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CBS’ ‘Crime’ Consortium Reduces Risk : The Network’s Late-Night Answer: Action-Adventures Co-Produced Abroad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a scene last Friday from the new CBS late-night action series “Dark Justice,” about a rogue judge who metes out his own private verdicts outside the courtroom, a murderer tried to pick up two women in an American big-city nightclub packed with patrons.

For viewers who wondered why the two women responded to the killer’s come-on in Spanish, with English subtitles underneath, it may have been because the extras used in that nightclub scene, and almost every other scene in the program, were Spaniards.

“Dark Justice” is filmed entirely in Barcelona, Spain. The series is a joint effort of Lorimar Television and Magnum Productions in the United States and Spain’s state-owned TV3. The hourlong drama on CBS is one in a matched set of five foreign co-productions that, if successful, could significantly change both the economic structure of network television and the on-screen look of what viewers will see in the years to come.

Each of the weekly “Crime Time” action-adventure series, which began airing last Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. as an alternative to the glut of late-night talk shows, was made with partners in one or two other countries. Tonight’s “Sweating Bullets” was filmed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Tuesday’s “The Exile” in Paris; Wednesday’s “Scene of the Crime” in Vancouver, Canada, and Thursday’s “Fly by Night” in Vancouver and the Cote d’Azur in France.

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Ironically, these diverse locales have not driven the action series’ costs to CBS up, but slashed them down. U.S. producers are hoping to make a profit on these late-night, low-cost series by combining their resources with foreign partners. In addition to sharing production expenses, they receive separate license fees from both CBS and the allied broadcasters that air each production.

As the economy tightens and hourlong dramas become less profitable to make, such foreign deals represent a new way for U.S. broadcasters to produce series with less financial risk.

“This is all about the new and difficult economic pressures television is working under. We can no longer support the levels of production we were once accustomed to,” said producer Lewis B. Chesler. His series, “The Exile,” co-produced by Chesler-Perlmutter Production and France’s Atlantique Production, stars Jeffrey Meek as a French undercover agent who assumes the identity of an American ex-patriot after being labeled a traitor and murderer.

Foreign partnerships are common with TV movies and miniseries--which are easier to package for overseas sales--and with low-budget episodic series on basic cable, such as USA Network’s “The Hitchhiker” (with Atlantique) and the Family Channel’s “Zorro” (with New World Television and France’s Ellipse Programme).

Past attempts to co-produce network series have not been successful. ABC’s 1988 mystery series “A Fine Romance,” with five separate producers, was canceled mid-season. ABC’s “Mission: Impossible” revival and CBS’ “Dolphin Cove,” both Paramount co-productions with Australia’s Network Nine, were also short-lived.

Still, CBS is aggressively exploring overseas partnerships. Last year the network entered into a comedy development agreement with the BBC that provides CBS first look at comedy formats created or developed by the BBC, with the option to create an American version for presentation on CBS.

CBS’ “Crime Time” action series, with guaranteed 13- and 22-episode orders, are the most ambitious co-production deals to date. Speculation is that if one of the series finds an audience, it will be bumped into prime time. Some members of the industry predict that economic necessity will eventually make prime-time co-ventures routine on all the networks.

“I think it’s very definitely the future of prime time,” said Peter Roth, president of Stephen J. Cannell Productions. “Scene of the Crime,” an anthology-mystery series hosted by Cannell, who was behind such popular hits as “Wiseguy” and “The A-Team,” is another Atlantique co-production.

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“For us, it’s a noble experiment that is forcing our company to look at the importance of low-cost alternative programming as a way to survive and be a part of programming for the ‘90s,” Roth said.

Lorimar, the industry’s most prolific supplier of network TV shows, jumped on the multinational production wagon for the first time because the TV studio couldn’t afford to be left behind.

“To be very honest with you, it is not a wonderful business for us,” Lorimar Television president Leslie Moonves said. “Even if ‘Dark Justice’ becomes successful, it simply is not a high-profit show. But this is the direction the industry is moving.”

CBS executives decided to run original late-night series last year when “The Pat Sajak Show” was wallowing in the ratings. In years past, CBS aired a combination of film titles and action-adventure series, such as the Canadian-made “Night Heat,” to appeal to the predominately male late-night crowd.

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“In spite of some of the revisionist history that goes on, CBS did this in the past and did it competitively,” said Rod Perth, CBS vice president of late-night programming. “I view (“Crime Time”) as a pragmatic and, really, a practical solution to a counterprogramming need. We simply believe that adding another talk show with another experimental host would be absolutely nuts. I mean, how many more couch-and-desk formats can you have?”

But paying for the original programming was another matter. A one-hour drama for prime time costs from $1 million to $1.3 million to make, which is subsidized by the $750,000 to $850,000 license fees that networks pay producers to air their programs. (Profits come from syndication and international distribution.)

With fewer viewers and lower advertising revenue late at night, however, programming must be made for less money. One CBS source said “The Pat Sajak Show” cost CBS only $375,000 per week to produce, while the budgets of the “Crime Time” series hover around $800,000 per episode . The highest late-night license fee that CBS could muster was only one-third of the prime-time rates.

“You had a situation where CBS was handing out a very small license fee,” said one of the “Crime Time” producers. “Some people jokingly called it a donation.”

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Nevertheless, the American “Crime Time” producers had little difficulty finding interested European partners.

There is a strong move among the European Economic Community to enact legislation by 1992 that will place limits on the amount of American television programming that can be imported. Critics complain that European countries are losing their cultural identities as the result of too much American TV, which currently accounts for about 40% of all dramatic television in Europe. But U.S. co-productions can qualify as European programming under the standards of the EEC. That favors European broadcasters whose audiences demand slick Hollywood productions.

“American product is still the best material for cutting across boundaries in Europe,” said Michael Type, head of secretariat for the European Broadcasting Union.

Once foreign deals were struck, the biggest challenge the “Crime Time” producers faced was to coordinate efforts with their international partners. Although each co-production deal differs, the partnerships usually call for full participation from both countries of cast and crew members, sometimes even writers and directors.

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Such demands turned mere script approval and distribution into a transcontinental headache for the Mexican-Canadian co-production “Sweating Bullets,” about a former Miami-based drug enforcement agent turned private investigator.

“The Canadian scripts have notes from Canada and notes from CBS,” said U.S. distributor Peter Locke of the Kushner-Locke Co. “And then they’re modemed from Toronto to Puerto Vallarta, with a stop in the U.S.A. And the cast is coming out of Toronto, Vancouver and Mexico City. You can imagine the logistic problems.”

CBS executive Perth spelled out some cultural differences that the network faced: “Specifically, (the Europeans’) sensibilities versus ours in terms of the acceptability of action versus sex. They insist on more nudity, and in fact there have been times we had to shoot it that way for them. Being topless on the beach in Nice or Cannes is perfectly acceptable. On the flip side, we want a little bit more action.”

Although most TV critics have been unkind to the “Crime Time” series, CBS already has at least three backup co-productions in development. “These series are well produced,” Perth said. “Are they flawless? Of course not. But they’ll get better with time and momentum, there’s no question about it.”

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Among the “Crime Time” producers, who are still busy fulfilling their production commitment to CBS, there is simply a wait-and-see attitude.

“There’s little doubt that while we’re unable to produce the kind of production values we normally do on a prime-time series, we’re very pleased with the outcome of the episodes so far,” Roth said. “The lower production values have forced a higher level of writing and acting, and that may be the best lesson of them all.”


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