Valerie Harper on TV's Changes

Veteran star of the new `City' says climate at networks makes it harder for series to thrive - or survive

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TV's Valerie Harper sits in the plush backlot trailer of MTM studio founder Mary Tyler Moore. While the air-conditioner whirs, a hulking lunch salad languishes uneaten as she talks about changes in television production that have occurred since she entered series TV in the '70s. The woman who made millions laugh as Rhoda Morgenstern (``Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ``Rhoda'' 1970-79) and ended up in court over her role as Valerie Hogan (``Valerie,'' 1985-86) is now known to Monday-night viewers as city manager Liz Gianni on ABC's ``City,'' (8:30-9 p.m. ET.)

In this series, Ms. Harper plays the die-hard manager of the department of city services, juggling chaos at City Hall. Though the character she plays has a teenage daughter, story lines are geared to the gamut of grownup concerns: politics, pollution, disaster-readiness, fair housing, employment, and more.

The show's zany plots and lovable characters have played to critical praise but low ratings (64th in the lineup last week).

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Rushed onto the schedule to replace ``The Famous Teddy Z,'' which wasn't pulling in enough viewers, ``City'' has come face to face with the growing challenges at the networks: If the ratings don't respond quickly (say, 3 to 6 weeks), a series can be history. And a show's lead time for writing, rehearsal, editing, and publicity is just half what it used to be.

``In this show, we're dying for lack of time,'' says Harper, with the bubbly effusiveness she has given three TV characters and over a dozen feature films.

The New CBS entertainment chief, Jeff Sagansky, ``loved the pilot and said, `Can you start a month-and-a-half early?''' In addition to the six weeks of time the writers lost (the show was originally scheduled for late March), all this means each show must be completed within two weeks after filming, she says.

In addition to the squeeze on rehearsal time, editing, and the laying of sound and music tracks, the tightened schedule eliminates the luxury of reshooting scenes that may not be up to snuff.

``If you find out in the lab you've missed a scene, it's too late,'' she says. ``I've never had to do a show on this kind of schedule.''

In ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and its spinoff, ``Rhoda,'' Harper says reshooting was not only acceptable; it was common. Today, editors must make do without such luxuries. ``You know it's happened when you're watching a show where something doesn't follow, and you wanna say, `Hey, run that by me again,''' she says.

Another problem with being plopped into the lineup at midseason is having to make do with the time slot.

``A more sophisticated comedy such as ours does not belong that early at night,'' she says. (Recent jokes have referred to cultural figures Yo Yo Ma and Marcel Proust.) ``Children have control of the set and want to watch shows with children in them.''

The all-important lead-in for ``City'' is ``Major Dad,'' a family show chock-full of teens and youngsters. Ditto for ``City's'' 8:30 p.m. competition on NBC: ``The Hogan Family.''

Do all the above signal a new adversity in the scramble by networks to halt the exodus of viewers to cable and other programming?

``Absolutely,'' says Harper, adding that the result is a far more hurried product than in the days when she helped make the ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' the No. 1 series on TV.

Harper looks back fondly to the days when networks ordered 26 episodes at a pop. ``After we sold them [CBS] on the [``City''] pilot, they asked for six [episodes]. ... I was shocked,'' she says. The result has been a push to develop characters with unnatural speed, to jazz up plots, and stretch formulas before the series has been established. It all adds up to ``less subtlety,'' says Harper.

But far from tearing her hair out over the vagaries of TV, Harper says she feels privileged to be a part of it. A veteran of Broadway before her coming to television, she loves connecting with audiences. That is made possible by shooting ``City'' before a live audience with the three-camera technique developed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who also felt they needed live audiences to play off.

Essentially, camera ``A'' records the person talking, camera ``B'' the people spoken to, and camera ``C'' the entire scene. Editors splice the final product together. (Filmed dramas such as ``Dallas'' and ``Murder She Wrote'' use one camera, shooting each scene two and more times from different angles, without an audience.)

``A laugh is a whole bunch of disparate individuals coming together in a moment of agreement,'' says Harper. ``If you took away my audience, it wouldn't be the same.''

She laments the industry's tendency to reduce entertainment to the lowest common denominator and to rehash old formulas until the fare becomes ``regurgitated pap.'' That happens when business executives make too many creative decisions, she says.

``If there is a trend in my 20 years on TV,'' she adds, ``it is that I've watched network executive power grow greater and greater than the creative people that are assigned to create. Until that reverses itself, we may not have much greatness to expect from TV.''

Before CBS signed Harper for ``City,'' she had spent a year-and-a-half conceptualizing a drama series called ``Desperate Women,'' which was eventually shelved by network executives who felt she was wrong for the role. ``City'' was an alternative idea that had far less time to gestate, about four months.

Although ``City'' has not been doing well in overall ratings, its viewership level represents less of a drop-off from ``Major Dad'' than experienced by ``Teddy Z.'' Harper says she believes Mr. Sagansky is committed to giving the show a better-than-usual chance to catch on.

Another problem Harper sees with the accelerating world of TV competition is a tendency to move series around in the schedule. Her previous series, ``Valerie,'' was moved six times before reaching its final spot. ``That doesn't help shows find and develop their audiences.''

Harper left that NBC show, (now known as ``The Hogan Family'') in a contract dispute with Lorimar Productions, which now airs it at the same time as ``City.'' Lorimar fired Harper and her husband, co-executive producer Tony Cacciotti, after 32 episodes were filmed. Lorimar claimed Harper was exerting too much creative control, demanding more money, and staging emotional battles on the set to get both. Harper claimed the firing was wrongful, sued, and eventually won $1.8 million and the right to as much as to $15 million in profits from the show.

``What did I learn from the suit - that in signing contracts you had better cross every `t' and dot every `i' before getting involved,'' she says. ``Everything in stone, no gentlemen's agreements, no mere shaking of hands.''

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