Beating hearts ripped from living chests. Sharks the size of Buicks that snack on men. A community of the dead in your own backyard.
That was the potential presented by film maker Steven Spielberg's return to his television roots as creator of "Amazing Stories," seen Sundays at 8 p.m. on NBC. All of the aforementioned tidbits were seen in movies he either directed or produced.
Thus far, however, plotlines of Spielberg's half-hour anthology series have leaned toward what he calls "the bright side of the fairy tale." They have been whimsical tales about a friendly ghost train, magnetically charged kids and an actor playing a mummy who gets mistaken for the real thing.
The shows also have slid steadily in the ratings. "Amazing Stories' " premiere episode Sept. 29 drew a healthy one-third of that night's viewing audience. That figure dropped 5% the next week and by its latest two airings--opposite Games Two and Seven of the World Series on ABC--"Amazing Stories' " audience share was down to less than a fourth, then a fifth of the homes viewing TV those nights.
"Murder, She Wrote," the competition on CBS from 8 to 9 p.m., drew much larger audiences opposite the same two ball games, finishing, respectively, as the No. 3 and No. 10 show of the week.
It would seem a good time to bring on the vampires and the psychopaths, so to speak--and in a broad sense, that is exactly what "Amazing Stories" will start to do as part of a plan that TV executives say they had in mind all along.
"More adult storylines, a few thriller episodes, episodes that are a little scarier," are coming in the next few months, according to Robert Harris, president of Universal Television, which produces "Amazing Stories" in association with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff said Wednesday morning that the scheduling is not a reaction to the series' diminishing audience share, which averages below the 28% level NBC had hoped for.
Rather, he said, the "disruptive schedule" of World Series games prompted NBC to "target the first four Spielbergs so they would hit an absolute bull's-eye with kids and teen-agers." That age bracket includes a healthy portion of Spielberg's film fans and is also the TV viewing group not among the loyal following enjoyed by "Murder, She Wrote," another Universal show.
"Then you start trying to spread the audience with broader-appeal shows," Tartikoff said.
By next week, NBC should have a better idea if more adult fare proves a bigger draw. On Sunday, from 8 to 9 p.m., the "Amazing" story is a one-hour episode directed by Spielberg called "The Mission." A tape of the show provided by NBC reveals this to be an action-psychodrama, focusing on a World War II tail gunner trapped in the belly turret as the plane, short on fuel and its landing gear inoperative, prepares for a skid landing.
Tuesday at 9 p.m., the network will air a half-hour episode directed by Peter Hyams ("2010") that it considered too frightening to show in the family-oriented 8 p.m. Sunday slot. It stars Gregory Hines as a psychic who touches someone and "sees" a murder committed.
Tartikoff, who had seen only one completed episode when he began stumping for the show last spring, now says that about five of the first season's 22 episodes are "a little too soft in some cases or a little too artistic or far out. But 17 for 22 isn't bad." (NBC, per Spielberg and Universal's request, committed to backing two years' worth of episodes--44 of them at about $750,000 each.)
Meetings begin next week at which the future direction of the show will be discussed; change could be in the offing if ratings don't pick up.
"If for some reason, as we go toward the end of this year, audiences have rejected this show, I think Steven is creative enough to sit down and say, 'Let's do something a little different for next year,' " Universal's Harris said. He would not speculate on what those differences might be.
Some industry observers have blamed lack of pre-season screening of episodes--again, at Spielberg's request--for the show's smaller-than-hoped-for ratings. Conventional thinking says that, with sufficient pre-promotion, the season opener would have been sampled heavily by viewers eager to see what Spielberg had up his sleeve, and that those who liked it would come back for more. Though the size of the show's opening-night audience was good, it nonetheless was smaller than "Murder, She Wrote's" by about 2 million viewing homes.
"It was a judgment call," Tartikoff said. "If I could do it all over again, I suppose that I would have wanted to have more of the press on my side going in than what we got. I think we hit a backlash because of having not allowed any of the initial episodes to be screened."
Amblin Entertainment spokeswoman Sally Van Slyke said that the sudden availability of preview tapes is not in response to "Amazing Stories' " ratings decline. "It was always his plan," she said. Asked why Spielberg would want to start the season with such a tight grip on publicity materials and then decide to loosen it, Van Slyke said, "It's what Steven does. Steven likes secrets when he's doing something new."