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Multiplicity multiplies among TV producers

Sunday, September 19, 1999

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

David E. Kelley isn't the only TV producer with a full plate. This fall, there seems to be a record number of show runners at work on multiple series.

? "ER" executive producer John Wells joins forces with "Sports Night" writer/creator Aaron Sorkin for NBC's White House drama "The West Wing."

Chris Thompson, a longtime producer whose most recent shows were NBC's short-lived sitcom "House Rules" and the first season of "The Naked Truth," returns with two new comedies, Fox's "Action" and CBS's "Ladies Man."

Steve Levitan, creator of "Just Shoot Me," unveils his latest comedy, NBC's "Stark Raving Mad."

Bruce Helford, co-creator of ABC's "The Drew Carey Show" and "Norm" (formerly "The Norm Show"), has both those shows on the air, plus he's developing an animated comedy and a new sitcom for fall 2000 starring Nikki Cox, who's appearing this season on "Norm."

Got all that?

It's one thing to keep track of who's involved with what, but managing multiple TV series is a bigger headache. For some it means relinquishing day-to-day control on their original program to work on something new. That's what Levitan has done, leaving "Just Shoot Me" to other writers.

"I'm going to be 85 to 90 percent on ['Stark Raving Mad']," Levitan said. "I've been involved in 'Just Shoot Me.' I get story beats and outlines and give my detailed notes about what I like about a script and what I don't."

Sorkin will continue to write both "Sports Night" and "West Wing," but he knows there will be a cost.

"This is going to be hard, but it's going to be worth it," Sorkin said. "I get postcards from my wife. She lets me know what's going on. Apparently, we've redone the kitchen and I'm going to like it a lot."

Sorkin's two shows are produced less than a mile from one another, so he frequently drives back and forth with a few scant minutes to switch from the mindset of one program to another.

"There are worse problems in the world to have," he said. "That's a very glamorous one. If we're talking about that and a couple of hours less sleep in exchange for what I get back, it's a no-brainer. You take the deal and run."

Wells has a theory on why so many producers are doing double duty: Networks have realized the talent pool is thin.

"There are way too many shows on the air, and it happened so quickly, people didn't get to come up through the journeyman system," Wells said. "We don't have enough people who have really put in all their time and spent the time learning how to do the jobs and do the jobs well. The networks are learning to rely on people who have done it in the past."

Wells said mentoring up-and-coming writers can help lighten the load when a show runner moves on to other projects.

Producers aren't only creating new shows, they're also spinning off their hits:

Dick Wolf's "Law & Order" gives birth to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, creators of "Party of Five," spin off Jennifer Love Hewitt's character in "Time of Your Life."

Ralph Farquhar, Sara V. Finney and Vida Spears, creators of "Moesha," are executive-producing its UPN spin-off, "The Parkers."

Brenda Hampton created "7th Heaven," and tomorrow night she premieres "Safe Harbor," a new family show that will air immediately after "Heaven." Hampton said she and the "7th Heaven" writers worked through hiatus. "We're coming into '7th Heaven' with half the season written, and we're well-prepared on 'Safe Harbor,'" she said.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" loses its vampire heartthrob to his own series, "Angel." "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon will continue to work on both shows. "Buffy" supervising producer Marti Noxon said she's not worried. "With anybody else I'd be nervous, but Joss is Superman," Noxon said. "He's putting out twice as much, which should mean half as much quality, but with Joss it's just twice as much. He's amazing, although sometimes I do worry he might explode."

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