Netlet is 'open canvas' for new drama series

UPN has ordered six episodes of a new drama series from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, executive producers of NBC’s critically acclaimed cop show “Homicide” and HBO’s graphic prison series “Oz.”

Attracting producers of the caliber of Fontana and Levinson could be a credibility boost to UPN, which has faced some image and ratings problems during its management transition over this past year.

“We’re trying to show the community that if you bring us your children, we’ll take good care of them,” said UPN entertainment prexy Tom Nunan. “We’ll be competitive with the big network dollars if you come do business with us.”

The on-air commitment to Fontana and Levinson, as well as production company Rysher Entertainment, means UPN has agreed to pay license fees for all six episodes, regardless of whether the show comes together as planned. UPN would like to have the series for midseason, but won’t rush it on the air until it’s ready.

NBC and ABC were interested in securing Fontana and Levinson’s next project, but the producers felt UPN would show the most support.

“It takes a lot of courage in these frugal days for a network to step up,” Fontana told Daily Variety. “Rather than be in competition for the one hour slot available on NBC’s schedule next season, which is probably my own (“Homicide’s” slot), I thought it would be better to go with a network that’s an open canvas. Their needs are greater, so there’s a capacity for greater creative freedom.”

Fontana and Nunan worked together on “Homicide” when Nunan was head of primetime series at NBC Studios, and “I think it reassured him I would be supportive of him taking chances,” Nunan said. “I’m an enormous fan of ‘Oz,’ and I’ve seen every episode.”

Fontana said the UPN drama would be “the one project I focus all of my energy on” as creator and show runner. Details are still in the discussion stage, but one source close to the project said it would have elements of a cop, medical, family and prison drama.

Nunan described the series as “groundbreaking and unique,” and while the show will stay within the boundaries of network TV, “I don’t see any reason for us to do cookie-cutter shows,” he said. “I hope we’ll excite and possibly shock people.”

“We’re looking to take risks,” Fontana added, but with the caveat: “It won’t be ‘Oz.’ “

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