For a feat of entertainment, the new NBC anthology medical series "Lifestories" is probably the toughest sell in the modern television era.
Who's going to watch a succession of dramas that includes a family confronting a member's alcoholism, a newscaster who tests HIV positive, a precise depiction of a man's first 47 minutes of a heart attack, aplastic anemia and bone-marrow transplants, cosmetic surgery, Alzheimer's disease, psychopathic personalities, gunshot trauma and near-death experiences?
The pilot, about a man suffering colon cancer, was previewed in late August (to generally rave reviews) and repeats tonight at 11:30 in "The Tonight Show" hour as part of the network's "double-pump" promotion. Carson jumps ahead to 9:30 for a 28th-anniversary show.
Then "Lifestories" moves into its regular 8 p.m. slot on Sunday with a drama about a 40-year-old woman who, anxious to have a baby, undergoes in-vitro fertilization and then in-utero surgery.
"This show may fail, but the audience has said, 'Don't be predictable, don't give us what we've had before, give us something that will make us stretch.' We'll test them with this one," observed Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of the NBC Entertainment Group.
Executive producers Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Lewis, fingers crossed, think the show can succeed in grabbing and holding the audience, because the drama it offers is like no other: the grappling with real-life medical problems by characters who won't necessarily resolve them happily.
"You could put Crockett and Tubbs (from 'Miami Vice') in a vat of boiling oil from now until the cows come home--but the guy at home knows that somehow, unless they didn't sign their contract, that Crockett and Tubbs will be back next week!" Ohlmeyer said.
Lewis hopes "Lifestories" will build a reputation for strong emotion. "The fundamental reason people watch televised drama at all is because they want to be stirred up, they want their emotions engaged," he said. "If it's a cop show, those emotions get transformed into action, (a) sort of response to adrenalized stuff--but if it's not an action show, then people want strong feelings."
"Lifestories" came out of meetings between Ohlmeyer and Tartikoff on "reality" program ideas. Tartikoff, 41, who has beaten an encounter with Hodgkin's disease, suggested a medical show from the point of view of the patient--"after 40 years of TV and radio shows from the doctor's point of view," he said.
"My illness led to the conception of the idea," Tartikoff said, "but making it onto the NBC schedule had to do with what they (Ohlmeyer and Lewis) did with that idea. There are many autobiographical projects that from time to time I indulge myself in, and I would say that they don't have a greater percentage of getting on the air than those that come from Stephen Cannell's loins or Gary Goldberg's.
"But I think audience interest is at an all-time high in terms of health and well-being. People are concerned about what we're doing to the environment and how that may in turn affect our health and what we eat."
Meantime, Lewis, a cum laude (and class poet) from Yale who had taught writing at Harvard and went on to a law degree, figured he'd never do series television any more, after a grueling stint with "Hill Street Blues" and "Beverly Hills Buntz."
"But my agent said I should meet Don, that 'he's not a bad guy'. . . . Then he wanted me to talk to Brandon and some of the guys at NBC."
He came away with his mind changed. "They gave me virtually carte blanche to do anything I wanted."
One thing that impressed both producers was a Tartikoff comment that he would like a show of such quality and sensitivity that doctors could refer patients to a given episode so that they would understand the scope of a particular problem.
"Well," recalled Lewis, "this is an unusually altruistic and interesting thought that one simply doesn't hear in a pitch meeting for network shows."
On a weekend in the Sierras, he began working out ideas. He remembered that the one play he acted in, "Our Town," used a friendly Stage Manager character to walk the audience through the travails of the community. That was the genesis of the narrator for "Lifestories" (performed by Robert Prosky), who can fast-forward the story by months or years, as well as explain medical procedures and get inside a patient's mind.
Lewis believes the device imparts to the series a novelistic tenor. "It gives the viewers access to what the people are thinking and feeling," he said. "What a novelist can do is be intimate with the most inward parts. The stage offers communal interaction, but a novel works in and says what somebody's thinking."
But if the unconventional format is a tough sell, the "Lifestories" time slot is even tougher. On Sundays at 8 p.m., it will face "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People" on ABC, "Murder, She Wrote" on CBS, the raucous "In Living Color" and "Get a Life" on Fox and NFL football on ESPN.
Expectations, therefore, are low. Tartikoff shrugged. "We know it's going into the toughest time period, not only this season but maybe of all time. Well, it's a little easier now that 'The Simpsons' are not there. It's a time period where we haven't done well, so if they ('Lifestories') were to do a 15 share, that would be a 50% improvement over where we left off last May."
Not that the master programmer doesn't have a trick or two up his sleeve, such as an episode that will deal with the physiology of love and sex.
"We'll use this as a second 'booster rocket' for the show, maybe five or six weeks into the run," Tartikoff said. "We're not kidding ourselves about this time period . . . we would need to probably get it (the show) re-sampled and get the audience re-energized. So we plan to run this at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday or Wednesday night."