Four years ago, CBS was seriously considering giving Saturday night a) back to its affiliates or b) to a supplier like the Walt Disney Studios, which would program the entire night on a time-brokered basis.
Now, CBS owns the entire night… both literally and figuratively.
With the scheduling of the freshman drama “Touched by an Angel” at 9, CBS Entertainment Prods. – the network’s inhouse production unit – is producing all three of the network’s Saturday night shows: “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Angel” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
On top of that, Saturday was one of the few nights that CBS won with any regularity last season, providing a bright spot in an otherwise disheartening year.
That all-inhouse lineup marks the culmination of a process that began in the middle of the ’92-93 season on New Year’s night with the premiere of “Dr. Quinn,” followed by the April ’93 introduction of “Walker.”
Big Three lighthouse
CBS’ success with those shows also has lighted the way for the Big Three networks, which have found hits elusive as they’ve become more active producers with the relaxation of the financial interest and syndication rules.
Although the fin-syn rules have been eased gradually and are scheduled to disappear altogether in the fall, before “Dr. Quinn” the networks generally remained envious of the studios’ ability to produce winners.
“We knew we had the right to do them, but we didn’t really believe we knew how to do them,” says CBS Entertainment Prods, president Andy Hill. “We didn’t have confidence that, hey, we can do hit television shows…. With (Dr. Quinn), that sense of personal self-doubt disappeared.”
“Walker” was a more fortuitous case of happenstance, having been initiated by Cannon Pictures, which found itself unable to finance the series and halted production after producing just three episodes. When the opening two-hour installment premiered with big ratings, CBS moved to take the project inhouse, and the Chuck Norris vehicle has been not only a ratings winner domestically but a solid draw overseas.
According to Hill, another eye-opening part of the learning process has been proving that the network can produce shows “with an economic base that makes sense.” CBS Intl. has been successful enough in selling the hours overseas that the network is essentially in a profit-or break-even situation with them, meaning that a U.S. off-network sale (always a dicey area for drama series) should be gravy. MTM handles the domestic rights on “Dr. Quinn.”
CBS looked into getting rid of Saturday at a time when the economy was down and all the networks were questioning the viability of programming 22 hours a week. NBC was said to have explored paring its primetime lineup to 15 hours to facilitate a sale, and at one point then-ABC Entertainment prexy Robert Iger (now president-chief operating officer of CapCities/ABC) publicly mused that the webs might eventually pare down to 10 hours of primetime programming each week – a suggestion that brought stern denials at the time from the other webs.
Iger later backed away from those ruminations, but sources say CBS came closer than execs now admit to actually signing away Saturday night, where prior to “Dr. Quinn” the web had tried and failed with a series of short-lived shows that included “Earth Force,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Frannie’s Turn,” “Uncle Buck,” “Lenny,” “You Take the Kids” and “The Boys of Twilight.”
“The only problem,” says one former network exec, “is that once you give it back to (affiliates), you never get it back.” All the networks, in fact, have seen how difficult it is to recover time for network programming in areas such as latenight or daytime.
‘ Quinn’s’ reassurance
Though hits have been few and far between for the network inhouse divisions, Hill says “Dr. Quinn’s” success “forced people to look at us as a production company” and not just the network’s inhouse arm. That evolution came full circle during the recent selling season, with CBS landing the post- “Seinfeld” slot on NBC for its new sitcom “Caroline in the City.” ABC Prods, had also sold shows to both Fox Broadcasting and CBS, while NBC currently airs “NewsRadio,” a Brillstein-Grey series produced under a joint venture with CapCities/ABC.
Even with networks buying from and selling to each other, studio suppliers remain worried about network favoritism toward their inhouse product, since the network has an added incentive to make those shows pay off.
Hill counters by saying that any other studio supplying a network hits at 8 and 10 p.m. would be able to “slam in” a companion program between them without raising an eyebrow, pointing out that “Touched by an Angel” had to earn the timeslot with its performance during a two-week test run there last season.
“It’s very significant to own the whole night,” he says.