Viacom Goes To ‘School’ With ‘Instant’ Strip

A firstrun sitcom strip exec produced by Fred Silverman is being test marketed on a consortium of six indie stations for one week this summer as preparation for a January domestic syndication rollout.

If it works, the sitcom would be the first syndie strip in the genre; its closest parallel is Norman Lear’s syndicated satiric strip soap “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” produced 15 years ago.

Silverman told VARIETY that the show would provide stations with an “instant strip,” canceling the normal four-or five-year waiting period that stations must endure before they can strip a sitcom.

Five episodes of the sitcom, called “Our Old School,” will air on WWOR-TV New York, and five of the seven United/Chris-Craft stations – KCOP-TV Los Angeles, KBHK-TV San Francisco, KMSP-TV Minneapolis, KUTP-TV Phoenix and KPTV-TV Portland.

The series centers around four college freshmen, two male, two female, who take up residence in a retirement home. They find themselves surrounded by surrogate grandparents – just when they thought they’d gotten free of their own parents.

Casting is being completed this week; so far, Gloria DeHaven and Norman Fell have been signed as retirees.

Sixty additional episodes are planned for production as part of the strip’s scheduled January 1992 national debut. Viacom will offer the show for cash plus two barter 30-second national spots. The show is designed for access or early fringe slots.

Because “Our Old School” is not an off-network program, it will be eligible for access time slots on affiliate stations in the top 50 markets. But Michael Gerber, Viacom’s president of firstrun, international distribution and acquisitions, says its most appropriate use would probably be as a transitional program for the 6 to 8 p.m. period on indies.

Although he says Viacom deserves credit for backing this kind of show, Petry National programming rep Jack Fentress points out that it’s extremely risky to launch such an expensive vehicle into firstrun right now.

“Recouping investment on a firstrun sitcom will be hard, given that nothing is failing in access right now and some stations are cash strapped,” he says. Sources say the sitcom could cost as much as $250,000 an episode.

Gerber said the first five summer episodes would be shot in Orlando; the remainder would be shot in Los Angeles, according to Silverman.

“Our Old School” will join two other sitcoms in firstrun, the MTM upcoming remake of the CBS series “WKRP In Cincinnati” and MCA’s “Harry And The Hendersons,” both weekly.

Although the Katz rep firm – with which Viacom recently set up a joint firstrun programming arrangement – was not involved in developing “Our Old School,” it is likely the company will encourage its client stations to consider buying it.

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