Reports a few months back that NBC's multi-award-winning cop show, "Hill Street Blues," would be simplified next season may have been premature.
If anything, it will be more complex. Viewers no longer will be able to count on the familiar roll-call-to-nightfall formula, and the cast roster will vary from show to show.
--The number of familiar faces actually will increase. Three actors will be dropped from the list of regulars and one will be added, for a total roster of 15. But the dropped regulars--Ken Olin (Harry Garibaldi), Mimi Kuzyk (Patsy Mayo) and Robert Hirschfeld (Leo Schnitz)--still will make several appearances each.
(Olin, incidentally, was in sufficient demand that he could sign on with CBS' "Falcon Crest" one week after learning of his fate on "Hill Street." He will play a priest-in-training who becomes romantically involved with someone on that show, his agent said.)
--Actor Dennis Franz, guest-featured two seasons ago as a bad cop who killed himself, will become the new series regular, playing a bad cop who doesn't kill himself.
--Rene Enriquez, one of the few Latinos regularly featured in a positive light on network TV, contractually speaking is being dropped as a series regular, but nonetheless will be featured more prominently than in the past. His new deal calls for his character, Ray Calletano, promoted to captain of another precinct, to have a significant role in at least six episodes, his press agent said.
--Several episodes will follow only a handful of recurring characters--meaning that even the regulars won't all be seen every week.
--Instead of the daylong time frame, some episodes will follow cast members, perhaps through the night after they return home. Others will jump right into the action. Either way, morning roll call at Hill Street station no longer will open every episode.
--Though the show's hefty budget was cited as one of the reasons behind MTM Productions' dismissal of co-creator Steven Bochco as executive producer as of the end of last season, the new executive producer, Jeffrey Lewis, assures that the budget "is not less, but is more" for 1985-86.
All that may sound complicated on paper, but it reflects what Lewis calls "fresh experimentation." Lewis, in a phone conversation Thursday, also said: "The one thing I'm most anxious to have people know is that 'Hill Street Blues' this fall is not going to be a shadow of its former self. It's going to be a very robust version of itself."
NBC is counting on that. Award-winning show that it is, "Hill Street" still sank by roughly 10% in the ratings since its peak in 1982-83. Its ratings didn't grow at all last season. By contrast, NBC's overall Thursday-night viewership rose by 24%, led off by the season's top new series, "The Cosby Show."
Those figures point to trouble on the hill. If the series fails to improve next season, further renewal could bring diminishing returns to both NBC and MTM.
MTM already has produced 102 episodes of the show, enough to syndicate reruns, and its deal with the network allows it to do so as of 1987. At that time, it can begin to recoup an estimated $20 million or more it will have shelled out over and above the license fee NBC pays MTM, now at $1 million-plus per episode. Dropping or stagnant ratings, however, could make "Hill Street" look less valuable to station managers buying the syndication package.
NBC, meanwhile, pays MTM more for the show with each passing season, a standard practice. The network might welcome the chance to plug in a cheaper, newer show that might equal or better "Hill Street's" ratings.
It is no coincidence, then, that the series' new creative heads--Lewis and co-executive producer David Milch--agree with NBC's assessment that the show needed some fresh ideas.
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff recently told the press that "Hill Street" had become hamstrung by its own formula. "Hill Street's" insistence on tracking several characters through a multitude of subplots, he said, may have become stale, especially in light of new shows like "Miami Vice."
Bochco had flatly rejected Tartikoff's suggestion that "Hill Street" explore different formats. "I once sent Steve a couple of suggestions for plot lines, and he basically ignored them," Tartikoff recently told The Times.
Lewis, not having fathered the "Hill Street" formula--Bochco and co-creator Michael Kozoll did--is more willing to dispense with it. "Of the suggestions I've heard from NBC, David and I agree with a lot of them," said Lewis, who has a writing credit on nearly 70 "Hill Street" episodes. "I've been talking since I joined the show in its second year about spending more time with individual characters. That is something David and I would like to do.
"I can't overemphasize we want to experiment with this show not as experimentalists, but simply as ways of telling stories we haven't told before. The balance of the show will be in the tradition the show has established."
Will a new "Hill Street Blues," beginning production on its sixth season July 11, be an improved one? And will it regain ratings ground lost last year?
The answer is the same as that given by Lewis when asked for further details about the new season: "I think you had best watch to find out."