Spielberg's 'Dog' Finally Has Its Day : But Is CBS Throwing a Bone by Unleashing the Series in Summer?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With all eyes turned to this week's opening of the summer dinosaur epic "Jurassic Park," news of another high-profile project from director Steven Spielberg has gone almost unnoticed.

Anyone remember "Family Dog"?

CBS first trumpeted Spielberg's foray into prime-time TV animation--along with fellow blockbuster director Tim Burton--with great fanfare during the Grammy Awards broadcast in February, 1991.

By taking a twisted look at life from the point of view of the household pet, the darkly humorous "Family Dog" promised a new level of quality in TV animation by creating an animal that communicated non-verbally, through attitudes, actions and facial expressions.

But the series, with high hopes to challenge "The Simpsons" in prime time, was dogged by a string of production problems, rewrites and animation fixes. After three years in production, during which the cost per episode swelled from $650,000 to an extravagant $1 million (a standard Saturday morning cartoon costs $250,000), the 10 finished episodes were delivered to CBS in November.

Two weeks ago, CBS finally, and quietly, scheduled "Family Dog" to premiere June 23 in a special hourlong block. Spielberg reportedly poured the bulk of $2 million worth of final fixes into two episodes to show what the series could have been.

"I think (Spielberg) finally said, 'Damn it, this has been my dream.' But it's also been his albatross," said a source close to Spielberg.

"He wanted to show somebody that this is the show he wanted to produce. So he wanted to at least get one or two episodes that were shows he could say, 'This is "Family Dog." If it's successful, and we get a chance to make more episodes, this is what it's going to be like.' "

CBS has scheduled one of those episodes--about Family Dog trying to find a drink of water on a hot day--as part of the premiere block.

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The question is whether executive producers Spielberg and Burton will ever get a chance to make more episodes of the cartoon, based on a ratty mongrel that Burton designed years ago when he was a CalArts student. "Family Dog" first aired in 1987 as an animated short on Spielberg's short-lived NBC series "Amazing Stories," and Spielberg has been trying to launch a series ever since.

CBS programming executives did not respond to questions about why CBS waited six months to schedule "Family Dog." Such moves usually indicate that a network is unhappy with a program and is therefore choosing to burn off the episodes during the less competitive summer period.

But CBS has had luck launching new series in the summer, including "Northern Exposure," pointed out CBS spokeswoman Susan Tick. Despite the delay, she said, CBS would consider ordering more episodes of "Family Dog" if the series receives big ratings.

Some have suggested that by scheduling "Family Dog" now, CBS hopes to capitalize on Spielberg's name, particularly hot at the moment because of the release of "Jurassic Park."

Either way, the June premiere is not a moment too soon for dozens of eager licensees who thought they were buying into a sure thing two years ago with "Family Dog," a major cooperative effort from Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and two TV studios, Universal Television and Warner Bros. Television.

Hanoch Epstein, vice president of Applause Inc., has thousands of plush toys resembling a cross between a hairless bull terrier and a large rat collecting dust in warehouses in Los Angeles and New York.

"We just found out yesterday that the show was coming back," Hanoch said late last week, a full week after the unexpected scheduling by CBS.

Hanoch and other relieved licensees are making plans to rush their products--including "Family Dog" video games, T-shirts, pajamas, slippers, beach towels, even children's dinner wear--to retail stores.

"Everybody's been patiently waiting, and now everyone is going to be scrambling, because we really didn't know until now," said Beverly Cannady, a vice president for Warner Bros. licensing. "So we're calling everyone to let them know."

Exactly what went wrong with "Family Dog" depends upon whom you talk to--and nobody will talk on the record because of the heavy hitters involved.

Some point to writer and executive producer Dennis Klein, who wrote for "All in the Family" and had never written animation before. Despite the humor in his "Family Dog" scripts, they were not written in the form the animators needed to translate them into visuals, according to sources.

On top of that, the demanding cost and time constraints of network television were rushing the animators through their exacting work. They also said they were hampered by indecision by Spielberg and Burton, whose attention was diverted by feature film projects. Also, after three episodes were recorded and animated, Spielberg reportedly decided to replace voice actor Fred Coffin with Martin Mull as the father.

Spielberg and Burton were unavailable for comment.

When the fully animated "Family Dog" came back from an overseas production house in Tawain, the executive producers were reportedly unhappy with the quality--and with animation, you can do little to correct a scene without doing it all over again.

"When we first got the animation back, it was somehow kind of flat," said a production source at Amblin. "The acting moments, the little dog-like acting moments didn't come through."

Spielberg and Burton decided to send the episodes to Nelvana Entertainment in Canada, which was producing Burton's "Beetlejuice" as a Saturday morning cartoon.

"We found some story problems and minor technical problems," said Toper Taylor, senior vice president of Nelvana.

"From a storytelling, animation and directing point of view, 'Family Dog' is technically one of the most difficult undertakings in television animation history," Taylor said. "Because your star character, the Family Dog, is basically Charlie Chaplin. He doesn't think or talk. The audience lives and dies by his expressions and the movement of his body."

Two seasoned animation writers--Pal Dini and Sherri Stoner--were hired to punch up the episodes. Nelvana cleaned up the animation as best it could and edited in some new dialogue and scenes.

Now that the bugs have been worked out, Nelvana is confident that "Family Dog" can be produced on a network timetable for its original budget. But Taylor is realistic about getting a shot to do that.

"This is Hollywood," he said. "And as the momentum wanes, after delays in production, so goes the attention and the lauds that a show like this is due."

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