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Tuned In: WB and Fox locked in tug of war over 'Buffy' future

Monday, January 08, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer has battled her share of demons, devils and deadly foes, but she's about to get caught between two big bullies, and the outcome might drive a stake through the heart of the series. "Buffy" is up for renewal by The WB network, and there's no question WB programmers want to keep the show. But Fox, the studio that produces "Buffy," is likely to ask for significantly more compensation than The WB currently pays. If The WB balks, Fox could simply shift the series to the Fox network.

This is a bad idea on so many counts. With few exceptions -- "JAG" being the most obvious -- when a show moves from one network to another, the ratings usually drop. And if "Buffy" were to move off The WB to Fox -- or any larger network that expects higher ratings -- the show might not be able to deliver. There would also be the issue of lost synergy between "Buffy" and its spinoff, "Angel," which remains under contract at The WB.

It's in the best interests of all concerned that "Buffy" stays where it is, but already the primary players in the show's fate are posturing. Over the weekend, both sides began by saying they want to keep the show on The WB -- and then they began to dig in their heels.

On Saturday, WB CEO Jamie Kellner said his network will make a proposal to "take all the revenue we can generate with 'Buffy,' and we'll give it to you in a giant wheelbarrow. And if that's not enough, then take it to somebody else and you've demonstrated you're not the kind of partner we should be doing business with."

Kellner then quoted a Fox executive who believes once a studio takes a show off a network and doesn't sell it to another network but puts it on its own network, that will irreparably change the dynamics of doing business in the TV industry.

Sandy Grushow, president of Fox Television Entertainment Group, has responsibility for both the Fox network and its sister studio. He balked at Kellner's statements.

"I was disappointed Jamie decided to start negotiating in the press," Grushow said. "If, in fact, The WB is prepared to make a fair proposal [to Fox], there's no reason to believe ['Buffy'] won't continue to air on The WB for many years to come. Up to this point that has not remotely been the case."

Grushow then used the past practices of Kellner's company against him.

"Jamie Kellner works for a company called AOL-Time Warner," Grushow said, "and Time Warner put a gun to the head of [NBC] and extracted a $13 million [per episode] license fee for 'ER' and changed the business in so doing."

And so they'll continue sparring until a deal is or isn't made. Whichever way it goes, this much I know: the bluster of Hollywood executives is one evil force even Buffy can't surmount.

ON TO ANOTHER "ISLAND": Fox executives are like the boy who cried wolf. They keep saying they'll stop airing exploitative reality specials, and they do for a month or so. But then "Police Videos" creeps back onto the screen.

Mea culpas followed the disaster that was "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" but Fox again wades into potentially salacious relationship waters Wednesday night at 9 with "Temptation Island," which puts four unmarried couples on an island and then introduces sexy singles to tempt the couples to stray from one another.

That's how it looks from the commercials anyway. Fox wouldn't make the premiere episode available in time for deadline.

"It might be fair to suggest that when you boil this idea down to 30 seconds, it comes off more provocatively than when you watch the episode," said Fox's Grushow. "I don't think this is a show that endeavors to pry apart couples. This is a show that endeavors to explore the dynamics of people in serious relationships. These are people who were interested in exploring the strengths of their relationships. It's not a show about sex, as you will see."

More on reality shows in tomorrow's column.

Along with "Temptation Island," Fox has several new scripted series ready for midseason. In addition to two midseason shows announced last year -- the horror anthology "Night Visions" and the sitcom "Schimmel" -- other upcoming series on Fox include:

"Grounded for Life" (8:30 p.m. Wednesday) -- A loud family comedy with flashbacks aplenty, there's nothing here viewers haven't seen before.

"The Lone Gunmen" (9 p.m. March 4) -- The trio of geeks from "The X-Files" get spun off into their own show to investigate conspiracies. This show has a lighter touch than "The X-Files" and it's not badly done, I just don't care much about the characters in this universe anymore.

"The Tick" (March, time period to be announced) -- Fox seems more excited about "Grounded for Life," but the pilot for this half-hour super hero spoof (based on the cartoon and comic book series) is far and away superior.

"Undeclared" (day and time to be announced) -- Judd Apatow, executive producer of last season's "Freaks and Geeks," returns with this half-hour single-camera comedy set in a university freshman dorm. It's essentially "Freaks and Geeks Go to College," but that's not meant to diminish this fresh, funny series. It's not as innocent as "Freaks and Geeks," but that's not surprising given the setting. "Undeclared" has the same realistic "I remember experiencing that" vibe that made "Freaks and Geeks" great.

FOX FLOP: Anyone interested in seeing what little evidence remains of a series Fox ordered for the 1999-2000 season but never aired should tune to Cinemax Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. for "Cruel Intentions 2," a prequel to the film that starred Sarah Michelle Gellar. She's nowhere to be found in this tepid follow-up created for Fox as the series "Manchester Prep." It was so bad even Fox declined to air it.

Only two, possibly three, episodes of "Manchester Prep" were filmed, including an infamous scene of a teen-age girl getting aroused while riding a horse. "Cruel Intentions 2" is made up of those episodes edited together.

DUBBA DUMBA?: Fans and critics love to point fingers at network executives and blame them for meddling with their favorite programs. While it's true network suits have been known to screw up perfectly good shows, they can also make astute decisions that improve a series.

Examples of both good and bad network dictates can be found by looking at two WB shows this season.

"Roswell" (9 p.m. Mondays) has improved dramatically -- and I mean that in every sense of the word -- as it morphed from an angsty teen drama about aliens to a sci-fi adventure.

"Creatively it's at its strongest yet," said Susanne Daniels, The WB entertainment president. "That [change] was a network note to try and give the show more of a science-fiction angle. I feel good about the creative growth and the time period [ratings] growth and I am confident about the show coming back."

But Daniels didn't offer a similar vote of confidence for The WB's "Popular" (9 p.m. Fridays), a high school comedy-drama that found its creative footing last season when it opted to be more comedic than dramatic. Outrageous and inventive, the show succeeded in generating laughs.

This season all the life has been sucked out of "Popular" as comedy gave way to heavy drama, and bland drama at that. One character battled eating disorders. Another fought leukemia. It was all too "very special episode"-ish, something "Popular" would have made fun of last season.

Daniels acknowledged these, too, were network-mandated changes.

"We felt creatively good about the show, but didn't feel the ratings growth was as strong as it could have been, as it should have been on Thursday night [where the show aired last season]," Daniels said. "We made the bet to bring it back a second season and we did in fact ask for some creative changes to try to make the show potentially less marginal, to broaden it out."

Did it work?

"Not as well as I would have liked it to," Daniels said, acknowledging that the show's ratings on Friday are not up to snuff, "but I'm not sure it would have worked the other way either."

Cast members said the show's comedic elements will return in upcoming episodes.

"Here's a hint: We all represent some sort of sexually transmitted disease in a school play," said actress Sara Rue. "If that doesn't make you tune back in, I'm not sure what's going to."

Christopher Gorham, whose character got to carry the leukemia story line, said he wasn't concerned about the show's heavier tone this season.

"I'm not worried about it -- unless we get canceled," he said.

That looks like a distinct possibility, and all because even though network executives liked the show's creative direction, they still felt the need to change it.

Before we learn the fates of any of the current shows on The WB's schedule, there's still the matter of upcoming midseason series, which include:

"Popstars" (9 p.m. Friday, regular time slot 8:30 p.m. Friday starting Jan. 19) -- The WB cameras follow pop star wannabes as they form a girl group which will record a CD and stage a concert. Perhaps it will improve, but the first episode this week comes off as a weak "Star Search."

"The Oblongs" (April 1, time slot to be announced) -- Putrid animated comedy about a poor family that lives downwind of the rich, which leaves each of them with deformities (the little girl has what looks like a hot dog -- or worse -- growing out of her head). The WB invited 12 voice actors and producers from the series to a press conference, prompting a fellow critic to remark, "This is more people than are going to watch the show." That may not be much of an exaggeration.

"Jack & Jill" (9 p.m. Wednesday) -- The romantic comedy returns for its second season with 13 original episodes in the "Felicity" time slot ("Felicity" returns this spring). It's cute and fun, but up against NBC's "The West Wing," it's in for a tough fight outside the young female demographic.

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