When Brandon Stoddard was put in charge of revamping ABC's languid prime-time ratings, and the network's lousy reputation in the entertainment production community, he went out and tried to get the big, creative names to work at the network.
His biggest deal was with one of the small screen's best-known names, Steven Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" for NBC. Bochco also has had his share of failure. Anybody remember James Earl Jones in "Paris" or "Bay City Blues"? Indeed, his most recent attempt, "Hooperman" with John Ritter, was just canceled after its second season on ABC.
But he brought bushels of prestige and clearly a well-above-average amount of talent to the network and, whatever the financial stakes, it is reasonable to assume that several hits will result from his 10-show deal.
"Hooperman," by the way, was not part of that deal. It came to ABC under Ritter's agreement with the network. What might be surprising, though, is that Bochco's first show for ABC under the auspices of Steven Bochco Productions is not one of those classy hour dramas that have given him so much success, but another half-hour dramedy of the type that was just canceled.
"Doogie Howser, M.D." is the story of an intellectual prodigy. He went to medical school at the age of 12 and now, at 16, he is a doctor. With several programs yet to be heard from, it is the early leader for the best new show of the season.
Bochco said that he was not perturbed by the track record of the once-touted, now-discredited, dramedy format.
"You know, most traditional half-hour shows fail. Most traditional hour shows fail," he said. "People have only been attempting these kinds of half hours for a short time, and it's not unexpected that a majority of them, like the majority of everything else, will fail.
"I continue to believe that it's an extremely viable form and that in the course of time you're going to see it succeed, as it already has with 'The Wonder Years,' which is a real successful show that doesn't fall into a typical half-hour sitcom format. I'm hoping 'Doogie Howser' will maybe break a few rules of its own."
Bochco said he learned much about the format from the problems with "Hooperman," though he would in no way term that show a failure and, indeed, seemed quite disappointed that he wouldn't be able to deliver a third season.
"When we first put 'Hooperman' on, people would tell me something that I would take as a compliment. They would say they couldn't believe that they hadn't just watched an hour show," he said. "But it turned out that it wasn't a compliment, it meant the show was too dense.
"With a half hour, you have to adopt a different kind of storytelling. It's like the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story. I hope I learned a great deal about the half-hour form from 'Hooperman.' I just want to keep doing it until I get it right."
Bochco certainly gets it right in the pilot of "Doogie Howser, M.D." with a script that deftly shifts gears between comedy and drama as it examines the inherent contradictions in the man-boy that a 16-year-old doctor is. The title role is in the immensely capable hands of a real 16-year-old, Neil Patrick Harris, who got his start acting opposite Whoopi Goldberg in "Clara's Heart."
"I've sort of always been interested in prodigies," Bochco said of the genesis of this idea. "My dad was a prodigy, a violinist. It's just a fascinating kind of freak of nature. They don't really understand why it happens, there's no pattern to it particularly.
"It's just real interesting and it began rattling around in my head and for some reason, the notion of a kid who by virtue of very specific circumstances had all of those prodigious abilities kind of laser focused onto medicine.
"It struck me as really interesting because the problems, in terms of storytelling, became so obvious. I think a show like this, assuming an audience accepts the fundamental premise, can be very entertaining for years to come. Whether other people will find it as intrinsically interesting as I do, gee, I don't know. I hope they do."
As for Bochco's years to come, he doesn't plan to try to fulfill his now-nine-show commitment to ABC in the next few years, or even to do it all himself.
"I'm going to try very hard to do no more than one project per season," he said. "I've never been very good at juggling too many balls at the same time. I want to devote myself to 'Doogie' and get it up on its feet properly and, win or lose, wait until we know what that's all about before moving on to the next one."
With nine shows guaranteed on the air, Steven Bochco Productions could be an attractive place for some of television's talented writers to take their wares. And you know that, even with Stoddard no longer president of entertainment, the ABC network that has an exclusive deal with Bochco is going to be a very different network from the one that for years had an exclusive deal with Aaron Spelling.