In the latest sign that the WB is dead serious about increasing its primetime yuk quotient, the Frog net has given a 13-episode on-air commitment to a half-hour laffer from veteran “Friends” scribe Alexa Junge.
As expected, the WB has also secured a pilot commitment from “ER” producer John Wells, who will develop his next pilot for the net — probably for fall 2001 — via his overall deal with Warner Bros. Television. The Wells deal points up the increasingly close relationship that has developed between Frog suits and WBTV since Peter Roth took over as topper of the latter Time Warner unit.
The Junge sitcom, produced by Brad Grey Television and Columbia TriStar Television, will be built around a mixed-race, nontraditional family that aspires to function like a standard nuclear clan. Emmy-nominated Junge — who had been hotly pursued by other nets — will write the pilot and serve as exec producer of the project, slated to bow sometime during the 2000-01 season.
Junge served as co-exec producer of “Friends” last season, having been with the skein since its debut. She was head writer of the Nickelodeon comedy “Clarissa Explains it All” during the 1990-91 season.
The rare, but not unheard of, 13-seg order for Junge reps the latest attempt by the WB to increase its chances of finding a breakout comedy hit on par with the numerous marquee dramas the Frog has launched over the past five years, including “7th Heaven,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity.”
During the last six months, the web has made sizable commitments to pilots and skeins from comic heavyweights like Bruce Helford, Harold Ramis and the Weitz brothers (“American Pie”).
“When you consider who we are developing with this season, it’s clear that we’ve made comedy development a major priority,” WB Entertainment prexy Susanne Daniels told journos Monday during the Frog’s portion of the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour. “We stepped up to the top comedy showrunners and talent in an ultracompetitive marketplace, (and as a result) our comedy development has never been stronger.”
Daniels admitted that the WB had made “a conscious effort” to shift its focus slightly away from the teen-angst hour drama form. “We have widened our base a bit,” she said, noting that the net’s “future programming plans are largely dedicated to creating a breakthrough half-hour series.”
As for Junge, Daniels said she has “been pursuing her for years.”
“Alexa is exactly the kind of writer we are looking to be in business with,” Daniels added. “She is young, bright, agile-minded and, most importantly, funny.”
In addition to the Junge, Helford, Ramis and Weitz deals, Daniels also pointed to previously reported pilot deals for comedies from creators Darren Star, Dave Flebotte (“Ellen”) and Peter Segal and Fred Wolf (“Tommy Boy”), as well as comedy scripts from scribes such as Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”), John Riggi (“Larry Sanders”), Bruce Ferber (“Home Improvement”) and Jeffrey Lane (“Mad About You”).
Several of the comedies the WB has in the works come from Warner Bros. TV, which Daniels said had been transformed by Roth.
Roth’s the man
“God bless him,” the Frog exec said, calling Roth’s arrival “a significant change” that means greater “access to the studio’s A-level talent.”
“We’re lucky to have, I think, one of the smartest executives in television as head of Warner Bros. Television,” she said, noting that before Roth’s arrival, a close relationship between the studio and the web was not “a priority agenda (item) for Warner Bros. Television, and I think it is now.”
The WB’s relationship with former WBTV topper Tony Jonas was chilly, by most accounts. WB execs felt he shut out the web from access to his best scribes and thesps; Jonas loyalists argued that WBTV talent had no inclination to work for a web that, during Jonas’ tenure, was still a tadpole.
On other topics, both Daniels and WB CEO Jamie Kellner did their best to spin the WB’s double-digit ratings falloff this fall, attributing most of it to weaker distribution in the wake of the loss of cabler WGN as an affil.
“We knew we would hit a bump in the road, but we were so positive about our schedule, we thought we’d drive right over it,” Kellner said. “And in fact, we haven’t. It’s pushed us backwards a little bit … (but) we’re not going to change our plan.”
Kellner sounded upbeat about the pending merger of Frog parent Time Warner with AOL. “The more horsepower you have going into the future, the better off you’re going to be,” said Kellner, noting that the online giant could give the WB a giant boost in both promotion and distribution.
Exec said the Frog net is “one of the more unique assets that Time Warner controls, because it’s a focused asset, and there’s a real brand value … to a group of people who are very important on the ‘Net. I think we will play a large role in the future in terms of what Time Warner and AOL do together, especially in the space toward the younger end of our demo.”
With the WB still looking to a renewal deal with 20th Century Fox Television for “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” Kellner repeated earlier assertions that he would rather lose the series than pay the studio an outrageous license fee.
“From an economic standpoint, it doesn’t have the same kind of a place in our business that ‘ER’ had for NBC,” he said, noting that there’s another year to go on the contract for “Buffy.”
Daniels and Kellner also repeated previous statements denying that the federal government was ever given control of the creative content of WB shows featuring anti-drug plots.
“I actually look at this as the government kind of being very clever in trying to find a way to get an important message out,” Kellner said.