Specials Aren't Enough for Dick Clark's Firm : Entertainment: Dick Clark Productions is looking for a successful series to boost its earnings.


All the cats watched "American Bandstand," Dick Clark's rock 'n' roll television show, back when Chuck Berry released "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958.

But 31 years later, the stars rock around the clock for video junkies on MTV and other music video channels. That's bad news for Bandstand, which disappeared from TV on Oct. 7 when it had its last USA cable network airing. The show ultimately will be replaced in the same time slot by a look-alike music program, "Dance Party U.S.A.," and a teen-oriented magazine show called "Youthquake."

It's the first time since Clark took over Bandstand in 1956 that the show has been out of production. But though it's an American cultural icon, Bandstand's cable cancellation came with a whimper and not a bang.

For one thing, Clark--Bandstand's host for 33 years--said the show is not dead. He'll try to bring Bandstand back on prime-time network TV. Moreover, America's oldest teen-ager had already quit hosting the show, which had been aired only on cable since April and hadn't been seen on ABC-TV, its home for three decades, for several years.

Still, the cancellation was symbolic of the times for Dick Clark Productions, the Burbank company that produced it. The company badly needs a sitcom or game show in regular production to smooth out its history of bumpy earnings caused by its reliance on revenues from the irregular musical and comedy specials it produces.

When Dick Clark Productions went public early in 1987 and raised $8.2 million, the company planned to expand into game shows, sitcoms and dramatic TV. (Clark and his wife, Karen, still own about 76% of the company.) Back then, as now, the plan was to keep generating new program ideas until one took off.

"One successful game show, one successful series, and everybody will be happy," said Clark in a recent interview. "One will beget another, which will beget another."

But since the public offering, revenues have tailed off and profits have gyrated. The company's stock still trades at about $6.50 a share--its original offering price in 1987.

Part of the problem is that there are more potential shows contending for fewer slots on network and local broadcast TV.

But just as important is the fact that Clark's company has failed to produce a major successful series. Without one, the company continues to rely largely on specials.

"You can't make it on specials alone," said industry analyst Harold Vogel of Merrill Lynch & Co.

Of the four 1989-90 season series listed in the company's most recent annual report, "American Bandstand" is already off the air, and "Trial by Jury"--a courtroom drama--may soon follow, according to Francis C. La Maina, the company's president and chief operating officer. One show, "Dick Clark Presents," aired only six times in 1988.

What's left, for the most part, are the special programs. Some are successful perennials: Dick Clark has produced "New Year's Rockin' Eve" for 18 years, the "American Music Awards" for 17 years, and the "Academy of Country Music Awards" for 12 years.

But some, like "Farm Aid IV" and "The Ice Stars' Hollywood Revue," have only appeared once and have a much less certain future.

That means Dick Clark's creative staff has to reinvent the wheel each year just to keep rolling at the same pace.

But worse, it also means that revenues come in fits and spurts, not a steady stream--creating stark quarter-to-quarter contrasts. After a fairly strong fiscal year ended June 30, in which Dick Clark earned $2.6 million on revenue of $25.6 million, the company's earnings for the first quarter ended Sept. 30 plunged 97% to $14,000 from $435,000 a year earlier, despite a 47% jump in revenue to $6.9 million from $4.7 million.

One of Dick Clark's bids for a regular series is a game show pilot called "The Challengers"--a quiz show Clark himself would host. The program would focus on up-to-date news and entertainment topics. Buena Vista Television, the syndication arm of Walt Disney Co., has already sold the show to more than 10 TV stations around the country, according to Buena Vista spokesperson Andi Sporkin.

Moreover, NBC has commissioned Dick Clark and another production company to produce a pilot for a revived version of the well-known TV game show "Let's Make A Deal."

But what's behind Door No. 1 for Dick Clark in game shows could be disappointing.

For one, there's plenty of competition. "It'll be pretty hard, I think, because there are many doing the same thing," said Merrill Lynch's Vogel. In fact, about 45 game shows are now in development and vying for air time, said Sporkin.

Among those, one heavyweight contender will be "Monopoly," a TV version of the classic board game, produced by Merv Griffin Enterprises, the company that created "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."

So Dick Clark is also working on pilot scripts for sitcoms. One would star the Motown recording group, the Boys. Said Clark: "The script has gone and it's been received well. It looks very good for a pilot."

Counting on a sitcom or series success has its pitfalls, too. For the most part, such series are so expensive to write and film that their producers don't profit from them until they're sold for rerun syndication. But to make it as a rerun, a show has to last three or four years as a first-run series. Meanwhile, production costs are up front.

It takes considerable resources to bankroll that kind of gamble. And La Maina admits Dick Clark's bigger rivals are better prepared for the risk.

"I don't think we can compete on the same level," said La Maina. "We can't have 15 or 20 writers under contract."

Clark still has a few other businesses besides Dick Clark Productions. Clark and La Maina together own Olive Enterprises Inc., which essentially leases to Dick Clark both the building that houses the company and the right to use the name "American Bandstand."

That right could become important soon. A subsidiary of the production company has entered into a deal with an East Coast real estate company to develop an American Bandstand Grill restaurant in Miami, and La Maina said he hopes the restaurant will become the first of a chain.

Clark, now approaching 60, said he's eager to show his company can do more than specials and musical variety shows. "Absolutely, that's the only reason this whole world of entertainment is so fascinating," he said. "It's always new challenges. It's a great boon for your head. You never get bored."

But beyond the challenges, Clark is looking forward to results, too--to the day when observers would look at the company's strategy and say " 'Gee, aren't they smart,' " Clark said. "Right now you can't say that."

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