change radically,” he predicts. “Giving commitments to people with proven track records doesn’t work any better than any other formula, because the truth is that this business is really an art, and you can’t really run it by any formula.”