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U TV stays committed to drama

Universal TV, MCA’s network production unit, started last fall as the season’s second-largest supplier behind Warner Bros. by investing heavily in the production of one-hour drama series.

Several of those new series are currently on the fence in terms of renewal, so the network will likely need a strong selling season to retain that status. The division has seven pilots currently in contention for the ’95 fall season at five different networks and program services.

Three long-running Universal series – “Murder, She Wrote,” “Coach” and “Law & Order” – already have been renewed for next season, with several others (among them “seaQuest DSV,” “Earth 2,” “Northern Exposure” and “Sliders”) awaiting word as the networks get ready to set their fall schedules.

Universal has remained committed to science-fiction-oriented dramas – including Amblin TV’s NBC hours “Earth 2” and “seaQuest,” and Fox’s “MANTIS” and “Sliders” – at a time when other studios fluctuated in their commitment to the one-hour form. The studio’s writer-producer roster includes the likes of drama maven Dick Wolf (who recently inked a new pact that extends until the year 2000), Barry Kemp, Michael Chernuchin, Tracy Torme and filmmakers John Landis and Sam Raimi.

In addition to its network development, the studio’s firstrun wing, MCA TV, continues to produce the firstrun hit “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and is planning a new companion show to go under its “Action Pack” banner, dropping “Vanishing Son.” Additional firstrun fare is in development, after MCA launched but was unable to maintain the strips “Last Call” and “Suzanne Somers” last season. MCA has also sought to push into the children’s arena with animated programs like “Back to the Future,” produced through Universal Cartoon Studios. A new version of “Casper” will premiere as a Saturday-morning series next year on the Fox Children’s Network, with another show based on the videogame concept “Earthworm Jim” in production for the WB Network’s Kids’ WB.

While Universal is producing fewer pilots than some of its competitors, officials have stressed that they don’t see development as a volume business and that they’ve walked away from deals that don’t make sense financially. The studio is also producing two direct-to-video movies based on the features “Darkman” and “Tremors” that will serve as backdoor pilots for potential series.

A breakdown of U TV’s, primetime pilots follows:

* “American Gothic” (CBS) – Gary Cole plays an evil sheriff who rules a small town in this bizarre drama. Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert will exec produce, with Shaun Cassidy as producer.

* “Jam Bay” (ABC) – From the producers of MTV’s “Real World,” Jon Murray and Mary Ellis-Bunim, this young ensemble drama focuses on workers at a hotel in Marina Del Rey.

* “Partners” (Fox) – Comedy about an architect who finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between his new wife and his best friend-business partner, Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss (currently producers on “Friends”) are the exec producers.

* “People V.” (NBC) – Produced by NBC Prods., Universal will serve as distributor on this drama series, which would follow a single murder case from “soup to nuts” over the course of an entire season. Michael Chernuchin and Rene Balcer, producers on the studio’s “Law & Order,” exec produce.

* “A Perfect Life” (UPN) – Twenty-something ensemble comedy from “Coach” producer Sheldon Bull about a guy whose friends think he has the perfect life.

* “Pranks” (ABC) – A hidden-camera reality show that plans and executes pranks at the written request of viewers. Dane Cook will host, with Gabe Sachs as exec producer.

* “Swift Justice” (UPN) – Producer Dick Wolf is developing this single lead drama for midseason consideration. It would fulfill a series commitment at the fledgling service.

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