D.C. poison on TV screen

HOLLYWOOD — Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling, Stephen J. Cannell, Steven Bochco and David Milch are just some of the A-list producers who have tried and failed to craft successful TV series set in Washington.

And now that Ivan Reitman, the director of the smash film “Dave,” is executive producing a Washington-based pilot called “First Gentleman” for CBS and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is penning a new Beltway comedy, also for the Eye web, many TV executives wonder whether these auteurs can challenge the truism that the road to Nielsen disaster is paved with cherry blossoms.

‘Murphy’ made it

With the exception of CBS’ “Murphy Brown,” Washington has been a Waterloo for the creators of TV series like Fox’s “Mr. President,” NBC’s “The Powers That Be, ” CBS’ “Top of The Hill,” NBC’s “The Round Table” and ABC’s “Capitol Critters” and “Capital News.”

During the same time period, though, Washington-based feature films such as “No Way Out,””The Pelican Brief” and “Dave” all performed reasonably well at the box office. Some producers feel that in order to make a Beltway setting work, a TV series must glisten with inside jokes the way HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” tweaks Hollywood.

“Washington is a lot like Hollywood,” says Milch, executive producer of “NYPD Blue” and “Capital News.””Each town has a specific set of jokes. Each is a specific world different from the rest of the country with its own set of rules; and unless you make those the absolute focus of your show, these settings can work against you.”

Harry Thomason agrees with Milch, and he remembers that he and wife Linda decided to move their CBS comedy “Hearts Afire” out of Washington and into a rural setting precisely because the inside-the-Beltway components were at odds with the more traditional elements of their family comedy. “The show couldn’t make up its mind between Washington and the family aspects,” says Thomason. “To simplify it, Linda moved it to the country so that our next show, which is a pilot for next fall, could be about all the controversial, inside-Washington stuff. We think that approach will work.”

Development executives and producers, however, feel that there are explanations other than Washington’s unique subculture as to why the town is so tough to tackle on the small screen.

One explanation is that most Americans so greatly dislike and mistrust politicians, they refuse to embrace any hero who is in the political arena, no matter how guileless.

Disney TV executive VP Dean Valentine has toyed in past seasons with tackling a Queen City comedy but ultimately decided against it. “In the ’30s and ’40s, people were comfortable watching a movie set in a showbiz environment, but today they are mistrustful of it,” he says. “Similarly, they are repelled by a political environment. Politicians today trying so hard to be perceived as ‘just folks’ is a response to the same stimuli that have turned viewers away from Washington.”

Another reason Washington remains a development pariah is that unlike TV dramas set in precinct houses, courtrooms or hospitals, the corridors of political power do not readily lend themselves to characters frequently being in jeopardy (a key element of TV drama). Some execs feel a soap opera or a dramedy could work in that setting.

But the ratings potential of a senator taking a kickback is somewhat less than that of a serial killer on the loose, a murder trial or a life-threatening illness — storylines more commonplace in cop and medico dramas.

For example, Milch’s hour drama “Capital News” began as a script called “Powerhouse” about lobbyists in a Hill & Knowlton-type public relations firm. The former “Hill Street Blues” scribe remembers ABC was scared off by the touchy subject matter and the fact that lobbyists do not often find themselves in life-and-death situations. He retrofitted the show so it was set in a Washington newsroom, but even that was a tough sell. “The conventional wisdom was that reporters (like lobbyists) don’t carry guns,” he says.

No stress sitcoms

Jeopardy is less important for half-hour comedies. And indeed the few Washington-themed series that have succeeded have been sitcoms. Some execs refer to this phenomenon as the Inger Stevens Corollary in homage to the star of ABC’s “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which was set in Washington and ran from 1963-66. It wasn’t until 25 years later that CBS’ “Murphy Brown” successfully tweaked the Beltway. But many producers, including Harry Thomason, feel that “Murphy” isn’t a true Washington show because “it’s more a comedy about a newsroom than pure politics.”

There is a final reason why Washington is a small-screen Waterloo — namely that many TV viewers prefer more escapist fare than political-themed shows offer. Audiences looking for relief from the glut of newsmagazines may find little solace in a show that is riddled with intrigue that seems ripped from today’s headlines.

Entertainment industry veterans believe that the failure of all these Washington shows may be a cautionary tale for Big Three networks, who are planning on unveiling fall skeds with more than their current load of 10 hours of primetime news programming. While these newsmagazines make money, a well-crafted drama like ABC’s “NYPD Blue” demonstrates the viewing public’s hunger for escapist fare.

Producers and studio executives are split, though, when it comes to the prognosis of political TV series like Reitman’s family dramedy about a former cop whose wife becomes U.S. prexy, or the Thomason’s comedy about a hell-raising congresswoman. The critical and marginal ratings success of “Masterpiece Theater’s””To Play the King” is considered a hopeful sign. The wicked yarn about an ambitious Parliament whip who longs to be the prime minister was riddled with Fleet Street-meets-House of Commons intrigue, yet it found a small, loyal audience even with its Blighty subject matter.

Others remain pessimistic about why the average viewer would watch a Washington show. C-SPAN’s audience share doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and as one studio executive who is no stranger to the White House says: “People can barely stand to watch the real politicians. Why on earth would they want to watch naive Hollywood versions of the very people they despise?”

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