Nervous Time for the TV Set

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In Hollywood, where self-involvement, self-doubt and contract-to-contract employment are facts of life, springtime brings a fresh set of anxieties.

The rest of America may spend these warm weeks gardening, barbecuing and going to baseball games, but the casts and crews of certain television programs are restless. Some smoke more, some eat more, but they all stay close to the phone.

Their shows are "on the bubble," which means their lives are on hold until network television executives decide whether their series will live or die.

As this annual ritual plays out, thousands of bubble people wait and worry about the outcome of this month's "pilot screenings"--a kind of mini film festival in which each network checks out the new crop of series prototypes competing for a slot on the prime-time schedule.

They can only wonder: Will one of those alluring new pilots bump them off the air?

The bubble shows--about 30 this year--float somewhere between established hit and ratings flop, between already forgotten and miraculous comeback story. Take "Everybody Loves Raymond," a CBS sitcom that premiered in 1996. By the spring of 1997, it was teetering on the bubble but eventually was renewed. The show gradually blossomed into a major hit, ranking near the top of the Nielsen Media Research ratings.

This year, shows on the bubble include the award-winning ABC sitcom "Spin City," the long-running CBS drama "Touched by an Angel," UPN's "The Hughleys" and Fox's lesser-known "Greg the Bunny," a sitcom with a cast of humans and puppets.

If the shows survive, each member of the cast and crew (typically, between 100 and 150 people) can depend on 10 more months of lucrative, high-profile work. If the bubble bursts? Most likely, months of unemployment.

The consequences of the process are easy to see in parts of a city in which so many people work in the industry or live with someone who does. By night, party talk is dominated by predictions of which shows will be picked up and which won't. By day, crowds begin to form on the wide, wooden staircase up to the Center for Yoga in the Larchmont Village neighborhood.

"A large percentage of our students are industry people. They are more stressed out," said center owner Lisa Haase. "The actors are running around to more auditions because they've got to land a part. The people behind the scenes are silently tensed up because they're waiting to see if their shows are getting picked up. It's part of the industry. I think they all have that bittersweet feeling. There's a part of them that wonders, 'What in the world am I doing this for?'"

Across town, at the Burke Williams Day Spa & Massage Center on Sunset Boulevard, business has spiked as well in the past few weeks for therapists servicing agents, directors and actors.

At this time of year, the industry's unforgiving Greek chorus of agents, publicists--even the guy handing you your latte--is speculating about which new pilots flopped in screenings and which "killed" (a good thing, in TV-speak). The talk is often misleading, but it has the effect of compounding the collective anxiety.

The pilot selection process, with the bubble shows waiting in its wake, culminates next week during presentations in New York, where more than $7 billion in advertising time is up for grabs.

The networks will deliver a glitzy roll-out of their fall prime-time lineup to advertisers who know the world can do without, say, "Titus" if the Fox sitcom isn't reaching a large enough demographic. Most parts of the ritual change little year to year, but this season seems to be producing a bit more anxiety at the network level, where an advertising slump has forced layoffs and belt-tightening and left executives even more risk-averse than usual. That could benefit some modestly rated series with a semblance of a following.

In any year, the mystery surrounding programming is unusually class-blind for Hollywood, leaving handsomely paid producers and stars facing the same gallows as technical personnel.

This time around, those awaiting verdicts range from Steven Bochco, co-creator and executive producer of the ABC legal drama "Philly," to Pashelle L. Clayton, costume supervisor on the CBS drama "The Education of Max Bickford." Bochco is a 58-year-old multimillionaire producer and television kingpin behind the long-running hit "NYPD Blue," while Clayton, 32, lives in an apartment in Harlem.

Both "Philly," shot in L.A., and "Max Bickford," which is shot in New York, have earned some respectable reviews. But they are hardly the ratings successes that guarantee renewal into another season--at least, not until their networks can evaluate possible replacements.

"It's always a kick in the gut," said Bochco, a veteran producer who has seen his dramas die, unrenewed, after just one season.

"Over the years, you start to realize you can't worry about the parts of the business you don't control."

For Clayton, an emotional survival technique is getting her finances in order. She budgets her $70,000 salary over the course of 12 months should "Max Bickford" be canceled, and she squirrels away enough money to carry her through to her next job.

"This waiting each spring has been a way of life for me for 10 years," said Clayton, adding that she even has come to enjoy the change that has taken her from series like Fox's "New York Undercover" to feature films, including "The Hurricane."

Not everyone has reached her level of serenity, regardless of the financial precautions taken. The worst bubble season 54-year-old cinematographer Rodney Charters can remember occurred two years ago, when NBC dropped "The Pretender." The show had been on the air four seasons, a long enough run that the cast and crew thought they could let their guard down.

"Banks hate people in this business because we have no visible means of support other than a contract, and an executive can [alter] the destiny of 300 and 400 workers overnight," Charters said.

For actors, especially, the bubble can present complications. Some audition for roles on new series while their existing shows remain up in the air. It's tricky footwork that can land the actor in a producer's office wearing the scarlet letter of "second position," meaning the performer's eligibility for the new role is tied to the fate of the current show. It doesn't have to be bad for actors. Just ask Jennifer Aniston.

She was co-starring in a CBS series, "Muddling Through," when she landed the role of Rachel on NBC's "Friends" in 1994.

CBS decided not to air "Muddling Through" until the summer, mere weeks before "Friends" was scheduled to begin production. Had "Muddling Through" exhibited ratings promise and CBS held Aniston to her contract, the producers of "Friends" would have been forced to recast the part.

In the end, "Muddling Through" ran for less than two months. "Friends" is due to begin its ninth season, paying its six stars, including Aniston, roughly $25 million each, annually.

"With the amount of pilots being done, you have to double up" on actors, said CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, who--as the then-chief of Warner Bros.--remembers fearing that Aniston's involvement with "Friends" would be "dead meat" if initial ratings for "Muddling Through" had been better.

Actors Tom Everett Scott and Rick Hoffman, both 31, know the drill well. The two previously co-starred in the Fox series "The $treet," a much-hyped drama about youthful stockbrokers that was canceled after just seven episodes. Both segued to Bochco's "Philly," in which they play lawyers, and now find themselves hoping they won't be told a second time that a network is dumping their show.

"There's a little weight loss," said Hoffman, "an occasional cigarette, an occasional drink and a lot of working out."

His enthusiastic family back in New York may be adding to those pangs of worry. They call every Wednesday morning and talk about the show's performance the night before. Even his grandmother calls, quoting the overnight ratings.

"She says, 'Eleven, Twelve. That's not bad,'" he said, referring to the show's decent but not stellar audience shares.

Last year, Scott--whose resume includes the films "That Thing You Do!" and "Boiler Room"--relocated his family to a three-bedroom rental house in the canyons for his second stab at a television career. Even if "Philly" doesn't receive a second season, he won't consider the experience a failure.

"This is a successful show to me," he said. "I've never been on a TV show that's gotten this far--it's guaranteed for 13 months."

If it were only about the ratings, reading the tea leaves would be simpler. Other factors, however, complicate the schedule-setting process--particularly now, with vast media companies owning the series they broadcast.

At Fox, for instance, executives are still deciding whether to renew the second-year sitcom "Titus," about a dysfunctional family based on the life of series star Christopher Titus. The good news for those involved is that "Titus," which has completed 54 episodes, is produced by 20th Century Fox Television. The network ostensibly has an interest in getting the series to about twice that number of installments, because then its reruns could be sold into syndication.

But after opening to mostly good reviews and ratings, "Titus" appears to have run out of gas amid a slew of other dysfunctional-family comedies on the air. The program's renewal will hinge on those considerations, as well as how good the new pilots are. Meanwhile, Stephan Olson, the show's production designer, cleaned out his office in March, the weekend after the series wrapped production.

"The feeling was it would be so much more fair if we left knowing [the show's fate], so we could plan our lives," Olson said. Staffers "were told we'd be notified when the producers know. It's not as though they know and aren't telling us. Nobody knows."

Although Olson has a few potential backup possibilities if "Titus" doesn't get picked up (he's worked on two pilots this spring, including a CBS sitcom starring Nathan Lane), he has learned to curtail his spending this time of year. A big vacation, for example, is out of question.

"You don't go to Europe," he said. "You go to Seattle."

Or, if you're Ken Fink, you catch a few breaks and sit out this bubble season.

After 10 years of directing dramatic television and working on shows such as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Millennium," Fink took a chance last year as one of the directors of a new show, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

It ended up becoming one of the most-watched programs on television, which means he can sail through the tense bubble period this year. The CBS show will not only run next season, but it has also inspired a spinoff to be filmed in Miami.

"We're itinerants," Fink said of the TV lifers. "We're like carnies with good teeth."

This fall, he will become a "CSI" producer. He intends to spend his break quietly with his wife, Beth, and their baby girl, Sophia.

"It's nice not to think about the phone ringing or wait to hear from your agent where you stand," he said from their home near the beach.

"When you're on the bubble, you end up phoning friends and trying to get a sense of who's getting grabbed. It's like high school--the popular girls and boys are getting their invitation to the prom, and you're waiting for yours."

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The Bubble' Shows

Of the roughly 150 television shows aired by the six major broadcast networks this season, more than 30 are waiting to hear whether they will live to see another year. A breakdown of the "bubble" shows, network by network:

ABC

Spin City

The Job

Philly

The George Lopez Show

CBS

The Education of Max Bickford

Touched by an Angel

First Monday

The Agency

Family Law

Baby Bob

The Amazing Race

NBC

Providence

Watching Ellie

Three Sisters

Leap of Faith

Ed

Fox

Titus

Grounded for Life

That '80s Show

24

Undeclared

Andy Richter Controls the Universe

Greg the Bunny

Dark Angel

WB

Raising Dad

Maybe It's Me

Off Centre

Angel

UPN

The Hughleys

One on One

The Parkers

Girlfriends

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Times staff writer Brian Lowry contributed to this report.

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