Twentieth TV high on reality talk strip ‘Sparks’

Twentieth TV hopes to set the syndication world on fire with its high-stakes entry in the derby, a hybrid reality talk strip dubbed “Sparks.”

The fall 1994 project, which Monday moved from the realm of rumor into reality, will take talk to the streets — sort of a cross between “Nightline, “”Donahue” and “48 Hours.”

It represents Twentieth’s first major firstrun access project since the studio introduced “A Current Affair” into national syndication six years ago.

Although “Sparks” will be primarily targeted toward access and early-fringe time periods, the syndicator will also consider slots adjacent to late newscasts and “Nightline.”

Vet TV producer and journalist Dave Forman hopes to ignite interest in “Sparks” by hosting the one-topic-per-day series on location, tying it into breaking news events whenever possible.

In the event he can’t make it to a locale, Forman, whose columns have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today and who served a stint as programming director at all-news station KFWB-AM from 1986-88, will host from a “home base” satellite truck.

A member of a reporting team will take up the slack in those cases, according to Peter Marino, Twentieth’s exec VP of development and programming.

As is the case with Forman’s weekly Group W syndie program, “On Scene: Emergency Response,” the new show will be helmed by his 4MN Prods. Forman said the Group W series, which is about to enter its fifth season, will continue despite the new Twentieth strip.

Twentieth TV’s exec VP/general sales manager Ken Solomon calls “Sparks” the “next step” in firstrun development, blending the best elements of reality, magazine and talkshows.

Pilot due by mid-August

The syndicator, which closed the deal on the series late Friday, won’t hit the street with the show until it completes a pilot. Shooting is already under way and should be completed by mid-August, according to Marino.

Solomon noted that the station community wants more than smoke and mirrors after several high-profile failures in recent years that were sold without pilots — most notably “USA Today on Television” from the defunct Grant Tinker/Gannett venture.

The biggest competitor for “Sparks” so far is Time Warner’s “Entertainment News Television,” which is being licensed without a pilot.

A number of major syndicators are prepping “advertiser-friendly” reality strips for fall ’94, most of which are gunning to unseat tabloid shows that have fallen into disfavor with advertisers (reportedly among the contenders is Columbia, which is teaming with TW’s 48%-owned E! cable network to develop another entertainment newsmag show).

But Solomon is quick to dismiss the notion that Twentieth is using the new project to protect its hold on access in the event “Affair” fails.

The ‘jewel’ of denial

“Anyone who thinks we are blinking from ‘Affair’ is crazy,” he said. “That show is the family jewels … and we anticipate that it will be around for a long, long time.”

Twentieth wasn’t planning to take out a show for the 1994-95 season until Forman pitched the project, according to Solomon.

“This one walked into our door,” the sales exec said. “It’s not a newsmagazine, it’s not an ‘Entertainment Tonight’ ripoff, it’s not a gameshow. This is something different.”

It remains uncertain whether Twentieth will use its sister Fox-owned stations to launch “Sparks” in major markets, a path it has followed with “Affair” and other shows.

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