The Birth of a Risky 'Murphy' : Producer Gambles Millions on Baby

It was a multimillion-dollar gamble--risking the future of CBS' top hit, "Murphy Brown," by having the unwed central character become pregnant.

That's how the series, which stars Candice Bergen as a TV journalist, started its fourth season last fall. CBS, which was building its potent Monday-night lineup around "Murphy Brown," was nervous.

And now, even the show's creator, Diane English, admits that she feared "destroying" the sitcom: "I was beginning to feel very worried that maybe I was taking this thing that I worked so hard on and was doing something pretty destructive. I heard a lot of people say that I was crazy."

But the world had changed, TV had changed and the viewing public had changed. The audience bought into the plot development without blinking, and in the season's two final episodes that begin Monday, Murphy Brown not only has a baby shower--she'll give birth to a son.

In short, Murphy Brown will probably become the nation's most famous unmarried working mother--a TV symbol that the networks would have banned not too many years ago.

"The advertisers are always afraid," says English. "But this country's more forward in its thinking than given credit for. There's a very small number of people who still feel it's a terrible thing for a woman to have a child out of wedlock. But yet (advertisers) cater to those people. They're loud.

"Anyway, we held our breath, and we were really embraced. I think we proved that we can do a show about a tough, hard-boiled reporter and not soften her by pregnancy. Everyone thought, 'Oh, as soon as she's pregnant, she'll become incompetent and lose all the edges.' So I think we did a good job of showing people that's not the case.

"Now we're facing the same questions: 'Well, now that she has the baby, of course she'll change.' So the job next season will be to show again that you can have a child and not be diminished as a career woman."

In a clever twist, Monday's baby shower will be attended by some real-life TV journalists who are mothers: Katie Couric, Joan Lunden, Paula Zahn, Mary Alice Williams and Faith Daniels.

But the payoff episode will be the May 18 season windup, when Brown goes into labor and finally has her child.

"There's no cliffhanger," says English. "She has a boy. Usually what you see in half-hour comedies that deal with a birth is a funny way of going into labor--and then cut to this cute little baby. But what we wanted to do was show what goes on in the middle. There's an awful lot that a woman goes through from the time she goes into labor until she gives birth. And it isn't pretty.

"So we had a lot of fun with that. I mean, Murphy would be the worst nightmare in a maternity ward. There's a nice scene at the end where the nurse puts the baby in Murphy's arms and she doesn't know what the hell to do with it. Bonding is not something that naturally happens to women right away, and it certainly isn't happening to her. She doesn't know what to make of this child. She begins apologizing to it right away."

As might be expected, Brown's colleagues at the news magazine where she works will become a kind of family for the child, says English.

"Yes. That I can say absolutely. When we did our research, we discovered that a single woman having a child on her own is an extremely difficult task, and the women who tend to be most successful at it are the ones who have a good financial base and also a real extended family--a bunch of supportive friends."

Nonetheless, says English, the prime focus of the sitcom will remain--as it did this season--on Murphy Brown as a professional rather than as a mother: "She is a reporter who has a child. She is not a mother who happens to be a reporter."

And this, says English, is consistent with the preferences of the show's viewers who expressed concern that making Brown a mother would drastically alter the series.

"Interestingly enough," says English, "the controversy (for fans) was not about whether Murphy should be a single mother, or whether there was anything immoral about that. It really was never about that. It was about our choice creatively to take a character who we had established over three years as a woman who was full and complete without a husband and without children--and to give her a child.

"We have a very loyal audience of childless women who were very comfortable with that choice and who felt that we had sold them out. And so that was really what the talk was about and the letters were about, and not about what a terrible thing a single, unwed mother was."

Although "Murphy Brown" is English's show, her primary attention will be elsewhere in the 1992-93 season because she is, in addition to expanding her company, producing a new sitcom for CBS, "Love Is Hell," starring Susan Dey as a divorced, former bar owner who falls in love with a newspaper columnist, played by Jay Thomas.

"I'm really out of 'Murphy Brown' now," says English. "I left them with words of wisdom, a lot of space and the broad strokes of where you start now (with the baby)."

But although English may be out of "Murphy Brown" on a day-to-day basis, you can bet she will keep a careful eye on her influential series, which will be in the hands of this season's supervising producers, Steven Peterman and Gary Dontzig. Asked if the show, known for its political bluntness and liberal views, will respond to the election campaign this fall, she says:

"Absolutely. The whole election year, the whole bringing in of what might be a new Administration, is tremendous fuel. Even though the Republicans have given us great stuff for the last four years, it's the same names over and over again. It starts to get a little stale. "After a while, you look for new people. It would be great if the Democrats got a shot because then we can show people how balanced we really are, because I believe you take shots at the people who are in power, not just Republicans or Democrats."

Viewers, however, inevitably will be checking out the situation of Murphy Brown and her kid. Is there a chance the show will revolve increasingly around the child?

"No," says English. "Obviously, when Murphy goes off on assignment, she has to make arrangements. And she's not going to be getting as much sleep as she's used to. And we know Murphy's very cranky without her sleep. But there aren't going to be endless episodes just about Murphy and the baby. That's not what our show's ever going to become. I think that would really be sort of the death knell for that show."

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