Classic Comedy Creators Claim Nets Nervous Nellies

For CBS, next month’s televised 20th anniversary celebration of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “All In The Family” marks an opportunity to gain ratings points. But for the creators of those classic sitcoms, the date is an occasion to wonder whether new shows of such broad appeal and durability are likely to appear on network schedules soon.

Their consensus: Don’t hold your breath.

In discussions with VARIETY over the past few weeks, these producers painted a picture of an industry suffering from more than just financial crisis. Many suggested that a siege mentality has infected programming practices – stymieing the creative process and keeping shows from getting a fair shot at finding audiences.

“What’s happened at the networks is the same thing that has happened with publishing and movie studios,” laments James L. Brooks, producer of “The Simpsons” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Businessmen are fully in charge now. They will not divorce themselves from the process. They will direct the process, and conduct the process, and you can’t lick it.”

Success rare

Tv shows that capture the public imagination and hold it have always been rare. But despite all the talk of innovation last fall, these veteran producers say network tv has entered a period in which network impatience makes it even harder to develop such shows.

“The networks these days are really seeking that better carbon copy,” says Norman Lear, producer of “All In The Family” and “Sanford And Son.” “They’re thinking in terms of a quick fix at 8 o’clock, not sticking with shows long enough for them to find their identities or for viewers to find them.”

Lear, who is producing two upcoming CBS shows – “Balls” and “Sunday Dinner” – bemoans the fixation of today’s programmers on ratings and demographics. “I wish, as a culture, we weren’t spending so much time putting numbers to everything. There was a time when that sort of thing didn’t seem to matter as much,” he says.

Development shortchanged

In their rush to find quick solutions to their fiscal woes, network execs are increasingly short-changing the development process, some of these producers allege. In particular, they charge that there is too little time between orders for shows and airdates.

“It’s just a panic mentality,” says Ed. Weinberger, former MTM writer-producer, co-creator of “Taxi” and “Dear John,” and producer of the upcoming ABC sitcom “Baby Talk.”

Alan Burns, co-creator of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” agrees: “The trouble with so much tv today is the order is given in May and you have to be on the air by summer, and there just isn’t enough time to develop really good scripts.”

“Network schedules used to be set in February and you didn’t have to deliver until fall, giving twice as much preparation time as now, when schedules for fall aren’t set until May,” concurs Grant Tinker, MTM founder and former NBC topper, now producing “WIOU” for CBS. “You may do a few good episodes but pretty soon you just have to run too fast.”

The itchy finger on network skeds is another recurring complaint. “We read about network programmers living with their cards and moving them around all the time. Well, we’re paying the price for that,” says Weinberger. “Shows don’t travel well, because moving shows makes audiences believe the networks don’t believe in them.”

One example of shuffling that particularly irks Brooks is the “Simpsons”-versus-” The Cos Show” faceoff on Thursday nights.

“I hate that we’re in that Thursday time period, and I always have,” gripes Brooks. “We were in a wonderful time period on Sunday nights, where we had a chance and there was something magically family-oriented about it. But the network needed us to begin a new evening, and we were placed in a competitive situation which none of us wanted.”

“Television isn’t the wonderful, burgeoning business it once was,” comments Tinker. “You might well ask yourself Where is “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “All In The Family” of today?’ It’s a much more desperate game, so much of the fun has gone out of it. There are precious few successes at all, and those shows that are successes are not as nourishing as the successes of yesterday.”

Former “All In The Family” co-star Rob Reiner also has been dabbling in tv production through his company Castle Rock for the past two years (he’s currently producing “Seinfeld” and the upcoming “Partners In Life” for NBC). Reiner sees too much “feverish retooling” of shows by network programmers. “It’s all about plugging shows into the right demographics, the right formulas. It’s just the wrong way to approach theater, which is ultimately what television is.”

Still, Reiner insists that television remains a medium worth exploring. “When it’s great, television is the best medium to work in. It’s the most powerful and it reaches the most people.”

Tinker blames both the nets and studios for “slavishly recycling a handful of inordinately expensive producer-writers so that it’s incredibly difficult for the James Brooks of tomorrow to get into the game.”

Brooks himself admits: “It’s getting harder to assemble and hold a good staff together today. There’s something so voracious about the appetite of the television community that people get lured away.”

The original producers of “All In The Family” and “MTM” labored in independent companies, whereas “today those same people and their modern counterparts have studio deals with huge guaranteed incomes,” Tinker points out. “The wall around the business is too high, and the people inside are now so fat that we’re getting what we asked for and deserve.”

“There’s enough blame to go around,” adds Tinker. “We’ve all failed to deliver on the wonderful promise of this medium.”

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