NBC’s raiding Vegas pride

Network commits to 13 episodes of animated skein

HOLLYWOOD — NBC and DreamWorks are ready to roar with “Father of the Pride,” a “Shrek”-like primetime CGI toon about a family of white lions who work as performers in the Las Vegas act of illusionists Siegfried & Roy.

After an elaborate personal pitch from DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg — which included flying NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker to Las Vegas — Peacock has given the project a 13-episode, on-air commitment. Net has also ordered 13 additional scripts of the half-hour laffer, with an eye on a fall 2004 premiere.

Jonathan Groff (“Late Night with Conan O’Brien”) and Peter Mehlman (“Seinfeld”) have already sketched out most of the characters in the project. Groff will serve as showrunner and write the pilot; he and Katzenberg will exec produce.

Mehlman is currently working on his own NBC pilot (“The Ripples”), so it’s unclear how much he’ll be involved in the making of the show.

“Pride” is expected to be one of NBC’s tentpoles in fall 2004 as the Peacock begins its first season without “Friends,” and, most likely, without “Frasier.” Pilot script is expected to be in NBC’s hands by July 1, and with an animation lead time of just under eight months, the first rough cuts should be available around this time next year.

Peacock execs are also working on landing a “Friends” spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc, and the combination of the two shows — if successful — would go a long way toward easing the pain of losing two comedy vets.

DreamWorks also has a heavy CGI slate set for 2004, with “Shrek 2” bowing June 18, “Pride” premiering in the fall, and “Sharkslayer” landing Nov. 5.

As for “Pride,” DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg will not take a credit on the skein, but will “lend a hand as time allows,” Katzenberg said.

Skein is expected to be among the most expensive first-year comedies ever attempted, though still cheap compared to what NBC pays for hits such as “Friends” or “Frasier.” Insiders estimate NBC’s per-episode license fee will be a seven-figure sum less than $1.4 million.

Marketing treasures

Net and studio also believe “Pride” will be rich with marketing and licensing opportunities, as well as chances to weave sponsors into the fabric of the show and its marketing, offsetting the cost of production. The NBC Agency will oversee the marketing of the show; NBC Enterprises will handle domestic syndication if the show is successful.

DreamWorks has an overall deal with NBC, so the Peacock had first crack at the show. At least one other Big Four net was ready to pounce on “Pride,” had the Peacock passed.

“Pride’s” origins stretch back almost two years, when Zucker approached Katzenberg about mounting a small-screen “Shrek.”

A few weeks ago, Katzenberg came to NBC and said he had “finally figured (the cost) part out and said he had come up with this great concept,” Zucker said. “All we knew was that it involved Siegfried & Roy.”

The idea for “Pride” came to Katzenberg while watching Siegfried and Roy perform for “probably the tenth time.”

Lions’ thoughts?

“I was sitting there watching the show, and when all the lions came out, I thought, ‘What must they be thinking right now?’ ” Katzenberg said. ” ‘And what if we saw the world through their eyes?’ ”

That led to one of the most extensive (and, perhaps, most expensive) pitch meetings in recent TV history.

Katzenberg and DreamWorks TV toppers Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey flew about 10 NBC execs (as well as their families) to Las Vegas on a Friday afternoon and then arranged for the group to take a private backstage tour at the Mirage to see the animals in Siegfried & Roy’s show, Zucker said.

“Then they took us into an ornate room at the Mirage where they pitched us on the vision for the show,” he added. “It was an incredibly thought-out pitch. They had already figured out the pilot episode, the characters, the back stories. We were blown away.”

Several prominent stars who are being eyed as potential voice talent for the series were also present. Katzenberg and Zucker declined to say which names were present.

Taking no chances

Katzenberg said he decided to go all-out with the pitch because he didn’t want to take the chance NBC might say no.

“I’ve never had to personally sell a TV show before,” he said. “The thought of being rejected made me overcompensate.”

Katzenberg said “Pride” will, at its heart be a “pretty satirical” look at human culture, focusing on Larry the Lion and his family, all of whom live next to a family of snooty white tigers. Larry will have gopher as a best friend, and Siegfried & Roy will make a brief appearance each episode.

Frank said the show will be “irreverent and smart and adult in its humor, while also bringing in children.”

While there will be a large team of people responsible for overseeing the show, Katzenberg hopes to stay involved in the series.

As for the technology needed to make “Pride” possible, Katzenberg said it’s actually still being developed.

“It’s only really going to become possible in another year from now,” he said.

Groff is repped by UTA; Mehlman by Kaplan-Stahler-Gumer Agency.

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