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Networks Battle Over ‘Heat of the Night’ : * Television: CBS says it will present the show next season as six two-hour movies and has an option to renew it as a weekly series. Maybe not, says NBC, which airs the series.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The best plot of the season for NBC’s “In the Heat of the Night” is suddenly developing--behind the scenes.

In a bizarre twist, CBS made it official late Tuesday that it is swiping the successful police show, starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins, from NBC starting next season.

No question about it, CBS made clear in its formal announcement, saying it would present the show as six two-hour movies--and that it has an option to renew it as a weekly series.

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David Gerber, chairman of the MGM Worldwide Television Group, which produces the series, chimes in that it’s a done deal--no question.

Wait a minute, NBC said Wednesday.

The network emphasized that it still has a negotiating right that it can exercise if it wants the show back in the fall.

What’s going on here?

“In the Heat of the Night,” which debuted in March, 1988 and then was renewed for four full seasons--winning a best-actor Emmy for O’Connor--has been a formidable trouble-shooting success for NBC.

It did well against TV’s top comedy, “Roseanne,” and was the linchpin for a series of Tuesday night dramas that have included “Matlock,” “Midnight Caller,” “Law & Order” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Although its ratings are off slightly from last season, it is still a reliable ratings performer--and CBS apparently sees another potential success in the vein of “Perry Mason” and “Columbo” with the two-hour specials.

In announcing CBS has acquired “In the Heat of the Night,” Jeff Sagansky, the network’s entertainment president, cited the show’s “star power” and said that it is “an example of how good television drama can be.”

Thus, the series’ clout is still respected.

But Gerber said that NBC essentially did not appreciate the show enough during his requests in recent months for the network to agree to a pickup for next season.

With two of his series, “thirtysomething” and “The Young Riders,” already yanked from ABC--and with MGM an embattled studio in recent years--Gerber felt he had to make a move.

NBC, he said, told him he would have to wait until it made its mind up about a renewal--although it has already picked up “Law & Order” for next season.

“I got nervous,” Gerber said, over the problem of “just staying alive. There was interest at CBS. I went over there. They were thinking about the six movies. I said fine. It’s better to have something. And they wanted an option (for renewing the series).

“I could not afford to have nothing happen with NBC in our situation. I had to make a practical move for my company.”

While NBC has officially been mum about the show’s move and says it understands Gerber’s motivation, a top source at the network is talking tough.

MGM, he said, came to NBC asking for “relief, more money"--that is, a higher price from the network for weekly production of the series. NBC felt times are tough economically and that the show’s ratings were down.

The network’s position, the source said, is that it won’t make a fuss until it decides whether it still wants “In the Heat of the Night,” which is co-produced by Fred Silverman and O’Connor. If NBC decides to pass on the series, the argument would be moot, the source added.

However, said the source, if MGM thinks that NBC’s rejection of more money amounted to a first-refusal negotiation, the studio is wrong.

The prices that networks pay toward the cost of shows--the “license fees"--are increasingly a sore point in bargaining, especially for one-hour series, which generally do not do especially well in syndication, where investments are recouped.

Last season, the average network license fee each week for a one-hour film drama series was $1,100,790. The average production cost per show was $1,408,364, meaning that a studio had a weekly deficit of $307,574 per hour, with few hopes for cashing in big during syndication.

The added episodes on CBS, however, could make “In the Heat of the Night” a more substantial entry in syndication in terms of how many shows it has to offer.

Last season, CBS, trying to rebuild its series lineup, picked up “The Hogan Family” from NBC. But NBC had already rejected the show.

CBS also recently acquired ABC’s “Davis Rules” to pair it with “Brooklyn Bridge.” But ABC had agreed to allow the powerful producers of “Davis Rules,” Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, to sell the series elsewhere. Carsey-Werner produce ABC’s top hit, “Roseanne.”

Says Gerber of “In the Heat of the Night”: “We have no contractual obligation to NBC beyond this season.”


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