Earlier this year, the future of "Melrose Place" seemed about as bright as a condemned building.
Fox's twentysomething TV saga about the fashionable residents of a Los Angeles apartment complex had started a year ago with a promotional bang, but it quickly sputtered. After 13 episodes, "Melrose Place" was mired in creative upheaval, and by spring it appeared to be a candidate for eviction from Fox's prime-time schedule, ranking No. 110 in the ratings out of the season's 140 weekly network programs.
Instead, Fox ordered 32 more one-hour episodes for a second season (the first of which arrives Sept. 8).
Citing a dramatic surge in the ratings at the tail of last season, Fox executives believe that the Generation X serial is on track to break out as big as the high school serial that inspired it, "Beverly Hills, 90210." Both series were created by Darren Star.
"If I were to put the growth pattern of 'Melrose Place' on a chart, this show would be outperforming '90210' in its first season," said Dan McDermott, senior vice president of current programming and specials at Fox.
From February through May, "Melrose Place" increased its audience share among viewers 18 to 49 by 91%, according to Fox.
"From what we see happening this year, this show will be hotter than '90210' was in its second year," McDermott predicted. "When we have a valuable product, like we feel we have with 'Melrose Place,' we will figure out how to make it a hit by scheduling it correctly and marketing it appropriately."
One creative decision that won't hurt marketing efforts was installing one of last season's guest stars, Heather Locklear, as a regular cast member. Locklear, who at 31 was brought in midseason as the Older Woman to provide some heat with young hunk Andrew Shue, will buy the Melrose complex and move in as the new landlord, where she'll take up with Grant Show's character. Locklear formerly starred in "Dynasty" and "T. J. Hooker."
"Heather Locklear certainly brought a lot of new interest to the show," said Star, who devotes his time to "Melrose Place," having turned over producing chores on "90210" to others. "When people started watching it they realized this isn't the same 'Melrose Place' as the beginning of the year."
When "Melrose Place" premiered, Star and his writing staff wanted to avoid doing a nighttime soap opera by writing self-contained episodes.
"That was a mistake," Star said. "When you do a show that purports to be real life, and everything ends up being wrapped up neatly each week, that's not real life. It wasn't sophisticated enough for the audience."
Meanwhile, characters from "90210" were showing up in "Melrose Place" to help promote the series. Those characters "really had no business being there," said Star, because they created a false expectation that "Melrose Place" was a spinoff of "90210."
The changes began when Fox and Star decided to serialize "Melrose Place." Two writers were replaced, and two original cast members--Amy Locaine and Vanessa Williams--were eventually dropped because the producers said there was no place to go with their characters.
In came Daphne Zuniga as a photographer and Locklear, for what was supposed to be three episodes, as a high-powered advertising executive--and the boss of Courtney Thorne-Smith's character.
" 'Melrose Place' has become much more of an adult show," Star said. "Somewhere in the middle of last year the show really found itself, and by the end of the year, really started to find its audience. It's become a kind of twentysome-thing nighttime soap. And once it got into that groove, the characters really came alive.
"But it takes time to hook an audience into that."
Fox has demonstrated its willingness to invest that time, despite total-viewership ratings that would kill other shows.
"Ratings aren't the whole story," said Larry Gerbrandt, vice president at Paul Kagan Associates, a media research and consulting firm. "If a show has the right demographics and the right cost structure, you can justify keeping it on the schedule, irrespective of pure ratings."
Those are the factors that have enabled Fox to stick it out. Although "Melrose Place" competes Wednesdays at 9 p.m. against ABC's smash family sitcom "Home Improvement," it ranks high with young adults. The season finale in May drew 30% of the available viewers aged 18 to 34--a group coveted by advertisers.
In addition, the license fee Fox pays for "Melrose Place"--estimated at $750,000 an episode--is slightly lower than most one-hour dramas because the producers have kept costs down. The ensemble cast has no high-priced stars, and other expenses are more easily amortized thanks to Fox's unusually high season order of 32 episodes, compared to an average of 22 episodes for dramas on the other networks.
Star's story plans for this season sound like a soap-opera digest: Alison will be stalked by a dangerous Keith, Michael and Jane will suffer a messy divorce and the gay character of Billy will be shown to have a romantic life--something the producers were criticized for ignoring last season.
"Nothing wonderful is created overnight," Star said. "That certainly was the case with '90210.' That show took time to develop, but it wasn't in the limelight like the first six episodes of 'Melrose Place.' I recall having a lot more freedom with '90210' because we weren't being watched so closely. We were written off in a sense.
"I know our stories on 'Melrose Place,' and I have a very strong sense the show will be a hit this year. If not, we're at least doing wonderfully entertaining stories. Creatively, everyone is finally happy with the show."