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Tuned In: UPN won't become CBS clone, exec says

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- CBS president Leslie Moonves assumed responsibility for UPN just last month, and UPN president Dean Valentine departed days ago. Consequently, the future of the network is pretty much up in the air.

Appearing at UPN's press tour day, Moonves put to rest some speculation: UPN won't become CBS2.

"While we're going to make the most of this joint opportunity, it's safe to say that's absolutely not going to happen," Moonves said. "We think there's a growing strength in the UPN brand and it will continue to be a distinct brand with a distinct audience."

That means a notably younger audience than those watching CBS.

"I never thought I'd be standing in front of you talking about 12 to 34s," Moonves said, referring to a key UPN demographic.

UPN is having a good season, thanks to the stellar success of the new "Star Trek" series, "Enterprise," and the acquisition of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from The WB.

An entertainment president will be hired to oversee UPN, with that person reporting to Moonves. But he'll still play a major role in UPN's operation, especially scheduling. Now he finds himself inhabiting two wildly different worlds.

"The day they announced they were putting UPN under me I had conversations with ["60 Minutes" executive producer] Don Hewitt and ["WWF Smackdown! executive producer] Vince McMahon in the same day," Moonves said. "That's the story of my life. It's certainly interesting and it's certainly varied."

Upcoming midseason series airing on UPN include (none were available for review):

"As If" (premiere date not announced): A half-hour, single-camera dramedy based on a British series of the same name, "As If" explores the "emotional drama" of six young adults.

"Random Years" (premiere date not announced): A sitcom about three New York roommates and the hot new girl who moves in down the hall. Will Friedle ("Boy Meets World") stars.

"Under One Roof" (premiere date not announced): Five American families are sent to Fiji for competitions. At the end of seven episodes, one family wins a luxurious beachfront home.

ABC chases 'Flood'

A television miniseries based on Pittsburgh native David McCullough's first historical novel is in development at ABC.

"The Johnstown Flood" will be made into a four-hour miniseries by Pittsburgh native John Harrison (Sci Fi Channel's "Dune"), who plans to write and direct the film. It will be produced by film director Ridley Scott's company.

Quinn Taylor, senior vice president of movies/miniseries for ABC, said the project is targeted for broadcast during the 2003-04 television season.

"It's in the very, very, very early stages of development," Taylor said. "Obviously we destroy a town and it's a period [piece], so it's a rather ambitious shoot."

No decision has been made about where the miniseries will be filmed.

Can't 'Imagine' a future

If you laughed at NBC's new Hank Azaria sitcom "Imagine That" last week -- and honestly I can't imagine it generating too many chuckles -- prepare to be disappointed. NBC shuttered production after five episodes, and NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker didn't exactly give "Imagine That" a vote of confidence.

"It premiered last night in a very difficult time slot," Zucker said the day after its premiere. "It didn't do as well as we would have liked. It was three-tenths [of a ratings point] behind 'Dharma & Greg.' We expected to beat 'Dharma & Greg.' Being within three-tenths is OK, but it's not going to be good enough. It needs to do better."

Guarding 'The Guardian'

On last week's episode of "The Guardian," Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) appeared to have been seduced by drugs again, but viewers never actually saw him using. They did, however, see the results -- a manic Nick who had an emotional outburst to his father at the end of the episode.

"I wanted to leave it open a little bit, but he's clearly high," said executive producer David Hollander, a Mt. Lebanon native.

Series star Baker said it was a welcome opportunity to let Nick's emotions show through.

"There's an animal inside him," Baker said. "You saw the tip of the iceberg.... He's very guarded. He doesn't reveal himself to the other characters in the show. He doesn't reveal how he feels to other character in the show. He suppresses it. That [scene] opens him up a little bit to the audience to let them come in."

Last summer Hollander said he didn't expect Nick to get hooked on drugs again, but he changed his mind as the season went along.

Although set in Pittsburgh, "The Guardian" hasn't filmed a single frame of new footage since one day of the pilot shot in Downtown last April. Even CBS president Leslie Moonves acknowledged that has to change.

"We always like to go to the city [a show is set in]," Moonves said last week. "We're going to work on it."

Hollander said he expects to get a second unit crew to Pittsburgh before the end of this season, but the actors won't make it back to the 'Burgh until the second season.

Fans of the show will notice some changes in upcoming weeks ("The Guardian" is pre-empted tonight for a preview of "First Monday"). Fallin & Associates lawyer Amanda Bowles (Erica Leerhsen) will be written out of the show because Hollander said he wasn't finding a voice for the character.

Wendy Moniz, who plays legal services attorney Louisa "Lulu" Archer, has joined the regular cast of "The Guardian," which remains the No. 1 new drama of the season despite losing some ratings ground to the competition after "NYPD Blue" and "24" debuted in November. Hollander felt good that "The Guardian" beat "Blue" last week for the first time, but he doesn't expect the audience to build dramatically until next season.

"We came out with so many episodes, the traction issue for us is tricky," Hollander said. "We've already aired half our season, 12 out of 22 episodes. We only have 10 new shows between now and May, so I don't think we're going to be able to build back to where we were at the start of the year."

Expect two new episodes a month until the final four during May sweeps.

Unlike some producers who sketch out story and character arcs a season at a time, Hollander only has a general theme in mind.

"This year it's the slow unveiling story about a kid who cannot exist without his dad," Hollander said. "[Next year] it will be a step in the opposite direction of a father needing his son."

He's afraid to bank stories for fear that the series would feel forced.

"I charted the first four episodes and it felt a little boxy, a little predictable," Hollander said, adding he often gets inspiration for stories from newspaper articles he reads.

"At this point, I owe the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a lot of money," Hollander said. "I look for stories that are interesting and I merge them and play with them."

Showbiz semantics

In yesterday's column, I reported that the episode order for ABC's "Once and Again" had been cut to 17.

"That's the number we're planning to do, that's the number they've been planning to do for weeks now," said ABC Entertainment Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun.

At ABC's party Sunday night, "Once and Again" executive producer Ed Zwick said that was news to him and promptly set off to find Braun and ask how the order for 23 episodes got cut.

Then the spinning began.

Executive producer Marshall Herskovitz, also part of the same huddle, returned to say it wasn't a change after all.

"They're committed to 17," he said. "But we don't know if we'll finish out the year. None of that is resolved yet."

That still sounds like a potential cut from the planned 23, but what do I know; I speak English, not Spin.

"Once" is again expected to sit out the February sweeps, returning to the schedule in March on a new night, possibly 10 p.m. Monday where it aired once before.

Zwick said the season had been plotted for 23 episodes, and "to wrap it up nicely" they'll need more than 17 shows to do it.

"If it had to end, I'd like it to end with grace and dignity," Zwick said.

So back I went to Braun to ask about the latest twist.

"I can't tell you how many we're going to need yet," he said, contradicting his statement from earlier in the day.

He did acknowledge Zwick's concern about ending the series on a high note. "It's very important we don't leave that audience hanging."

Channel surfing

On Sept. 7, ABC's "Nightline" began what was intended to be a five-part series on the war in the Congo. That plan was derailed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The series will return in its entirety later this month, airing Jan. 21-25 at 11:35 p.m. ... "State of Grace" returns to ABC Family for its second season March 1, airing Fridays at 8 p.m. as part of a revived "TGIF" block. ... Disney Channel hit series "Lizzie McGuire," starring 14-year-old Hilary Duff, will become a major motion picture in early 2003.

From dinos to Hopkins

Last time we checked in with Wentworth Miller, a 1990 graduate of Quaker Valley High in Sewickley, he was a guest star on the short-lived WB series "Popular." He was supposed to return for another guest spot in the show's second season, but that never happened.

Instead, Miller spent nine months filming ABC's upcoming six-hour May miniseries, "Dinotopia," based loosely on the books by John Gurney.

Now Miller's about to embark on another big project. He'll appear in the Miramax film "The Human Stain," playing the younger version of star Anthony Hopkins. Nicole Kidman also stars in this story of a black college professor who passes as Caucasian. It's based on the novel by Philip Roth with Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Bonnie and Clyde") directing.

Stealing his roar

It's hard to interview Steven Bochco when there's an animatronic dinosaur bobbing its snout just a foot above and behind his head.

It's even more difficult when Bochco's wife, Dayna Kalins Bochco, attempts to put a toy necklace in the dinosaur's mouth. These are the pitfalls of working the room at ABC's "Dinotopia"-themed party.

Bochco didn't see any of his wife's shenanigans, which were happening behind him. He was talking about the positive progress of "Philly," his freshman legal series on ABC that stars Kim Delaney.

"It's a very different show today than it was when we started," Bochco said. "We made a fundamental alteration in the core concept of the show."

Instead of being about what goes on outside the courtroom that keeps the wheels of the legal system grinding, Bocho and his staff have made "Philly" a more traditional courtroom drama.

"I loved the original concept, and I think it's a very viable concept, but I have no interest in being right at the expense of not succeeding," Bochco said.


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

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