Shows Litter Limbo Land

Development hell looks air-conditioned compared to life “on the bubble,” that limbo land for freshman network shows that may or may not get a shot at another season.

“We’ve got bubble trouble,” says Jamie Wooten, exec producer of the CBS rookie sitcom “The Five Mrs. Buchanans.” “It’s so lovely when the network takes you off during sweeps so America doesn’t get to know you exist. We’re going back on the air this month, so it’s a bit of a reprieve, but it appears our future is based on how much of CBS’ development crashes and burns.”

Wooten is not alone. The increase in bubble shows can be traced to the success of shows that took time to find their audience, ranging from “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers” to such recent hits as “Seinfeld” and “Melrose Place.” The nets are preaching patience and holding off on giving the hook to new series. There’s no definitive ratings number that puts a show on the bubble – it simply means a show whose performance falls just shy of network expectations.

“We’ve got a situation now with ‘Family of Five’ where the show keeps getting better with each episode, so you keep hoping with the right scheduling move and a little guidance it finds the audience it deserves,” says Dan McDermott, executive VP of current programs and specials at Fox.

The webs’ increased willingness to play the waiting game isn’t simply for creative reasons. If changes are made, advertisers are free to pull their money out. And that sharp eye on the bottom line means the nets order fewer backup shows these days.

“The networks’ trigger fingers have become stabilized during the last few years, simply because they don’t have as much bench strength as they once did,” says Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. Television. “This is development season, and you can order 10 new series and think they all will be the next ‘Cheers,’ but when it comes down to it, it often makes more sense to fix something you already have going that shows signs of life, (rather) than starting from scratch.”

As a result, all the networks have their bubble shows. ABC has the most, including “My So-Called Life,” “All American Girl,” “Sister, Sister,” “On Our

Own,” “A Whole New Ballgame,” “Thunder Alley,” “Me and the Boys” and the newsmag “Day One.”

At CBS, it’s “Due South” and the “The Five Mrs. Buchanans,” as well as newsmag “Eye to Eye with Connie Chung.”

NBC has “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The John Larroquette Show” and “The Cosby Mysteries.”

At Fox, the waiting game is on for “Party of Five,” “Models Inc.” and “MANTIS.”

When shows land on the bubble, producers and networks start the spin control. Webheads voice guarded support for the show in public but complain privately that if only the show runner had listened to their advice, everybody would be breathing a lot easier.

Meanwhile, producers complain about lack of scheduling and promotional support. For every critical fave like “Homicide,” there’s a “My So-Called Life” that may have gotten short shrift from its network.

“Putting us in at 8 p.m. was like putting a square peg in a round hole,” says Winnie Holzman, executive producer of ABC’s “Life.” “Because it’s a show about teenagers, there’s this assumption that there’s this 8 p.m. bubblegum factor, and so the promotions they run for us make the show look like some kind of ‘90210.’ That’s not what we’re about.”

This is the time of year when show runners scramble to demonstrate their series have legs. If the demographics are too male, female characters make their way into the script, while marquee name stars do guest spots to increase sampling. Meanwhile, producers of critics’ faves start dropping their fan mail off on the desks of network brass.

Says Paul Haggis, executive producer of CBS’ frosh series “Due South”: ‘We realized that we’d moved away from developing central female characters, so we’ve focused our attention there to broaden the appeal of the show.”

After all, bringing on new characters to widen a show’s audience is page one from the network fix-it notebook.

The Alphabet web believes in “Me and the Boys” star comic Steve Harvey, but is talking to Warner Bros, about retooling the show’s “My Three Sons” format.

Similarly, NBC’s “Homicide” added a female police captain at the beginning of the season, much like the network-mandated fix for “Law & Order” a few seasons back, when two lead female characters were brought on board.

“It’s one of (NBC Entertainment president) Warren Littlefield’s eight rules of dramatic television series that you have to have two and preferably three female characters,” says Tom Fontana, exec producer of “Homicide.” Fontana could be repeating production notes from entertainment execs at any of the other networks.

Beyond tweaking their shows, producers of bubble series put up a strong defense, invest in gallows humor and take to pleading with higher powers.

“The network has given us every indication they want to renew us, which I know means absolutely nothing,” says “Due South’s” Haggis. “At this point, I’ll do anything to keep the show on the air. I’m looking for new things to sell; I’ve already sold my self-respect.”

“I’m in the zen of it,” says Fontana, who went through a similar waiting game when he worked on “St. Elsewhere.”

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