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Final ‘Bell’ will ring in new skein

Show seguing to B'way

NEW YORK — It’s sayonara Screech and bye-bye Mr. Belding: “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” — the longtime linchpin of NBC’s Saturday ayem teen skein — is exiting the Peacock web after seven seasons, most likely to make way for a new incarnation of the successful “Bell” franchise.

The Peter Engel-produced Clearasil crowd comedy, an offshoot of the original 1989 series “Saved by the Bell,” wrapped production on its final 26 episodes earlier this fall. Half of those segs will air this season, with the other half — including a finale — slated to air between September 1999 and May 2000.

NBC has ordered pilot scripts for two potential “Bell” spinoffs and will likely decide to go forward with one of the new shows by mid-1999. Production on the new series, which is all but certain to make the Peacock’s 2000-01 Saturday lineup, should begin by January 2000.

Continuing education

While “Bell” continues to score strong ratings with its core teen aud, the show will have more than 135 episodes in the can by the time it signs off in 2000, more than enough for a long syndication run. According to sources on the show, financial “diminishing returns” by continuing the current incarnation proved to be economic disadvantageous.

Creatively, the show has also reached its limits, according to creator and exec producer Peter Engel.

“We’ve kind of done it all with this group (of kids), and Mr. Belding and Screech,” he said. “We need to try to do something else.”

Broadway bound?

NBC VP of Saturday morning programming Robin Schwartz says the Peacock is still a believer in the “Bell” brand.

” ‘Bell’ will continue to be the masthead of our schedule. This is about putting a new face on (the franchise) and not sticking with the same old same old,” she said.

Engel also continues to have faith in the lure of “Bell.” In a move unrelated to the pending exit of the current NBC series, Engel has started working on a possible Broadway tuner based on the original “Bell.”

Engel says the show’s book is being written now, with a goal of having a finished product on stage — though not necessarily Broadway — within a year.

Alternative schooling

As for the new “Bell” TV series, it’s not yet clear how closely the new project will resemble the current series. One script under development borrows the current Bayside High locale and adds new characters; another option being considered is moving the show to a less conventional high school setting, such as a prep school.

Engel says it’s unlikely Dustin Diamond and Dennis Haskins, who’ve played the nerdy Screech and principal Belding, respectively since the original 1989 series, will be part of the new show, though he won’t rule it out. Haskins’ character announces he’s leaving Bayside High in the final episode of “Bell: The New Class.”

Currently in the middle of its sixth season, “Bell: The New Class” is still a solid Nielsen performer, averaging a 2.2/15 in NBC’s Saturday ayem target demo of teens 12-17 so far this season. That’s up 22 percent from the same frame a year ago, making “Bell” NBC’s second fastest-growing show in its so-called TNBC teen block.

Family ties

“Saved by the Bell,” which originated as a 1988 Disney Channel series called “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” first bowed on NBC in 1989 and starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Hyperion Bay”) and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (“Beverly Hills, 90210”). The original series ended in 1993, the same year “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” premiered.

NBC attempted to take “Bell” primetime with “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” in 1993, but that show was quickly pulled due to lackluster ratings.

“Bell” helped the Peacock build its highly lucrative (and FCC friendly) sked of TNBC comedies, which also include “One World,” “City Guys” and “Hang Time.” Always dominant among teens 12-17, the lineup last month scored its first-ever win among male teens.

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