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A Preflight Change of Course for Pilots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Fox announced next season’s prime-time lineup in May, officials bubbled with enthusiasm regarding their new series, among them “Hollyweird"--a macabre drama teaming “Scream” director Wes Craven with actor-turned-producer Shaun Cassidy.

Since then, Fox has treated “Hollyweird” about as gingerly as it has the Dodgers--jettisoning the premise and some lead actors (they’re being given a chance to “re-audition” as different characters), leaving little but the title behind.

If networks handle pilots that get ordered this way, the mind boggles to imagine how they felt about candidates that didn’t make the cut.

The truth, however, is that despite all the focus-group research and high-paid writers at their disposal, networks regularly scramble to alter shows after buying them--revising, recasting and, in some cases, flat-out junking series before they ever reach the airwaves.

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Each spring, the six broadcast networks sift through roughly 150 pilots, settling this year on 37 to premiere in the fall. Yet even with the plethora of options presented during the screening process, few programs spring to life fully formed in the eyes of TV executives; rather, newborn series are viewed as works in progress, as studios replace actors and refine concepts, spending millions to re-shoot scenes.

“Pilots are experiments. They’re sales tools. You look at what works and what doesn’t,” said Columbia TriStar President Eric Tannenbaum. “Very rarely is there a pilot where you say, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.’ ”

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Network and studio officials say they simply endeavor to protect their investments by fortifying new series before the public gets a look at them, recognizing the importance of first impressions on critics and viewers alike.

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“There’s nothing more expensive than making a series that’s not as good as it can possibly be,” said Ken Solomon, president of Studios USA, the company behind “Hollyweird.” “It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to try and adjust right now than try to do it while you’re producing the show week after week.”

Solomon insists “Hollyweird” remains on track and will still be “a smart, scary, sexy show that’s unlike anything on television.” Cassidy, whose credits include CBS’ “American Gothic” and last summer’s Fox tryout “Roar,” is currently working on the new version and declined comment, as did Fox.

Sources say the network bought “Hollyweird” based principally on the title and creative auspices, eager to promote Craven’s name to a youthful audience. It appears unlikely any footage from the pilot--which reportedly cost more than $2 million to produce--will be used.

As in the movie industry, such wholesale changes generate perceptions of a troubled project. Fox will have the luxury of delaying some series premieres until after televising the World Series in October, providing extra time to implement revisions.

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There is precedent for aborting shows even at this stage in the game. Last season Fox scrubbed the sitcom “Rewind,” featuring Scott Baio, and the year before pulled the plug on “Secret Service Guy,” a sitcom starring Judge Reinhold, after shooting several episodes.

While the sort of sweeping face-lift undertaken on “Hollyweird” remains somewhat rare, nips and tucks in pilots have become commonplace.

For one thing, not all series prototypes are meant for broadcast. Two new fall dramas, CBS’ “Martial Law” and UPN’s “Mercy Point,” were sold based on a collection of scenes filmed solely to give the network a taste of what the series would be like. Action from “Martial Law” will be incorporated into the series, but “Mercy Point” will likely have to start from scratch.

In the case of ABC’s “Fantasy Island” revival, after ordering the series it was decided to feature two story lines per episode instead of three, so the pilot may be reedited to match that format.

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Executives concede that dramatically restructuring series risks eliminating what attracted a network to them in the first place.

“There’s no question that disasters take place in which a network picks up a show and says, ‘Let’s flip-flop this.’ The perspective of the show can get so watered down that the original idea [is lost],” said Warner Bros. Television President Tony Jonas.

Recasting continues to be the primary reason for shooting scenes again. The crush that ensues with so many pilots filming simultaneously occupies many sought-after performers during development season, but once prime-time schedules are set, dozens of series hopefuls fall by the wayside, freeing actors to seek work elsewhere.

Two high-profile NBC sitcoms--the Nathan Lane vehicle “Encore! Encore!” and “All My Life,” starring “Married . . . With Children’s” Christina Applegate--will replace characters and redo scenes featuring them.

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In similar fashion, CBS’ “King of Queens” will add “Seinfeld” alumnus Jerry Stiller to the cast, and producers of the WB network drama “Hyperion” snapped up a supporting actress they had wanted originally after a pilot she was in wasn’t picked up.

Occasionally actors stay and the producer goes, as happened in 1996 when CBS tossed out four completed episodes of “Ink,” enlisting producer Diane English to redevelop the series around stars Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

“Ink” had been given a sight-unseen production commitment, a practice networks employ to land top-name talent such as the producers of “Friends” and “Frasier,” who are behind “All My Life” and “Encore! Encore!,” respectively.

Such agreements can backfire, however, by compelling programmers to proceed with shows based on financial obligation rather than merit. NBC’s motives were also questioned last year when the network scheduled “Union Square” in the coveted slot between “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” then replaced the lead character. Rivals felt the series received preferential treatment because it was produced by NBC.

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Though “Ink” and “Union Square” were canceled, pilot overhauls have resulted in success stories. CBS scrapped “Touched by an Angel’s” first prototype, recruiting producer Martha Williamson to devise a new version using the same general concept and stars. The series eventually blossomed into one of prime time’s biggest hits.

Andy Hill, who headed CBS Productions at the time and now serves as president of programming at the educational Channel One Network, said the key was having a new producer bring a fresh perspective to the show. Successful series, he noted, most often stem from a writer’s vision and passion--a zeal that tends to diminish when the network is calling the shots.

“When you go back to the same person and ask them to do it again, they’re just [changing the show] because somebody told them to,” Hill said. “You’re putting someone in a difficult position, because you’re asking them to figure out what you want instead of what they want.”


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