On a sound stage at Hollywood's Metromedia Square, where "Three's Company" and "All in the Family" once videotaped, cameras were trained on 10-year-old Tiffany Brissette.
The young actress spoke in a monotone befitting her role as a lifelike, little-girl robot. Off-camera, executive producer Howard Leeds, formerly with "Diff'rent Strokes," made some notes.
It looked much like the set of any one of a number of network sitcoms now in production for the fall season.
But "Small Wonder" is different. The show is completely bypassing ABC, CBS and NBC for its development, production, distribution and renewal. Instead, a consortium of station groups headed by Metromedia Television is backing and broadcasting the show.
"Small Wonder" is being born directly into the syndication world dominated by old episodes of "MASH," "Leave It to Beaver," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Bonanza" and dozens of other series that had begun life on the networks.
Faced with a dwindling supply of fresh "off-network" shows, as these former network series are called, syndicators are increasingly looking to first-run production as a reasonably priced alternative.
"First-run," said Joseph Zaleski, president of domestic syndication for Viacom Enterprises, "is the future of our business."
The trend toward original programming for the syndication market has been developing over the past few years, but largely in the area of game shows ("The $100,000 Name That Tune") and magazine programs ("Entertainment Tonight," "PM Magazine"). Now, however, it is expanding to include the more expensive forms of comedy and drama. Some varied examples:
--"It's a Living," starring Ann Jillian, soon will join "Too Close for Comfort" and "Fame" on the list of shows that found life after network cancellation.
Although it lasted only a year on ABC before being canceled in 1981, "It's a Living" did well when its original 22 episodes were syndicated last summer by Golden West Television. As a result, original producer Witt-Thomas now is creating new episodes to be distributed by Golden West and financed by guarantees from LBS Inc., a New York firm that sells the commercial time on the shows.
Columbia Pictures Television intends to follow suit with "What's Happening Now!! " all-new episodes of former ABC series "What's Happening!!," which ran from 1976 to 1979.
--Paramount Television, producer of "Cheers" and "Family Ties," has guaranteed that at least 94 episodes of each show will be available for syndication even if NBC cancels either one prematurely. Though the shows already have been renewed for a respective fourth and fifth year (with about 22 new episodes each year), Paramount is prepared to finance new episodes with a surcharge for syndication broadcasters.
Broadcasters seem only too happy to pay it. The more episodes that are available, the longer the show can be "stripped"--broadcast every weekday at the same time--a requisite for building an audience following that translates to high revenue.
--"Brothers," a homosexual-themed sitcom that airs on Showtime, recently received the largest renewal order ever--for 50 new episodes. Thus, this non-network show--which emanates from Paramount's TV syndication and home-video division--will be ripe for lucrative commercial TV syndication after finishing its run on the pay cable network. It will have the additional advantage of not having been seen by nearly as many viewers as if it were a commercial network show.
Twentieth Century Fox's "Paper Chase," formerly on CBS, also is building its potential syndication value via new episodes airing on Showtime.
--Twentieth Century Fox Telecommunications, Columbia, Lorimar and Paramount, along with station groups owned by the Tribune Broadcasting Co. and Post-Newsweek, are getting into first-run magazine-format shows in a big way. At least two new 60-minute shows and three half-hours will be on the air by the fall. The most ambitious project is Paramount's $20-million "America," a satellite-fed, five-day-a-week show being targeted as a news lead-in, primarily on network affiliates (including KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles).
Producer Donald L. Taffner, who successfully switched "Too Close for Comfort" to first-run syndication after ABC canceled it in 1983, believes that the distinction between network and non-network fare is disappearing. "The public doesn't even know 'Too Close' is off the network," he said.
"It's no longer a choice between A, B and C," added Anthony Cassara, president of Golden West Television. Cassara and others foresee a not-too-distant future when independents build entire evenings of syndicated first-run shows opposite the networks' prime-time fare. "The public is the benefactor," he said.
The situation did not, however, arise out of concern for viewers.
Robert Bennett, president of Metromedia Broadcasting, was motivated by the skyrocketing price tag for network series in syndication. Current comedies, such as "Family Ties" and "Cheers," are commanding as much as $75,000 per episode from each station buying them for future syndication.
"For our stations alone, they were getting (a total of) $300,000," said Bennett, whose seven big-city stations include local independent station KTTV Channel 11. "At that point, I said, 'Hey, this is crazy. For $300,000 to $350,000, we can produce TV ourselves."
Lurking behind the high price of off-network shows are some statistics that frighten independent station owners.
First, the number of independent stations has risen in the last 10 years from 78 to 214, creating "an insatiable appetite for product," according to Robert Jacquemin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Paramount Domestic Television and Video Programming.
Second, network series that are viable syndication candidates--those with at least 67 episodes (about three seasons' worth) and preferably 100--are in woefully short supply, thanks to the networks' tendency to cancel series that don't immediately climb up the ratings chart.
Only eight sitcoms are expected to enter syndication between now and 1990, down from about 22 half-hour shows in the last five years. They are: "Gimme a Break," "Facts of Life," "Silver Spoons," "Cheers," "Family Ties," "Newhart," "Webster" and, barring any downturn in its fortunes, "The Cosby Show."
Metromedia already contributed to the pool of potential syndication properties by co-subsidizing and distributing new episodes of "Too Close for Comfort" and by broadcasting "Fame" after its cancellation by NBC in 1983. Creating and producing all-new series was the next logical step.
Station group owners Gannett Broadcasting, Hearst Broadcasting, Storer Communications Inc. and Taft Radio and Television Co. Inc. teamed up with Metromedia Television to form the New Program Group, whose premiere production is "Small Wonder." The consortium comprises 24 network affiliates and nine independents covering 45% of the nation's TV viewers.
Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting Co. also is getting into first-run production. TV NET, a partnership between the Tribune Co. and Viacom, is an affiliation of 125 TV stations nationwide that will air prime-time, first-run programming (hence the name T ribune V iacom NET work). For now, it will present major theatrical releases never before seen on commercial TV, but future plans call for original programming.
INDAY, financed by LBS, is the name of a two-hour block of programming that subscriber stations will broadcast each weekday beginning this fall. The four half-hours within the block are a news show put together by the Tribune Co. and three magazine-style shows: "All About Us," hosted by Ron Hendren and produced by game-show mogul Dan Enright; "What's Hot, What's Not," produced by Lorimar and hosted by Fred Willard and Melanie Chartoff, and, from Columbia Pictures Television, "The Great Life," the pilot of which featured "St. Elsewhere's" Ed Begley Jr. as host.
LBS President Henry Siegel considers his company "a catalyst, if you will, in most of the projects that are happening in first-run syndication." LBS helped guarantee funding for "Fame," "Too Close for Comfort" and "It's a Living" and also backs "Tales From the Dark Side" and three animated children's shows. The company finances shows by "bartering"--in this case by retaining 40% to 50% of each show's advertising time for sale to national sponsors while local stations sell the balance themselves.
"I like to look at the networks as the three largest barter firms, and we're the fourth," Siegel said.
Will the various ad-hoc networks of syndicators and station owners ever rival the Big Three as generators of episodic TV and entertainment programming?
"My feeling is, if the networks, with all the talent they have behind them, can't produce successful half-hour sitcoms, I doubt if anyone else will be much more successful," said Chuck Wolfertz, Eastern sales manager for Victory Television, which will syndicate all current shows from MTM Productions, including "Newhart," "Remington Steele" and "Hill Street Blues."
Most syndication executives say that they would prefer to buy off-network shows-- if they were more plentiful and lower-priced. But given the current market, they see independence from the networks as a boon.
"The fact that the networks cancel shows quicker than they should is a major hindrance and a financial obstacle--but it also opens up an opportunity to create new programming for syndication," said Steve Roberts, president of 20th Century Fox Telecommunications.
"If we produced our own show and it got a 15 share, we wouldn't know what to do with the money," said Metromedia's Bennett, noting that none of the Big Three would renew a series with that standing. (The networks typically expect a 23 or 24 share--the A. C. Nielsen Co. ratings service's indication that 23% to 24% of the TV households viewing at a given time were tuned to that particular show.)
The creative community is responding to first-run syndication as well.
"It's the rush across the West to open new territory," said writer-producer Howard Leeds, who brought "Small Wonder" directly to Metromedia and the New Program Group because of the "freedom of creativity" they offered him.
Dale Sheets, Metromedia Producers Corp. executive vice president, said that every major studio and production company has approached the New Program Group about bringing new series there. Bennett said he expects to lure two other sitcoms into production by the spring.
"The incentive is you control your own destiny," Golden West's Cassara said. He believes that the erosion of network viewership--thanks to inroads by cable, cassettes and independents--as well as the first-run trend in syndication, will force a reevaluation of the networks by producers, viewers and even affiliates.
"As there are more and more places for a viewer to get his entertainment," Cassara said, "there's going to be less and less of a reason to stick with a network that isn't performing."