Is playing it safe risky business for webs?

WELCOME TO CHANGING CHANNELS, the long-running smash hit comedy television column.

Because of the obvious success of Changing Channels, its talented creator has been given a blind commitment to write another column, which he has chosen to devote to badminton. Unfortunately, the author has no experience playing badminton or particular knowledge of the game, but the assumption is that if he can write one long-running smash hit comedy column, he ought to be able to come up with another.

This is the risk networks take, in varying degrees, when they lock themselves into multiple-series relationships with major producers, and a lot of people within the industry are grumbling about it–foremost among them, it should be noted, producers and executives who don’t have such deals but would like them.

Such agreements are nothing new, but the evidence of them is particularly strong (and for those on the outside looking in, vexing) this year as CBS fills out its Monday lineup with new series from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Diane English behind, respectively, shows created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Diane English.

ABC, meanwhile, continues to go through the pain of divorce on a weekly basis thanks to Steven Bochco’s “Civil Wars,” having struggled last year through the “what to do with ‘Sibs’ ” dilemma, from producer James L. Brooks. Also, the network has given the best time period on TV to “The Jackie Thomas Show,” a comedy about an obnoxious television personality, from Roseanne and Tom Arnold. (Insert your own snide comment here.)

Bloodworth-Thomason, English, Brooks and Bochco have all produced splendid series in the past, and some of their struggling series have or had much to recommend them. Critics are even saying some nice things about “The Jackie Thomas Show”–in spite of themselves, no doubt, in light of some of the things the Arnolds have said about them.

Network executives, mindful of the risk associated with any new series, often say one way to gamble intelligently is to bet on a proven commodity. ABC took the latest step through its deal with Wind Dancer Prods., banking on the enviable track record of producer Matt Williams, who’s been involved with such hits as “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement.”

Still, it’s legitimate to ask whether some producers are one-trick ponies, at least in terms of commercial success. Having drunk in the money and power of a major hit, do some creators lose whatever hunger drove them and become suppliers of artfully done shows with limited audience appeal? Do they prove the adage that every producer, no matter how talented, has a 12-share show inside struggling to get out?

THE QUESTION THEN ARISES as to whether the networks are making decisions largely to preserve their relationships with these producers–sometimes, it seems, at the expense of their own self-interest. A clear example would be the NBC series “Wings” and “A Different World,” which, by virtue of their production auspices, have held on for years to coveted time periods.

While “Wings” is an above-average comedy, few observers believe it has the individual strength to stand alone once “Cheers” is gone or if it were forced to survive on its own in a new time period. Even so, the show has clung to its post-“Cheers” slot, depriving NBC of the opportunity to use that time period to nurture another show, like “Seinfeld,” which might have greater potential and could benefit from such exposure.

Similarly, “A Different World” maintained a solid audience for years between “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers,” though few believed it could do so on its own. With “Cosby” finally gone, NBC’s “World” has stopped spinning and shown its vulnerability, compelling the network to throw a new, unproven series against Fox Broadcasting Co.’s “The Simpsons.”

At CBS, there’s grumbling about “Hearts Afire” and “Love and War,” the new Monday entries, which have fallen significantly off the shows they replaced. The network has stated its commitment to the shows and said that it will give them time, but schedule-watchers still wonder: Would the network be as patient with a show whose producer wasn’t tied to the web for another three or four series?

SOME OBSERVERS BELIEVE CBS is missing a chance by leaving “Love and War,” in particular, in the post-“Murphy Brown” slot, to the possible detriment of “Northern Exposure.” One disinterested third party maintained that of the new CBS shows, “Bob” would be a more logical choice, based on both the show’s initial performance and Bob Newhart’s longtime success on Monday night. “Evening Shade,” he pointed out, was a little-seen Friday series before it moved to Monday.

“Civil Wars” is the fourth series under Bochco’s 10-series relationship with ABC. Even those of us who admire the show have to accept that it appears a long shot to ever develop any kind of substantial audience–even if the show went, to paraphrase a radio slogan, all nude, all the time.

ABC had clearer decisions with Bochco’s “Cop Rock” and “Capitol Critters,” acknowledged risks going in that were plainly rejected by viewers. With a half-dozen series yet to go on its Bochco deal, however, yanking a quality show with poor-but-not-embarrassing ratings is perceived to be significantly more complex than canceling the average, run-of-the-mill drama.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of betting on proven winners in an uncertain business, trying to catch the coattails of an 800-pound gorilla. The problem, from a network’s point of view, is if “Jackie Thomas” starts falling 10 share points off “Roseanne,” who wants to be the one to get in the cage and tell them?

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