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Tuned In: NBC tinkers with shows in effort to boost ratings

Tuesday, August 03, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- When a TV series is in trouble, a network has two options: fish or cut bait.

This season NBC has put out a "gone fishin' " sign, opting to try to fix marginal shows rather than replacing them wholesale. Expect major cast changes to "Jesse," "Suddenly Susan," "Profiler" and even "ER." Behind-the-scenes new show runners are being added to "Veronica's Closet" and "Jesse."

What gives?

In the case of "Suddenly Susan" and "Veronica's Closet," it seems like the sitcoms are being abandoned to die off in a sinkhole time slot.

"Veronica's Closet," which has aired at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays since its debut two years ago, will venture forth from its protected berth between "Frasier" and "ER." "Veronica's" will air at 8:30 p.m. Mondays this fall following "Suddenly Susan."

Both series are produced by Warner Bros., and "Veronica's" comes from the "Friends" producers. NBC doesn't want to make those folks angry. Perhaps the network is giving both sitcoms one last opportunity to flop in the ratings so executives can say, "See, we gave you another chance and you still failed. Buh-bye."

Of course, that's not the explanation given by NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier.

"The shows we're talking about here had core, built-in audiences to start with," Ancier said. "You look at a show like 'Jesse' or 'Veronica's Closet' and there's a lot of very talented people in the cast. If you can tinker with the show and up the writing quality, it seems like that's a lot easier than simply dumping a show in the trash bin and trying to start from scratch."

Ancier pointed to "The Facts of Life" as an example of a TV show that underwent a major overhaul and became a hit (the cast was pared down after the first season and the setting slightly altered).

On "Jesse" the lead character's brothers and workplace are gone, replaced by new co-workers in the nursing school where the title character has enrolled. More importantly, the show has a new executive producer, Wil Calhoun, who previously wrote for "Friends."

"He's done a phenomenal job pitching stories to us," Ancier said. "This is another show we've done some fairly major surgery on, and I'm hopeful it will show."

Perhaps the show's best chance for success is through its upbeat theme song by The Tories. An NBC publicist said the song will be included on the group's new album and is likely to be released as a single like the "Friends" theme.

Two writers from "Friends" join "Veronica's Closet" as executive producers, and a new character will be added. But will that do much good? As one reporter pointed out, a year ago the producers of "Veronica's Closet" promised TV critics gathered there that the show would improve. It didn't.

"What did they do this year? Really, really promise?" the critic asked.

"Double dare promise," Ancier replied. "The ones who promised are not the ones running the show this year."

Eric Idle joins the cast of "Suddenly Susan" as Brooke Shields' new boss, with comedian Sherri Shepherd as his executive assistant. The magazine Susan works for becomes a men's magazine, and Rob Estes ("Melrose Place") joins the cast as a photographer who will be a potential love interest for Susan. Currie Graham plays the magazine's sportswriter.

Mark Driscoll, a new executive producer on "Suddenly Susan," said dramas revamp and rejigger all the time without fanfare.

"But when a comedy does it, people get worried and go, 'Oh, it was in trouble,' " he said. "All we're trying to do is return to the original spirit of the pilot. It was a great idea of this woman leaving somebody at the altar and realizing that she'd always been identified in terms of a man and striking out on her own. I think we may have gotten away from that a little bit."

Shields said she never considered abandoning the show after the suicide of castmate David Strickland because "it was not something he would have wanted."

Perhaps the most radical change for any show this season is in "Profiler," which gets a new lead character. Star Ally Walker appears in the first two episodes.

In the May season finale, her character, Samantha Waters, was cornered by serial killer Jack. The new season opens with the new profiler, played by Jamie Luner, looking for Sam.

"The idea was to have two profilers kind of working from opposite ends of their situations," said executive producer Stephen Kronish. "We are trying to find Sam. Sam is trying to work her way out of the situation that she's in."

Kronish said the show will still be about a profiler trying to get into the minds of serial killers, but from the point of view of Luner's new lead character.

"This is not a Darrin Stephens," Kronish said, referring to the change in leading men on "Bewitched." "Part of the excitement of what we're looking forward to is that this is a totally new character. This is a character that doesn't have the same sort of burden of tragedy that Sam had with her husband being killed."

At "ER," planning has begun for the departures of Julianna Margulies, at the end of the year, and Gloria Reuben, who will leave about six episodes into the new season. Executive producer John Wells wouldn't say how Reuben's HIV-positive Jeanie Boulet will depart, but it's not likely to be in a coffin.

"Her character's been through enough," Wells said.

With only two departures and the addition of five regulars and recurring characters played by Alan Alda and Rebecca DeMornay, the emergency room is about to get more crowded.

Paul McCrane, who plays the obnoxious Dr. Robert Romano, will become a series regular along with returning star Ming-Na Wen and newcomers Maura Tierney ("NewsRadio"), Michael Michele ("Homicide: Life on the Street") and George Clooney lookalike Goran Visnjic, who plays a Croatian survivor of the Bosnian war.

SCHEDULING: On first glance you'd think it foolish of PBS to schedule two of its most promising new programs when the networks premiere their new shows in September ("An American Love Story," a documentary about the life of an interracial couple) or during November sweeps (Ken Burns' latest, "Not For Ourselves Alone," the story of women's rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton).

"If we don't go in September when the networks are firing up their schedules, that knocks out October when new episodes are premiering," said John Wilson, PBS senior vice president of programming services. "November is sweeps, and we pledge in December, so I've just eliminated the fall schedule for programming."

He highlighted a similar scenario for the first part of the year that would leave only April and June as the non-sweeps, non-pledge months.

"There's always something on, there's always something to compete with," Wilson said. "Why do I put out good stuff in sweeps? I'm not going to put what I consider to be the more delicate shows -- say, a six-part Sister Wendy looks at art -- in November; no one will see it then. I have to pick and choose. Which are the shows that are going to fare in that competitive environment that bring with them a significant amount of promotion to punch through the noise and clutter of a sweeps period?"

Wilson said there's no way for PBS not to compete with the networks, because in the 100-channel universe PBS is just another destination no different from the networks or cable or even the Internet.

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