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
STUDIO CITY, CALIF.
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.)Skip to next paragraph
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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).
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.