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ABC's treatment has Bochco singing the blues

Tuesday, July 24, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- At an NBC press conference last week, "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf said one of the most important rules in television programming is never to move a hit show. He didn't understand ABC's decision to move "NYPD Blue" up against "Law & Order" this fall at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.

"Blue" boss Steven Bochco doesn't get it either. And he's happy to voice his disappointment.

"A ninth-season show moving to a new time slot against a proven hit is going to take a hit," executive producer Bochco said.

Bochco said he's happy with the time slot for his new legal drama, "Philly," which takes the "Blue" berth Tuesday at 10 p.m., but he feels "Blue" got slighted. Bochco would have preferred to have "Blue" wait until "Monday Night Football" ends and put the show on at 10 p.m. Mondays. Or he would have been happy if ABC had given "Blue" a renewal for its 10th season as a sign of faith in the series.

"If they had picked us up for a 10th season, then you can say that's a sign of acknowledgment that you have to make a sacrifice, but there's an understanding and loyalty involved in recognizing it's a two-way street," Bochco said. "[ABC executives] may say to us we cannot imagine a scenario in which you don't come back for a 10th season, and my response is, if you can't imagine that scenario, then what does it cost you to pick us up? In their refusal to do so, suddenly I can see that scenario."

ABC executives expressed faith that "NYPD Blue" is up to the challenge.

"We believe in Steven Bochco and we believe in 'Blue,' " said ABC Television Entertainment Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg. "We're completely confident in it. With all due respect to Dick Wolf, 'Law & Order' is a fine show, but 'Blue' is a finer show in our humble opinion."

Bochco said he understands ABC's goal is to take a run at "Law & Order" and give it stiffer competition, but he sees "Law" as a genuine hit that will prove impervious to attack.

"I don't think it makes a lot of sense to take a New York-themed police show, which has been a great success, and put it up against another great success which is a New York-themed police show on a night that it dominates with an enormously successful ratings lead-in in 'The West Wing,' " Bochco said. "There's simply no question in my mind we cannot do as well on Wednesday night as we did on Tuesday night."

This fall on "NYPD Blue" Rick Schroder will be gone. He won't appear in the season premiere, but his character's disappearance will be explained. Bochco considered pairing Dennis Franz with established co-stars Charlotte Ross or Henry Simmons, but instead he opted to bring in a new character to be played by former "Saved By the Bell" star Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

"We created a wonderful character for Mark-Paul, and I think he's going to knock people out," Bochco said. "He's a young officer who quickly becomes, under a unique set of circumstances, a detective."

That promotion is complicated by the fact his father is a detective in the Bronx and a contemporary of Sipowicz's and they genuinely dislike one another.

"It's an interesting and complex triangular relationship in which this young man is torn between an opinionated and tough-minded father and an equally opinionated, tough-minded mentor," Bochco said.

He's also looking to add another regular character, a female Puerto Rican detective. But don't expect to ever see David Caruso return to the series.

"No," Bochco said. "There's no chance."

The Mouse buys a Fox

Fox Family Channel, a network that had just begun to win back viewers after the disastrous acquisition and rebranding of the Family Channel in 1997, will be purchased by the Walt Disney Company and renamed ABC Family. Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner made the announcement at a press conference here yesterday.

"This is a deal we had been fantasizing about for maybe three years," Eisner said. "This is unique because it really is beach-front property. There are really only five or six ubiquitous, strong cable channels in the U.S. and this is one of them, and there's room for growth here."

ABC intends to "repurpose" ABC entertainment, sports and news programs on ABC Family, which means those programs will air on ABC Family after they air on ABC, often within the same week. This arrangement is similar to the way "Once and Again" airs on Lifetime after it airs on ABC.

In addition to entertainment programming, executives said, ABC News programs, including "World News Tonight" and "Nightline," will get second runs on ABC Family. Current franchises, including "Good Morning America," may be expanded to provide live original content for ABC Family.

Programming from ESPN also will air on ABC Family, and broadcasts of Major League Baseball, in a previous deal made by Fox Family, will likely be branded under the ESPN label.

The fate of original Fox Family series such as "State of Grace," recently renewed for a second season, remains in question. Fox Family president Maureen Smith, who will remain in that position as the network converts to ABC Family, said production on the second season of "State of Grace" has begun, and the show will begin filming as scheduled.

"We think the programming there is compatible, but we have to study it and determine what's best for the service," said Robert Iger, Walt Disney Company president.

Viewers won't notice any of these changes until the deal, valued at $3 billion in cash and the assumption of $2.3 billion in debt, receives approval from government antitrust regulators in three to four months.

As part of the deal when Pat Robertson sold the Family Channel to Fox and partners in 1997, his "700 Club" broadcasts had to remain on the channel. That deal remains in place, and "700 Club" will continue to air on ABC Family.

The Walt Disney portfolio of cable networks includes full or partial ownership stakes in Disney Channel, Toon Disney, E! Entertainment Television, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, Lifetime, Lifetime Movie Channel, A&E, Biography, History Channel, SoapNet and Style.

Other ABC programming news:

The new drama "Alias" -- about a young woman who's a grad student by day, spy by night -- will premiere Sept. 30 interruption-free through a sponsorship arrangement with Nokia. ABC had a similar deal with Johnson & Johnson for last fall's premiere of "Gideon's Crossing," which was not renewed for a second season.

ABC has picked up a mid-season comedy called "The Web," about a naive television executive from the Midwest who becomes the head of an upstart television network. Peter Tolan ("The Larry Sanders Show," "The Job") created the series.

Too big for their britches?

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, executive producers of ABC's January reality show "The Runner," appeared at an ABC press conference where they and other producers refused to explain much about how the game is played. It appears to be a televised version of hide and go seek, but tightlipped producers did little to clarify the rules.

Worse yet, Affleck and Damon bolted after the press conference and didn't stay to answer follow-up questions (most celebrities, including Tom Hanks, are willing to do that). If Aaron Sorkin has the guts to show up to meet the press after getting busted for drugs, you'd think the boys from Boston could stick around for 15 minutes.

Pax-less Pittsburgh

Family-friendly broadcast network Pax TV launched in August 1998, but it still hasn't found a broadcast or cable outlet in Pittsburgh. The network, which is partially owned by NBC, almost got onto AT&T cable systems a year ago, but that deal fell apart.

"It ain't happening yet," said Pax TV president Jeff Sagansky. "Talk to those cable guys in your market."

Sagansky said getting Pax on cable is problematic because of financial concerns and a lack of space on low-numbered channels.

"All kinds of studies show people click through channels one through 21," Sagansky said. "After that, they've got to know where you are on the channel dial. To get in the market and be on Channel 80 isn't going to help a lot. The [cable companies] also want to be compensated, so it's also financial."

Sagansky said he has had talks with Diane Sutter, whose ShootingStar Broadcasting hopes to buy WQEX, Channel 16, if the FCC changes the station's license from educational to commercial.

"Any way we can get into the market," Sagansky said, "we're considering it."

Ben who?

Brothers Gary and Dave Alan Johnson, who produce "Doc" for Pax TV, know about the Pax situation in Pittsburgh from their sister, Jean Doss, a US Airways flight attendant living in Coraopolis. She bought a direct broadcast satellite system so she could watch "Doc." (Pax is carried by DirecTV and Dish Network.)

The Johnson brothers also worked on the warm, too short-lived 1993 family drama "Against the Grain." They gave movie star Ben Affleck his first prime-time series job, casting him as a reluctant high school football player in the show.

"When we were casting that, the network didn't want him," Gary Johnson said. "They were not going to do it with him. Dave and his [producing] partner basically said, 'He's perfect. He's the guy.'"

The network wanted other actors, even if their body type didn't fit for what was required of a guy who would become the best quarterback in Texas.

"It went down to the wire and the network finally said, 'All right, we'll do it,'" Johnson said. "What Warren Littlefield had said was, 'I just don't ever see this guy on the cover of a magazine.'"

Johnson said his brother sent NBC executives a copy of GQ years later when Affleck appeared on the cover.

Elected

Yours truly was elected secretary of the Television Critics Association Saturday at the organization's semi-annual business meeting after serving two years as a board member. Diane Werts of Newsday in Long Island was elected president, and Kay McFadden of The Seattle Times was elected vice president.

TCA was founded in 1978 "to maintain and improve professional standards of television criticism, reporting and editing; to increase the public's understanding of television; to improve television as an important element in American life and culture."

The organization is comprised of 200 professional journalists from the United States and Canada, representing newspapers, magazines, wire services and online publications.


Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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