Steven Bochco, the $10-Million Man : Industry Ponders Whether His Exclusive Deal With ABC Will Pay Off for Network
Steven Bochco, co-creator and executive producer of NBC’s “L.A. Law,” co-creator of ABC’s “Hooperman” and co-creator of “Hill Street Blues,” made what he called a “terrible confession” during a recent interview: He does not watch TV.
TV, however, is definitely watching him .
Just a few weeks ago, CBS had its eye on Bochco. The network offered the 44-year-old writer-producer the job of president of its entertainment division, even before the Oct. 30 resignation of then-President B. Donald (Bud) Grant. He turned down that offer, which would have put him in charge of all CBS-TV programming except for news and sports, then had all three networks watching as he considered exclusive development deals offered by CBS and ABC.
Bochco went with ABC in a landmark six-year, seven-series deal, with three more non-exclusive commitments over a flexible period of several years.
Now just about everyone in the television industry will be watching over the next decade to see if that deal will be worth it to ABC.
The “it” is somewhere around $10 million. When asked, Bochco called that a “wrong figure” and would not reveal the correct one. His attorney, Frank Rohner, said the figure was “very close” but “slightly less” than $10 million.
In addition, Bochco will own the 10 series he develops for ABC, meaning whatever profit they eventually earn following their broadcast on ABC will be his.
Though reticent about the specific dollar amount of his deal, Bochco readily acknowledges that that “certain cash chunk” carries with it a huge responsibility. “I will work very hard not to screw this one up, to validate this deal,” Bochco said thoughtfully in a conversation at his office in the Old Writers Building at 20th Century Fox studios.
“There will be an awful lot of angry people if I screw this one up,” he continued. “I want to justify the enormous commitment they (ABC) have made to me. If I can’t do that, I’ll kill it for the next person who comes down the road.”
Bochco’s ABC deal comes only months after the network dissolved its 18-year exclusive arrangement with producer Aaron Spelling (“Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Family,” “Hotel”). At the time, it seemed the era of long-term exclusive deals was ending because the arrangements were no longer profitable for the networks, and limited the producer’s options as well.
Bochco believes his contract will be beneficial to both the network and himself--in a creative sense as well as providing the Certain Cash Chunk. “There’s never been anything quite like it before,” he said.
The arrangement seems virtually without drawbacks for Bochco. When his current contract with 20th Century-Fox Television expires June 30, 1988, his contract with ABC begins. Bochco will open his own production company shortly thereafter.
He said he is currently discussing joint ventures with almost every studio in town but may decide to go it alone. Or Bochco could devise a similar arrangement to that of former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, who formed his own production company, GTG Entertainment, with financial backing from outside the Hollywood mainstream--the Gannett Co.
Bochco’s contract requires his new company to create and develop 10 shows--tentatively five one-half hour and five hour shows--but he will not have to be executive producer of all of them. Rather, he sees his production company developing similarly to his “Hill Street Blues” alma mater, MTM Enterprises, in which other creative people could take the responsibility of producing some of the shows.
“Realistically, I can’t executive-produce 10 shows,” Bochco said. “I would like to do some of them myself, but I also know I don’t want to do what I’ve been doing for the past 18 years, which is sitting in rooms every day of my life--writing scripts, writing stories, reworking stories, story meetings endlessly. It’s time to step back a little bit.”
Even without the ABC commitment, Bochco said, he would soon have opened his own production company. “I would have elected not to go on the line anymore, to go into the trenches six, six and a half days a week,” he said.
He said he will not be stepping back immediately from his current duties with “L.A. Law,” however. Although his required participation ends with his Fox contract, Bochco said he will executive-produce the Emmy Award-winning legal drama during the 1988-89 season, its third. If the show lasts longer than that, he said, he will have to become less involved in order to meet the ABC commitment. ABC does not expect its first series from Bochco until the fall of 1989.
Although Bochco does not plan to develop shows that do not first win the approval of ABC, his contract with the network does allow him, following the first two years of exclusivity, to sell a series to another network if ABC turns it down. Each time Bochco sells a show elsewhere, however, it will cost him two series commitments from ABC.
“It would cost two commitments with ABC; that’s the penalty,” Bochco said, “which I’m more than happy to pay, given what I get in return, which is the ability to say to a writer: ‘We’re not trapped. If they don’t like it, we can go elsewhere.’ I think that’s a very valuable calling-card with the creative community.
“I also think it’s an arrangement that will keep everyone attentive to the process. It will keep us from getting sloppy or arrogant with ABC, because there’s a sufficient price to be paid for going across the street with (a series project).”
Added Bochco, sounding like he meant it: “I like everyone being at risk.”
Bochco disagreed with two common assumptions about the new deal: One, that he has overextended himself with 10 series, and two, that there will be little room for other companies to enter into development deals with ABC for the next decade.
For one thing, he said, he does not expect to be in charge of 10 successful series all at once. “We’re not going to make 10 hits,” Bochco said. “I wouldn’t say no to it if you could wave a magic wand, but I cannot imagine a situation in which you would roll out of your shop 10 hits.”
And, he added, even if the company provided one hit show a year to ABC, there would still be plenty of room for new programming on the schedule. “It doesn’t lock up development,” he said. “I wouldn’t want the burden of being considered the savior of a network,” Bochco said. “I’m not; I can’t do that, and that’s not what they’re looking for.”
Bochco also turned down the opportunity to become the savior of CBS when he rejected the job as entertainment chief. Until recently, he denied having been offered the job prior to Grant’s resignation, refusing to take press phone calls during his negotiations with the network.
“Bud Grant’s a lovely man, and he made a potentially very uncomfortable situation very comfortable for me by very elegantly picking up the telephone and saying, ‘Gee, I hear you want to be a television executive,’ ” Bochco said. “And we laughed, and I said I turned it down because I couldn’t afford the pay cut.”
Bochco said he seriously considered Grant’s job, however (which subsequently went to Kim LeMasters, who had been vice president in charge of programming at CBS). “I didn’t go back there (to CBS East Coast headquarters) to talk to (CBS Inc. chairman) Mr. (William S.) Paley and (CBS president and chief executive officer) Mr.(Laurence A.) Tisch to get a free trip to New York,” he said. “In fact, I paid my own way.
“I’d shot off my mouth more than a few times over the past half-dozen years, fantasizing about being a network executive--absolutely. I really thought about it at great length, and found it (the interviews) to be a great opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with the next half-dozen years of my life.”
And would he have been good at the job? “I think I would have been,” Bochco mused. “I think there are parts of the job that I wouldn’t have liked, lots of parts. There are parts of this job I don’t like. But I think it’s potentially a very creative job, and I think those jobs are flexible enough that you design them to your strengths and find people who can do the things you cannot do.”
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