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HBO Iindie Unit Hits Pilot Paydirt In War Against Costs

Is the cold war finally over on tv?

The icy impasse between broadcast and cable networks is showing signs of a thaw.

Warming the relationship – and perhaps breaking what one exec calls “the creative hammerlock” of Hollywood on tv – is HBO Independent Prods., which has sold four primetime series pilots to the networks in less than six months of operation. HBO’s stunning success reflects the demand for affordable original programs in a media environment changing so fast that players must scramble to keep up with it.

“I see the beginnings of a truce,” says Geoffrey Darby, senior v.p., production, for Nickelodeon and an exec producer of “Nickelodeon Gets Real Mature,” a pilot for a weekly sitcom that ABC is considering for its 1991-92 primetime schedule.

Darby says the networks – especially Fox and ABC, which is angling to diversify its programming sources – are hoping cable can “come up with inventive solutions to programming problems, as opposed to throwing money at the problems.”

That’s because the cable nets, hemmed in by tight budgets, have had to do the same thing in their own backyards. Moreover, says Darby, the networks are using cable suppliers in an attempt to break free from the existing Hollywood establishment.

“The networks are taking their lumps,” says Doug Herzog, senior v.p., programming, for MTV and one of the exec producers of “Heads Will Roll,” a pilot MTV is developing for a proposed weekly variety hour for ABC. “Cable is out there grabbing off a portion of their audience. The networks are looking to do business with cable because it’s become a hotbed of innovation. It’s the old theory: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Stu Smiley, v.p., program development, east coast, for the Fox Network, which has commissioned three of the four half-hour pilots from HBO Independent Prods. for next fall, says, “We’re trying to produce programs for less money, and one of our strategies is to work with a cable-oriented company that’s used to keeping costs down.”

The Big Three and Fox, squeezed by sluggish advertising and a shrinking audience base, are more conscious of deficits than ever before. A supplier like HBO can bring in a half-hour comedy for a lot less money than a major studio, says Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Independent Prods., because “we haven’t signed any of those giant contracts with the big writer-producers, we’re not supporting an enormous staff and we don’t have to feed a huge distribution system.”

Albrecht’s “we do things differently” credo allows his division to avoid any internal conflicts with Warner Bros. TV and Lorimar TV, the more traditional network primetime suppliers that also shelter under the Time Warner umbrella.

“Surprisingly enough, we don’t find ourselves running into each other,” says Les Moonves, head of network production for Lorimar TV, which churns out such primetime hits as “Full House,” “Family Matters” and “Knots Landing,” and has 14 fall pilots in development for all four nets. “HBO is working on different types of programming than we are. Through the HBO network, Chris Albrecht has made inroads with many of the younger writers and comedians.”

By contrast, Lorimar and Warner Bros. (“Murphy Brown,” “Night Court” and “Growing Pains,” plus nine pilots for next fall) tend to go after the more established writer-producers who have worked on successful network series.

Because the HBO net pitches its comedy spex toward a hip, young, urban audience, it’s understandable Fox has commissioned three of the pilots on HBO’s drawing boards, “Fox has carved out an image and identity that are different from ABC, CBS and NBC,” says Smiley, who was a programming exec at HBO before jumping to Fox.

The way the business is going, Albrecht can foresee using the HBO network as the showcase for a finished pilot commissioned by another network. The pilot would stand up on its own as a one-shot on HBO but, if the network picked it up, would then go into production as a network primetime series.

HBO’s pilots at Fox are:

* “Roc & Reg E.,” a comedy about two working-class men, starring the Broadway actor Charles Dutton, familiar to fans of August Wilson’s plays. Stan Daniels (“Taxi,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) created it; Jim Burrows (“Cheers”) directs.

* “TV” is a 30-minute comedy featuring sketches and short films parodying everything that appears on television during a typical 24-hour day. Michael O’Donoghue (“Saturday Night Live”) is exec producer and co-writer. The producers, Dave Colin and Steve Kerper, created MTV’s “Pirate TV.”

* “Down The Shore” is a sitcom about “weekend adventures of three male and three female pals forced to share a summer beach house.” Producer-writer’s Alan Kirschenbaum (“Dear John”).

For ABC, HBO is producing a spy sendup starring Michael York called “The Chameleon,” which uses dramatic footage from old tv shows and movies (like the HBO sitcom “Dream On”) to comment on the action. Pat Proft (“The Naked Gun,” the Police Academy movies) is creator and exec producer.

ABC, which has commissioned the MTV and Nickelodeon pilots, is right behind Fox in drawing on cable for series ideas because “ABC is more actively involved in the cable-network business than CBS and NBC,” says Darby of Nickelodeon. “ABC knows what cable can do – it owns 80% of ESPN and one-third of A& E and Lifetime.”

Comparing it to CBS and NBC, MTV’s Herzog says, “ABC is rushing to take advantage of the world of cable – it’s the first guy to show up at the sample sale.”

But too much euphoria by the cable networks is decidedly premature. Agency estimates are that only one out of every five pilots commissioned by the four networks will make it to their primetime schedules.

Albrecht sums it all up, “The name of the game is getting our shows on the air – and keeping them on the air.

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