Webs take note of talent-driven flops

Some of this season’s high-profile bombs like ABC’s “Paula Poundstone Show” and Fox’s “Robert Townsend Show” have sparked a reassessment about the blood lust of the networks for talent-driven development.

While the season has featured its share of successes that grew out of talent deals — like ABC’s “Boy Meets World,” which stars Ben Savage, and Fox’s Queen Latifah-vehicle “Living Single”– many executives feel the trend of performer-driven series may have peaked and that the development pendulum may soon swing away from stars and back toward producers.

Says ABC Entertainment prexy Ted Harbert, “There is a frenzy going on right now. If a comedian does five good minutes at the Montreal comedy festival, someone will give him a pilot commitment. But I don’t think that’s a good way to do business.”

FBC Entertainment prexy Sandy Grushow concurs: “There is a real danger in an over-reliance on these talent deals.”

Of the new series on the fall schedule, quite a few were developed first for talent and second for concept: Fox’s “Sinbad,” CBS’ “The Nanny,” ABC’s “Thea” and the recently K.O.’d “George,” as well as NBC’s “The Mommies.”

Mid-season vehicles

Mid-season will also feature several comedies that started off with little concept beyond that of a star’s name. Tom Arnold’s “Tom” is on the mid-season roster at CBS; at Fox there’s an MC Hammer vehicle, “City High,” as well as the Jeff Garlin comedy, “My Kind of Town.” And come January, the Henry Winkler comedy “Monty” will battle with Warner Bros. TV’s George Carlin sitcom for Fox’s coveted Sunday-night timeslot after “Married … with Children.”

High-water mark for talent

The push for talent-driven development reached a fevered pitch in 1992, after ABC hit ratings paydirt with the Tim Allen vehicle “Home Improvement.” Last year , roughly 70% of network pilots featured a stand-up comedian, and the William Morris Agency’s West Coast head of television Bob Crestani suggests that demand for talent is not abating. “This season there are a lot more comedians that are attached to development deals. That’s a trend.”

Studios that enjoyed success with their network comedy development — namely Warner Bros. and Disney — were those that successfully married performers with their on-the-lot producers. Disney TV turned heads by ponying up big bucks to secure the services of stand-ups like John Caponera and Ellen DeGeneres, but they also had gifted scribes like “Simpsons” alum Jeff Martin on the lot who could spin stand-up dross into sitcom gold.

Says Disney network TV exec VP Dean Valentine, “After last year, I think it’s safe to say we’ve strip-mined the clubs to the point where there are only raw 17 -year-olds out there. The reason we, as a studio, were successful is that we didn’t concentrate solely on performers. We put equal emphasis on talent and concept — the dancer and the dance.”

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