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Tuned In: NBC says 'Hunter' returns, but there's still nothing left for 'Providence'

Saturday, January 18, 2003

HOLLYWOOD -- Viewers who liked the 1984-1991 cop series "Hunter" will rejoice, but fans of "Providence" won't like the news that came out of NBC's portion of the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

After canceling "Providence" in the fall, NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker expressed regret, saying he might have been too hasty to kick the series off the network's prime-time schedule. Yesterday he announced there will be no reprieve. "Providence" remains canceled.

"We've had real success these past two years launching new dramas. Odds are we're going to have very few places to launch new dramas next season. In order to evolve the schedule and grow the schedule, you have to look at places you feel you can improve," Zucker said. "Given that, it made sense to end the run of 'Providence' now."

He did say "Providence" reunion movies are possible. It was the ratings success of a "Hunter" reunion movie in the fall that lead the network to reactivate that franchise, which had remained dormant for more than 10 years. Another two-hour "Hunter" movie will air April 12 followed by six one-hour episodes that will air at 10 p.m. Saturdays.

Zucker also announced that NBC has finalized a deal to renew "The West Wing" for two more years with an option for an additional third year. Despite a ratings decline this season, Zucker said, "there's no show on television we'd rather have that we think signifies exactly what NBC stands for."

And here we thought that show was "Fear Factor."

Zucker began his presentation by eating "cow eyeballs," a la "Fear Factor," but later admitted it was candy made to look like an eyeball.

No great surprise, but reality shows will overtake NBC this summer. Zucker said 60 percent of the summer prime-time schedule will be original programming instead of reruns, but they're almost all unscripted series, including a drag race show from the producers of the movie "The Fast and the Furious" and its upcoming sequel.

NBC will also get into business with "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett for "The Restaurant." Producers will remodel a Manhattan restaurant, installing cameras everywhere, to record the drama of chef Rocco DiSpirito and the wait staff as they start a new business.

And just in time for February sweeps, "Dateline NBC" will devote an hour to Michael Jackson's face, Zucker said. "The beauty of 'Dateline' is it's on three hours a week and can run the gamut from important, serious shows like Tom Brokaw's fantastic hour on Iraq to ridiculous but fascinating hours on Michael Jackson's face."

Fewer 'Friends'

Last month's announcement that "Friends" will return for a 10th season was also on the agenda during Zucker's press conference. He said "the door is not open after that" for an 11th season. This is it. He means it this time.

Although the 10th season was announced to be 18 episodes, it turns out that includes two half-hour episodes that will make up the one-hour series finale, so expect to see only 17 weeks of new "Friends" in 2003-04. With approximately 12 of those weeks taken up by sweeps months (November, February and May), that's just five new episodes to spread over September, October, December, January, March and April.

More midseason on NBC

"A.U.S.A." (9:30 p.m. Feb. 4): Scott Foley ("Felicity") stars as an assistant U.S. attorney in this courtroom comedy. The first five minutes of the pilot were painful to watch, but it improved in later scenes that brought to mind "Night Court" in its good years.

"Kingpin" (10 p.m. Feb. 2): A drama in the mold of "The Sopranos," it's a violent, shocking chronicle of a Mexican drug dealer. Smart writing and strong acting make this one worth keeping an eye on.

"Let's Make a Deal" (9 p.m. March 1): An update of the game show classic, now hosted by Billy Bush ("Access Hollywood").

'Married' no more

HBO has canceled "The Mind of the Married Man" after two low-rated, critically derided seasons.

'Guardian' secrets'

David Hollander, Pittsburgh native and executive producer of CBS's "The Guardian," said he wants to return to the 'Burgh to film scenes for the show's May season finale, which he will direct.

"If we're going to come, we'll come and do it [in April]. I want to do it as late as possible because I need it to look like springtime," Hollander said earlier this week at a CBS party.

Fans of the Pittsburgh-set series can look forward to a two-part February sweeps episode in which Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman) returns to his fictional Mon Valley hometown, Mount Aire.

"I'm going to be paying a lot of attention to Burton. He's really getting more and more central in my thinking, and I have an idea for Alvin and Lori Solt that is not romantic, but it is challenging to them and may build them up a bit more, too," Hollander said. "I'm interested in getting back to defining the franchise again, to figure out Nick's dilemma a little bit more vis-a-vis Burton and Alvin. I know if we come back for a third year, some very big things will happen."

The show's return seems all but guaranteed. It performs well in its time period and has beaten NBC's "Frasier" on several occasions.

Fans were intrigued by a pre-Christmas episode that ended with Lulu (Wendy Moniz) closing the door to Nick's office with her and Nick (Simon Baker) inside. Hollander said he has no plans to let on what went on behind the closed door.

"I think people want to imagine what went on back there. If I say, it won't be as fun," Hollander said before adding, "I don't even know what went on behind the door!"

But the Nick-Lulu story will advance in upcoming episodes.

"Something sort of profound changes between Nick and Lulu," he said. "I always make a habit of giving him three steps forward and two steps back, so I go forward and back a lot over these episodes. From episodes 11 to 17, there's a big dance that goes on and then something happens that changes that dance."

As a successful show runner, Hollander is doing his own dance with Hollywood. He's pushed back plans to develop a new project until next year, and he's debating between another TV show or directing a movie. He's bought the rights to "The Mansion on the Hill" from the Rick Moody ("The Ice Storm") short story collection "Demonology" (the narrator writes a letter to his dead sister).

"I'm thinking about making it into a movie that I'd shoot in Pittsburgh," he said. "I want to step out of 'The Guardian' and go direct a movie or step out and make another TV show and run 'The Guardian' with my left hand."

But Hollander said he won't abandon "The Guardian."

"I cannot let go of it totally," he said, "but at a certain point it will be time to do something new."

Johnstown flood mini

Pittsburgh native John Harrison, who wrote and directed Sci Fi Channel's "Dune" miniseries two years ago, wrote a sequel that airs in March. He's also at work on ABC's three-hour TV movie about the Johnstown Flood, based on the book by David McCullough.

Harrison will produce and direct the film for director Ridley Scott's production company and he hopes to film it in Western Pennsylvania, possibly as soon as later this year.

"I'm going to tell the network we should budget to shoot it back there, but the factors of economics are going to have a lot to do with it," Harrison said. "Maybe, as importantly, will be the weather conditions because it takes place in springtime. It's almost all exteriors and if they say, 'We need it on air at a certain date' and that means I've got to be in production in the winter, then I'm not sure what I'm going to do."

Quinn Taylor, the ABC executive in charge of movies and miniseries, said the network had a good experience filming part of "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story" in Western Pennsylvania.

"It was fantastic. We had the help of every living, breathing person in the area because we were doing a heroic story," Taylor said. That experience makes him more inclined to return for the Johnstown flood movie, but he said it will be up to the production company. Unlike "Miners' Story," which ABC owned, the flood movie is only licensed to ABC.

"I'm still very high on it and it's still on top of my development reports," Taylor said, "but I don't even have a script to read yet."

In addition to his work on the Johnstown flood movie, Harrison is trying to sell Sci Fi Channel on a weekly "Dune" series. He's also developing another sci-fi series for the network that's set in Baltimore, but that he might try to film in Pittsburgh.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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