'seaQuest' Comes Up for Repairs : Struggling Submarine Drama Trades Fact for Fantasy to Stay Afloat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you've caught any of the promos this week for Sunday night's episode of "seaQuest DSV" on NBC, you may have seen what looks like a mermaid swimming around underwater. She's actually a woman with genetically manufactured gills. But that's nothing. Next week, you'll see an alien in a form-fitting bodysuit on board the futuristic seaQuest submarine.

Is this the same "seaQuest" that for months patted itself on the back for adhering meticulously to what the producers called "science fact," rather than science fiction? Is this the same underwater adventure series that hired Bob Ballard, perhaps the world's best-known oceanographer, as its technical consultant?

Well, yes and no. The struggling "seaQuest" is receiving some dramatic new paint and trim to keep it afloat. Sunday night marks the beginning of what NBC hopes will be new life for executive producer Steven Spielberg's low-rated TV show, which has been plagued with production problems. Last week, NBC executives announced that they had ordered another full season of "seaQuest" for the fall, as well as a second high-concept, science-fiction series, "Earth 2"--both from Spielberg's Amblin Television and Universal Television.

"SeaQuest" will lose several cast members, led by Stephanie Beacham, and will move production from Los Angeles to Orlando to break out of the claustrophobic underwater confines of the submarine and shoot more exteriors. Executive producers David Burke and Patrick Hasburgh, who oversee "seaQuest" creatively, have written a 20-page outline detailing next season's stories, which will delve more heavily into fantasy and sci-fi.

All this has left many members of the TV industry scratching their heads in wonder. An informal poll of producers and studio and network executives, most of whom regard "seaQuest" as an abysmal failure, turned up descriptions of the overhaul ranging from "mystifying" to "ridiculous" to "bafflingly unprofessional."

At the end of the "official" 1993-94 season last week, "seaQuest" ranked No. 83 out of 132 prime-time network series, after starting at the top of the charts.

"They spent a lot of money and they don't want to look bad," suggested a senior studio executive. "So they're calling defeat a victory."

"Maybe they're communicating with God. Maybe they see something that all the rest of us don't," said a former network executive. "There is absolutely no reason why that show should be picked up. Absolutely none. The critics hated it. It was a poorly executed series with no concept. The ratings were terrible. They ended up with 14% of the audience. When you put all three things together, it must be that they want to maintain a relationship with Steven Spielberg."

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield brushed off such talk. "We don't have a feature-film division, OK? We're not in that business," he said in an interview. "Steven didn't call up and say, 'I'm begging you to keep the show.' Steven didn't promise to take his next feature to NBC and give us a piece of it."

Nor did NBC reorder "seaQuest" to get "Earth 2" from Amblin and Universal, Littlefield said. The new science-fiction series, which will probably be filmed in Santa Fe, features a group of colonists stranded on an alien world with no provisions. NBC ordered it last fall, and Spielberg is not taking an executive producer credit on it.

So why did the network renew "seaQuest"? Littlefield cited its disproportionately strong performance among adults 18 to 49, an age group that advertisers pay a premium to reach.

Among all viewers, "seaQuest" finished fourth on Sunday nights at 8, behind CBS' "Murder, She Wrote," ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and the Fox comedies "Martin" and "Living Single." But "seaQuest" drew more viewers in the 18-49 age group than any of its competitors.

"We're simply looking at the problems, the quality of work and where we think the series can go," Littlefield said. "We also believe there is a creative vision at Amblin and with the executive producers, and we believe, given the time and preparation, they can execute that vision."

NBC gambled on "seaQuest" from the beginning: It agreed to pay a whopping license fee of $1 million an episode, without the benefit of seeing a pilot first, for a full season's worth of 22 installments. There was creative turmoil even before the series debuted, and the complicated production involving computer-generated special effects fell behind schedule, while production costs eventually spiraled out of control to more than $2 million an episode.

Everything seemed acceptable, though, when "seaQuest" premiered last September and a solid 19% of all TV households watching television tuned in, easily beating "Lois & Clark." But the viewing dropped steadily, while "Lois & Clark," backed by support from TV critics, continued to improve, finishing No. 64 overall.

"If you just judge 'seaQuest' on the basis of this year's performance, you have to wonder (about NBC's decision to renew it), because it does cost a lot of money and the ratings have gone down," said Joel Segal, executive vice president of national broadcasting for the advertising agency McCann-Erickson in New York. "It was beating 'Lois & Clark' at the beginning of the season, and now it's not. And it's likely to face the same competition next year. You say, where are they going?

"You have to believe two things will happen. One, they will change the character of the program, and two, they will give it a much stronger lead-in ("I Witness Video" ranked 126th for the season). If they don't do that, then you're talking about a serious problem."

The changes in the show are certain.

Executive producer Burke, who was brought in after creative problems cropped up early in the production, said, "I had a problem last season because this show leaned on Ballard before it leaned on guys who do what I do. This is still television. Some of the production problems resulted from trying to deal with a show born out of science first and television second."

For instance, Ballard carefully designed the bridge of seaQuest like an actual submarine, with the crew members facing the monitors on the walls. When the futuristic sets, now sprawling on five sound stages at Universal here, are moved to Universal Studios Florida, they will be streamlined and refined. The bridge stations will be redesigned to face the captain, played by Roy Scheider, so the crew will no longer have to talk over their shoulders.

"For me, the science-fiction stuff is a lot more fun to write because it's finally about human conflict, not fighting battles over who owns mineral rights," Burke said.

The networks have been receiving heavy competition in the action-adventure genre from such syndicated series as "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Babylon 5" and "RoboCop," and they must keep up or else lose the genre completely. "Lois & Clark" also will be retooled next season to try to be more competitive.

"We will move a little more toward the action-adventure, and a little less toward the romance," said Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. Television. "The show was initially designed as a 10 p.m. show with heavy romance. When we were scheduled Sunday at 8 p.m., there was a shift that said, 'All right, keep the romantic comedy emphasis but add some action and adventure.' Next season, the scales will tilt much more toward the action and adventure over the romantic comedy."

As a fellow combatant in the time period, Alan Sternfeld, senior vice president of program planning and scheduling for ABC, was one of the few voices who understood NBC's decision to stick with "seaQuest." "They don't see wholesale audience rejection," Sternfeld said. "Sometimes it's easier to fix something on the air than start all over again."

"This was a very good idea that got off on very poor footing," Burke said. "But it remained a very good idea. It was a behemoth of a show technically, and it took all year to get that managed. In some ways, running a leaner operation will make this a better show. When you're up against the wall and running hard to stay on schedule, there's this throw-money-at-it attitude. And I think it's better to throw your creativity at it, which is what we're doing now."

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