Steven Spielberg has reached an agreement with NBC to produce 22 episodes of a big-budget, underwater adventure series called "Sea Quest" for next fall, according to a source at Spielberg's production company, Amblin Entertainment.
The science-fiction series about a research submarine in the year 2018 was created by Spielberg with Rockne S. O'Bannon, a story editor on "The New Twilight Zone." Roy Scheider was reportedly being pursued to star in the series, but no cast has been set.
Officials at Universal Television, which will produce "Sea Quest" with Amblin, and NBC would not confirm the finished deal, but suggested that an official announcement would be forthcoming.
The producers apparently received the license fee of $1 million per episode that they were seeking from NBC, which is well above what networks ordinarily pay TV studios for one-hour episodes.
In addition, new programs commonly receive a 13-episode network commitment--and sometimes even less than that--until they demonstrate that viewers are interested in watching.
But Universal needed more episodes and a higher license fee to help amortize the costs of the series, which will have elaborate special effects and set designs. If the producers didn't get what they needed from NBC to develop the series, they were expected to sell "Sea Quest" directly to independent TV stations in first-run syndication, as Paramount does with "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Indeed, others already are following that route with regard to action-adventure programs, which are a scarcity on network television these days because of cost factors. In January, Paramount's "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "The Untouchables" and Warner Bros.' "Time Trax" and "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" will premiere in syndication, where they will compete in many cases against prime-time network programs.
" 'Sea Quest' is a response on NBC's part to try and keep a show that they like from ending up competing against them," said Kerry McCluggage, president of Paramount Television. "I think the same can be said for our deal with ABC on 'Young Indiana Jones.' They stepped up in a big way for that show, which is probably the most expensive first-year show on television to produce."
The higher production values on "Sea Quest" will also help Universal sell the series internationally, where there is a tremendous appetite for Hollywood's flair for adventure. The $1.7-million-per-episode budget for "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which is produced by Spielberg's friend, George Lucas, is largely financed by sales to European markets, as are the other syndicated action series.
Although Universal's costs are being defrayed by foreign sales and a higher license fee, the risk appears to be greater for NBC, which is buying the series without benefit of a pilot. If "Sea Quest" does not receive good ratings, the network will be forced to sell advertising time for less money and may not be able to recoup its costly license fee.
NBC made a similar major commitment to Spielberg in 1985, ordering 44 episodes of the half-hour anthology series "Amazing Stories," which was a washout in the ratings.