They Fed the TV Monster

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

The year Bill Clinton was elected president, Diane English--whose "Murphy Brown" sparred with Dan Quayle about "family values"--and Clinton friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creative force behind "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade," produced five series between them, including all of CBS' popular Monday-night comedies.

Six years later, those shows are gone. English's new sitcom is slated to premiere in a difficult Friday time slot on Fox, Bloodworth-Thomason is seeking to rescue her latest pilot from programming limbo at CBS, and Clinton is wrestling with his own problems.

In Hollywood, as in Washington, fortunes change quickly, as stars of the moment fade and are soon supplanted. Joshua Brand and John Falsey--the tandem behind "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away"--became the standard-bearers for quality drama in 1992, with those shows combining for 30 Emmy nominations that year. The team has since parted, and David E. Kelley--the astoundingly prolific writer-producer behind "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice"--reigns as the current darling of critics and network executives alike.

Nothing demonstrates how prime time's cast of characters keeps evolving better than scanning a list of television producers who dominated the airwaves a half-dozen years ago and now find themselves playing more marginal roles.

When the 1992-93 television season began, Brand and Falsey, English and producing partner Joel Shukovsky, Bloodworth-Thomason (who works with husband Harry Thomason), Witt-Thomas Productions and Miller-Boyett Productions jointly accounted for nearly 20 prime-time series.

Producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas had a half-dozen series on the air alone, including "Golden Girls" spinoff "Golden Palace," "Empty Nest" and "Nurses." Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett's roster peaked at six series in 1990, when the duo supplied ABC's entire "TGIF" Friday lineup--anchored by "Full House," "Family Matters" and "Perfect Strangers"--as well as two CBS comedies.

With such programs having run their course, the coming season's output from those five stand-out producing teams consists of three new comedies: Shukovsky-English's "Living in Captivity," a topical sitcom in which a black family moves into a mostly white planned community; ABC's "The Secret Lives of Men," Witt-Thomas' latest from "Soap" and "Golden Girls" creator Susan Harris; and "Two of a Kind," a reunion of ABC, Miller-Boyett and "Full House" twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Meanwhile, it's the likes of Kelley, John Wells ("ER"), Chris Carter ("The X-Files"), and comedy trios Bright-Kauffman-Crane ("Friends," "Veronica's Closet" and the new comedy "All My Life") and Angell-Casey-Lee ("Frasier" and Nathan Lane's new sitcom "Encore! Encore!") that now blanket vast parcels of prime-time real estate.

Various factors explain this changing of the guard, beginning with the nature of the television business itself, which English describes as "a big monster that has to be fed constantly." Other reasons include shifting programming strategies and audience tastes, the daunting challenge of replicating success, and turns of the revolving doors leading to network management suites.

The producers themselves, meanwhile, uniformly point to the sheer exhaustion brought about by the task of overseeing multiple TV series simultaneously.

"I think television just exhausts anybody who's creatively committed to it," says Bloodworth-Thomason, who estimates that she wrote more than 250 sitcom scripts for her various shows during an eight-year period.

"Three [shows] is just too much. You really can't maintain the quality. . . . I think people just want to have a life, and if you have three shows on and are truly involved in them, you can't have a life."

English also acknowledges that the desire to carry such a workload invariably diminishes in the wake of generating a major hit. Producers of such shows not only draw millions of dollars in salary annually from producing fees but can earn tens of millions more from the sale of programs into syndication.

At this stage in her career, English is happy to play a more supervisory role with her latest series, which was created by Tom Palmer. The responsibility associated with running every aspect of a show, she says, is better suited to "someone who wants to sit in a writers' room until 2 o'clock in the morning seven nights a week. . . . You really have to sacrifice a lot personally and professionally."

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Most of these producers concede they may have over-extended themselves during their most active periods, as network and studio executives kept clamoring for their next program.

At one point, Brand and Falsey were producing three programs scattered across the globe: "Northern Exposure," filmed in Washington state; "I'll Fly Away," shot in Georgia; and "Going to Extremes," a whimsical ABC drama about medical students on a tropical island, produced in Jamaica.

"As far as networks and studios are concerned, when you're hot, you're hot, and people keep throwing more things at you," says Brand, who in the last few years has produced a couple of unsold pilots, directed the feature "A Pyromaniac's Love Story" and is developing another film.

Moreover, the temptation in Hollywood is always to hew closely to what's popular, meaning producers are invariably prodded to try to duplicate their hits with similarly themed fare, a tactic that seldom works.

As Brand recalls, "After the success of 'Northern Exposure,' people wanted another 'Northern,' and that was the last thing I wanted to do."

Some producers--most notably Aaron Spelling and Steven Bochco--have been able to provide a steady stream of new programs, remaining on the air virtually without interruption for decades. Both have built companies that draw upon the creative talents of other producers as well.

For Brand and Falsey, expanding from writer-producers to an ongoing concern offered little appeal.

"Neither one of us was interested in becoming an industry," Brand says. "It wasn't a goal for myself or for him."

The temptation is always there, however, for producers of a major hit. In television, nothing begets success like success, and more specifically the leverage that comes with it. As a result, such producers and studios can usually arm-twist networks into providing them coveted time slots to launch their new programs--giving those shows a better chance to succeed.

In the fall, for example, the latest NBC comedy from Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane will follow "Friends," while their second-year sitcom "Veronica's Closet" will air after "Frasier."

Along the same lines, Witt-Thomas used to own Saturday nights on NBC, building off "Golden Girls" with "Empty Nest" and "Nurses," expanding to other nights with more middling properties such as "Blossom."

"When it's going, you ride the wave--there's spinoffs and people giving you ideas," Thomas says.

"At a certain point, you have so much stuff on the air you can't develop [new series], and there's a gap in the pipeline. That's what happened to us."

Despite such scheduling advantages, marquee producers have frequently failed to deliver big ratings with their follow-up effort--hardly a surprise in a business where on average less than 1 in 5 series survive to see a second year.

In certain instances, a writer may only be able to conceive of one truly great idea or character in a lifetime. Moreover, executives note that even a well-conceived series can falter if the program runs into difficulties on other fronts, especially in regard to casting.

"Sometimes it's just the chemistry--it's having the right character [to go] with the right actor," says ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg. "Sometimes if you don't have the right actor, the show can't capture [the writer's] voice. There's so many opportunities along the way to trip you up."

Casting can save a show as well. Bloomberg recalls Miller-Boyett's knack in finding a performer such as Jaleel White--initially a supporting player on "Family Matters"--and bringing him to the fore of that series as the nerdish Steve Urkel.

Creating a successful show also tends to afford producers the artistic freedom to make programs they've long wanted to do--projects that may lack commercial appeal. Many network executives have found that even the most successful producers usually have such a concept within them struggling to get out.

An oft-cited case involves Gary David Goldberg, who followed the hit "Family Ties" in 1991 with "Brooklyn Bridge"--a nostalgic look at a Jewish family in the 1950s adored by critics but perceived at the time to be the TV equivalent of an art-house film. (Goldberg later returned to more conventional territory by teaming with "Ties" alumnus Michael J. Fox on the current ABC sitcom "Spin City.")

In similar fashion, some contend that CBS erred by pinning its hopes so heavily on English and Bloodworth-Thomason, committing to multiple series from each of them and potentially excluding new voices from breaking through. The consensus was that follow-up shows such as English's "Love and War" and the Thomasons' "Hearts Afire" didn't measure up to their predecessors, creatively or ratings-wise.

English admits that with "Living in Captivity" her goals extend beyond the conventional TV measuring stick of ratings and revenues. She wants to explore some of the terrain Norman Lear did in "All in the Family"--material that seems risky again 25 years later.

"We have a tremendous desire to have our hand in the business and hopefully to effect some change," she says. "I'm in the position to do that now."

Trends within the television business also have taken their toll on the productivity of some producers.

For starters, with the industry dominated by a few vast, vertically integrated companies, financial considerations increasingly dictate which shows get (and stay) on the air. With networks determined to own more programs and thus exercise greater control over their schedules, even pedigreed producers can be hampered if they lack such a network affiliation.

The few independent outfits like the Carsey-Werner Co.--whose credits include "Roseanne," "The Cosby Show" and "3rd Rock From the Sun"--have found landing desirable time periods difficult, as networks play favorites toward self-supplied programs.

"It's always been about believing strongly in the material, and making a show so good they can't keep it off their schedule," Thomas says. "It's still that way. It's just more intense now."

Industry politics also plays a part. The average tenure of a network executive remains relatively brief, and each new arrival generally has more invested in the talent they recruit than the deals they inherit.

CBS is on its third entertainment division president since English and Bloodworth-Thomason signed their long-term agreements with the network. Similarly, five people have run the entertainment arm at Fox in its 11-year history.

Audience tastes and habits change as well. After spinning hit after hit out of ABC's "TGIF" franchise, the last of those shows from Miller and Boyett, "Family Matters" and "Step by Step," recently fell victim to low ratings after being appropriated by CBS.

Miller-Boyett's brand of family comedy has been hard-pressed in recent years to equal past ratings glory, with more viewing choices available to both parents and children; still, under the Walt Disney Co.'s ownership ABC has renewed its commitment to the genre, hoping "Two of a Kind" can pick up the baton.

Even Spelling experienced a downturn in his career at the start of this decade, as the escapism of "Charlie's Angels," "Dynasty" and "The Love Boat" gave way to grittier dramas. Spelling rebounded by catering to the youthful audience many advertisers covet with such shows as "Melrose Place," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "7th Heaven."

Feeling rejuvenated after a production lapse this past season, Thomas still can't foresee replicating the experience of supervising a half-dozen series. Given the scarcity of hit shows--and the fact that producers lose money unless a series reaches the critical mass of episodes needed for syndication--he maintains that churning out programs is no longer a practical option for most companies.

"This is not a business about volume anymore. I don't think we'd want six shows on the air," Thomas says. "Six 'Blossoms' on the air would kill us [financially], and you're not going to get six 'Golden Girls' or 'Empty Nests.' You really have to pick and choose nowadays more than ever."

Whatever knocks they've endured, these producers who lorded over prime time in the early 1990s express a lingering affinity for television, especially compared to the at-times confounding world of feature films.

"To me, it's no contest," says English, who has dabbled in film. "Television is really my medium. The average time it takes to get a movie on the screen, if it gets made at all, is six years. I really have no interest in that."

Yet unlike making a movie--where an end to the process is always in sight--television can burn out even its best and brightest talent due to the nonstop grind.

"There's nothing harder to do than a TV series," notes Brand, characterizing the week-in, week-out challenge in mythic terms. "It's Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill."

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