`We'd Take A Hit Show From Attila The Hun'

`We'd Take A Hit Show From Attila The Hun'

Like most network executives, ABC top programmer Ted Harbert spends his evenings rooting for the home team. But on Mar. 21, Harbert faces a dilemma. At 8:30, ABC Inc.'s sitcom Thunder Alley will take on a new offering from NBC Inc. in NewsRadio--and Harbert's network helped pay for each to get on the air. "I hope NewsRadio does very well," Harbert said at a recent TV conference in Las Vegas, "and beats two out of the three other guys."

The notion of one TV network helping another is odd, especially with ABC and NBC neck-and-neck in a ratings race. But with federal rules that ban networks from owning TV shows scheduled to end soon, many of the old rules about TV production and distribution are suddenly changing. Hollywood studios that once exclusively supplied the networks with TV shows are launching their own networks; and the networks increasingly are developing programs themselves. Each side worries that the other is getting into its business--and neither can know for sure how the trend will play out. As a result, with Hollywood about to bring out its spring pilot season, a broad range of new alliances is being developed among networks, producers, and even advertisers. "We'd take a hit show from Attila the Hun," says NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer.

NBC didn't go quite that far--but it did turn to an archrival when it ordered up NewsRadio from Brillstein-Grey Communications, which is funded and half-owned by ABC parent Capital Cities/ABC Inc. NBC, in turn, recently won an order to produce a four-hour miniseries for ABC this fall. Meanwhile, CBS Inc. has pitched both Fox and NBC with pilots for the coming season.

The rationale behind these deals? Now that they're no longer forced to broadcast shows other companies create and own, the nets want to be sure they have a stake in the programming that's eventually sold on the Information Superhighway--or syndicated for huge payouts. That means producing more of the shows they air and selling others to rival networks, which traditionally pay most of the production costs in return for the initial rights to air them.

The changes at CBS are a good example. "My orders are to create a viable, stand-alone business to diversify us from our network business," says Andy Hill, president of CBS Entertainment Production. The network currently produces about 18% of its own prime-time lineup, and Hill says he feels a tug to show his bosses hot projects. Still, he recently pitched Fox a pilot called McLife that was too racy for CBS's format. To help further boost the fortunes of its own flagging schedule, in late February CBS signed an unusual deal with NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco that gives the network a half-interest in the three shows Bochco will produce for them by 2000.

CO-PILOT. The nets are searching out people like Bochco because they're way behind in lining up key talent to make shows. That's why NBC recently signed a production deal with agents Erwin Moore and Brian Medavoy, whose clients include Melissa Gilbert and Cicely Tyson. It's also why ABC has committed $100 million apiece to joint ventures with Brillstein-Grey and the Dreamworks team of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Hollywood studios, already worried that networks may one day produce most of their own shows, are fighting back. Both Paramount Pictures Corp. and Warner Bros. Inc., two of the industry's most prolific TV producers, recently launched their own networks. Others are taking a different tack. Sony's Columbia Tri-Star unit is jointly producing two pilots for hour-long shows with ABC. And Paramount, concerned that there will be too little room on network schedules for outside production, hedged its bets by allying itself with the nation's leading advertiser, Procter & Gamble Co., in a three-year cost-sharing arrangement. The studio also is expected soon to announce a deal with one of the three major networks to take shows in which P&G would be a guaranteed sponsor.

The pace of such dealmaking isn't likely to slow any time soon, either. "Everyone is jockeying for position because no one knows what the future is going to look like," says NewsRadio producer Brad Grey. If nothing else, the upcoming season will contain even more Maalox moments than usual for jittery entertainment execs.