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New TV Season: Hard Labor in Hollywood : Producers Scrambling to Complete Episodes as Quickly as Possible

Times Staff Writer

In past years, TV series producers looked for good writers. This season, said a rueful Joel Shukovsky, one of the executive producers of CBS’ new comedy series “Murphy Brown,” which debuts Nov. 14, they’re scrambling to find “good writers who can write fast !”

Last year around this time, the television networks began unveiling the first round of new TV episodes for the fall season. This year, in the wake of the 154-day strike by the Writers Guild of America, many new shows are just entering their first week of production.

Even though the networks have delayed the debut dates of most fall series--and have scrapped the idea of a premiere week for new shows in favor of rolling out programs one by one throughout the fall--many television producers are still short on time, scripts and, in some cases, money as they rush to meet their deadlines.

Some producers of returning shows report that this year’s production schedule is almost on par with last year’s, since their staff writers were already in place and familiar with the show when the strike ended. Others, particularly on new shows, did not hire writers until after the strike--and may not go before the cameras for weeks or months.

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Most series producers say they plan to do a full 22 episodes this season (except new series, which traditionally get an order of 13 until they are picked up for the entire season) and say the networks have not asked them to cut back on the number despite the abbreviated season. And producers hope the networks do not change their minds on that--they need all 22 episodes in order to sell the 1988-89 season’s shows into syndication.

“The shows I think that are going to be affected the least are returning, three-camera comedies,” said Andy Borowitz, executive producer of NBC’s returning, three-camera comedy “Day by Day,” which premieres Oct. 30. “Anything that’s new, anything that’s shot on film (as opposed to tape), anything that’s an hour show is likely to have problems.”

“I’ll tell you what it’s like,” said Bruce Paltrow, executive producer of NBC’s new hour drama, “Tattinger’s,” which began filming its first episode last Tuesday at 7 a.m. in New York. “You’re in college, you’ve had a great semester, but you cut too many classes, you went on a vacation and now you’re faced with two papers and a final. That’s where we are.”

Paltrow, formerly an executive producer of NBC’s “St. Elsewhere,” said what the creative team faces on this new show following strike delays is “like night and day” compared to the luxury of the last season of “St. Elsewhere.”

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“By the time we cranked up for ‘St. Elsewhere,’ we always had a few scripts that were complete,” Paltrow said. “My second episode of ‘Tattinger’s’ (just started prepping), and my director is saying, ‘But I haven’t read a word yet!’ I have in my hand a script right off the Xerox. I hope we can hone it in time.”

“Murphy Brown’s” Shukovsky said that, although production will begin on schedule, the staff will have to scrunch a usual five months of preproduction down to three weeks. “It’s going to be murder,” he said. “Our decision is that quality will not suffer--our private lives will suffer; we will have none.” Shukovsky and others noted that even if scripts are ready in time, they will be forced to air episodes in the order in which they are shot, rather than having enough episodes available to shuffle around to counterprogram the other networks.

“The truth is, the ‘Full House’ episode we taped Friday is finished, but we only have a rough draft of next week’s show,” said Tom Miller, co-executive producer of the ABC comedies “Full House” and “Perfect Strangers” and NBC’s “The Hogan Family,” all of which are already in production and scheduled to debut in October.

Miller’s problems were complicated by the fact that the Oct. 14 premiere for “The Hogan Family” got pushed up to Oct. 3 by NBC to allow the network to premiere the show on the same night as the premiere of “ALF,” which went into production early under an independent contract. NBC wanted to promote both of the Monday night shows as a “comedy block” during the Olympics, which end Oct. 2.

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Elliot Schoenman, an executive producer of the new as-yet-untitled Mary Tyler Moore comedy for CBS, which debuts Oct. 26, also will have to work in sequence, shooting each week’s script as it is finished. Producers had also hoped to show several episodes to critics in advance of the premiere to give them a better overall picture of the show; instead, only the pilot episode is available in advance. “I hope people give us a chance, that they really look at the totality of what we’re doing,” Schoenman said.

Zev Braun, executive producer of CBS’ Vietnam series, “Tour of Duty,” said that normally the show would begin shooting this week, but this year only the first five script outlines have been written and the show will not go on the air until sometime in December. “If it were our choice, we would have gone on in late October or early November, but we couldn’t get ready in time,” Braun said.

Other hour dramas are less concerned about shortened writing time than being forced to speed up postproduction later, particularly difficult on technically complicated shows such as NBC’s “Miami Vice” (“We’re very finicky about the look, and we use a lot of music” said “Miami Vice” co-executive producer Richard Brams) and that network’s new “Magical World of Disney” hour, which debuts Oct. 9.

Speeding up costs money, says Lorimar Television president David Salzman, adding that Lorimar has doubled its postproduction crew this season to get the work on its shows done (the list includes “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest,” “Knots Landing” and CBS’ new Western drama “Paradise”). “The financial impact has really been in the postproduction area,” Salzman said. “We will be in an accelerated postproduction mode for the entire season.”

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“The scariest part is postproduction,” agreed Shukovsky. “Cutting, sweetening, color correction, it’s almost impossible to speed up. Plus there’s a shortage of equipment; that’s where the bottleneck comes.”

Some producers have found advantages to the strike despite increased costs and aggravations. “Simon & Simon,” now entering its eighth season on CBS, might not have gotten a spot on the fall schedule at all, said producer John Stephens--but when the network found out the veteran show could be ready for production the first week in September, they got the green light and a Saturday time slot.

“Simon & Simon” got the jump on the competition by using leftover scripts from past seasons for its first three episodes. Two episodes have already been shot, and another one goes before the cameras Wednesday. With an Oct. 8 premiere date, the show is one of the first to go on the air. “We’ve always overbought scripts, and when you get into seven years of doing a show, you are bound to have a number of scripts you almost filmed,” Stephens continued. “We found ourselves with almost 30 abandoned scripts over the seven years.”

Stephens added that the old scripts needed some minor adjustments, including accommodating the loss of Tim Reid’s supporting character Downtown Brown, who will be replaced by a female character in this fall’s episodes.

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Most producers interviewed pointed out that, despite the crunch now, the strike gave them an opportunity to spend more time developing the creative direction of the show. “Last year, we never had time to have any forethought about the kinds of shows we wanted to do,” said Ed Zwick, co-executive producer with Marshall Herskovitz of ABC’s returning drama “thirtysomething,” which will have its season premiere on Dec. 6.

And most producers were hopeful that, despite a possible erosion of the network audience in September, bringing out shows one at a time might give both the network and the audience time to pay special attention to each program.

“There won’t be a glut of programming--it’s usually a free-for-all,” said Richard Chapman, an executive producer on the “Absent-Minded Professor” hour on “Magical World of Disney.” “If a show doesn’t work immediately, there’s a tendency on the part of the networks to say ‘Let’s move the time slot,’ or something like that. With everything staggered, they (the shows) won’t get lost.

“I think the interest generated by the debut of a new show will be the same as it’s always been,” Chapman added. “I think that the audience that’s going to find it is going to find it, strike or not.”

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