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TV vets wind down a once powerhouse shop

Times Staff Writer

It may be hard to remember now, with prime time ruled by desperate housewives and dancing stars, but the independent producers Carsey-Werner once dominated TV with comedy.

During the 1988-89 season, the three highest-rated programs -- “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne” and the “Cosby” spinoff “A Different World” -- were all made by Carsey-Werner Co. In just a few years, the company almost single-handedly revived the sitcom, a format that many TV executives felt sure was dying before “The Cosby Show” debuted in 1984.

But in recent years, Carsey-Werner has had little to laugh about. As one of the last major independent suppliers of network TV series, the studio lost millions of dollars developing and producing such duds as “Whoopi” and “The Tracy Morgan Show.” Last month, partners Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner said that the company would pare down TV production operations and dramatically scale back development of new projects.

In a phone interview last week, Werner, 55, noted that Carsey-Werner is bowing out, perhaps fittingly, just as TV comedies are going through another rough patch. For the week ending July 3, for example, just two of the 10 most-watched programs were comedies: repeats of CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” -- and “Raymond” has already aired its series finale and won’t be back in the fall.

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“Someone is going to come up with another comedy hit,” said Werner, who is also chairman and co-owner of the Boston Red Sox. “But the way we were [developing shows] was very challenging.... Marcy would say we’re like a Mazda Miata, and everybody else had these big rigs.”

It’s a quiet end to a onetime TV powerhouse that has brought in an estimated $3 billion in revenue over the last decade. But Carsey-Werner basically became the equivalent of a mom-and-pop grocer in a Wal-Mart world. For all its successes, the company still struggled alongside other studios -- such as Warner Bros. Television and 20th Century Fox Television -- that enjoy enormous advantages in getting new series picked up by sister networks. Since the mid-1990s, when the government overturned rules prohibiting networks from owning a stake in shows they broadcast, independent studios have faced increasingly limited prospects.

“It’s a tough go for anyone working out there on their own,” said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and co-author, with Earle Marsh, of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “Usually today, studios are associated” with a network.

The 60-year-old Carsey was said to be traveling and unavailable for comment, although a company spokesman emphasized that, contrary to a published report, she’s not retiring from the entertainment business. However, it’s clear that the partners had different views of the company’s potential.

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“Marcy has felt -- and she’s entitled to feel this way -- that the challenges of getting a show on the air have become too daunting,” Werner said. “I’m stubborn enough to try to find another process for TV comedy development.”

Werner declined to provide details other than to say that he’s had “conversations with a couple of networks” about moving forward.

Firm formed in 1981

The pair began working together at ABC during the 1970s, when the network was being reinvented by programming guru Fred Silverman with escapist fare like “Happy Days,” “Mork & Mindy” and “Dynasty.” They left ABC to form Carsey-Werner in 1981, where they eventually created hit shows for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

After “The Cosby Show” became a No. 1 hit for NBC, the pair solidified their success with a series of sitcoms centered on lead actors with strong personalities: “Roseanne,” “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill.” Often, the stars were memorable even when the shows weren’t: Jackie Mason in “Chicken Soup,” for instance, or John Goodman in “Normal, Ohio.”

“Most of [their] shows have generally had someone who could become a real TV star at the center ... and they’ve had a voice and something to say,” said Garth Ancier, chairman of the WB Network, who worked on “The Cosby Show” during an early executive stint at NBC.

Many shows came to reflect the personality of their stars, perhaps even more so than was typical for sitcoms. “What they were best at is getting talent and, for good or evil, giving the talent the power in controlling the project,” said Bruce Helford, a writer on “Roseanne” who later created “The Drew Carey Show.”

But perhaps even more critical was the partners’ commitment to the work. In the early days of “The Cosby Show,” Carsey took out a second mortgage on her house to help pay the costs of the show. It was a risky move, but it ensured that Carsey-Werner would retain a large degree of creative control over the series -- as well as a hefty share of the profits generated through syndication.

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“That one decision allowed them to control their destiny,” Ancier said.

Carsey-Werner also tried to instill an informal atmosphere at their Studio City headquarters, where staff members could get lunch from the company’s private chef. At mealtime, “everybody got in line, from executive producers to production assistants,” recalls Helford. “It wasn’t always the best food, but it was a great sense of family.”

But the last five years have proved particularly tough for the company. “Whoopi” and “Tracy Morgan” were costly flops, and the industry’s increasingly consensus-driven style of working was at odds with Carsey-Werner’s more entrepreneurial ethic.

“A hundred people had to weigh in on an idea,” Werner complained of the development process.

CBS filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Carsey-Werner in 2001, demanding that the company repay $53 million in production loans for “Cybill” (the parties finally reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement earlier this year).

After 20 years with Carsey-Werner, partner Caryn Mandabach exited last year to start her own production entity (her office said Mandabach was on vacation and unavailable to comment). And after hiring investment bankers to explore “strategic alternatives,” the company announced last August that it would halt efforts to find a buyer or partner.

“It turned out that we valued our library more than some of the people examining it,” Werner said.

The Carsey-Werner nameplate won’t exactly disappear. The company will remain active as a syndicated distributor of its past hits: However the counting is done, that library is likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It will also oversee the eighth and perhaps final season of Fox’s “That ‘70s Show.”

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But it’s unlikely the Carsey-Werner logo will again appear on the closing credits of many new sitcoms.

As Brooks said, “It is kind of sad, in a way, because [Carsey-Werner] was one of the best examples of an independent studio.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Carsey-Werner’s hits and misses

Starting in the mid-1980s, Carsey-Werner Co. became one of the most reliable hitmakers in the TV business. But recent years have been unkind to the independent studio, with a number of costly sitcom flops.

*--* Title Network Debut Episodes “Oh Madeline” ABC 1983 19 “The Cosby Show” NBC 1984 199 “A Different World” NBC 1987 144 “Roseanne” ABC 1988 222 “Chicken Soup” ABC 1989 11 “Grace Under Fire” ABC 1993 112 “Cybill” CBS 1995 87 “3rd Rock From the Sun” NBC 1996 139 “Cosby” CBS 1996 96 “That ‘70s Show” Fox 1998 178* “Normal, Ohio” Fox 2000 12 “Grounded for Life” Fox and WB 2001 91 “That ‘80s Show” Fox 2002 13 “Whoopi” NBC 2003 22 “The Tracy Morgan Show” NBC 2003 13

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*Still in production

Los Angeles Times


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