Big Stars Small Screen

After the Olympics on NBC end Sunday, it won't be a Hollywood minute before all six networks jump in to fill the void. Right on the heels of the final long-distance blimp shot over Sydney, they'll strut their new stuff, dodging late-season baseball and presidential debates as they roll out a long list of new programs beginning next week.

This fall's lineup of new TV dramas and comedies can be summed up in four words: maturity and movie stars.

The new shows are geared more than ever toward adults, including dramas written by seasoned pros such as Dick Wolf ("Deadline," NBC) and David Kelley ("Boston Public," Fox), and starring mature performers like Andr Braugher ("Gideon's Crossing," ABC), Tim Daly ("The Fugitive," CBS), and Craig T. Nelson ("The District," CBS).

The networks' eponymous star shows offer both movie names and mature performers: Bette Midler on CBS, who says she will "go back to film when they learn to make movies"; Oscar-winner Geena Davis on ABC; and Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" fame on NBC. Equally big names are showing up across the board. "Deadline" is so full of major actors it's hard to imagine Wolf can showcase them all properly - Oliver Platt, Lili Taylor, Bebe Neuwirth, Tom Conti, and Hope Davis. Film star Dianne Wiest will join the ongoing cast of "Law & Order" (NBC). Legendary movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer comes to the small screen with "C.S.I." (CBS). "Titanic" film director James Cameron downsizes too, with "Dark Angel" (Fox).

Even the sitcoms are offering both star power and experience: "Madigan Men" (ABC) features Gabriel Byrne and stage legend Roy Dotrice. The logic behind these high-powered moves is not hard to grasp. As cable and satellite encroach on network audiences, the stakes for winning eyeballs are high. Star power helps.

"There's a benefit to having that name recognition," says Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Television Entertainment group.

Experienced writers with a solid track record help bring back the sort of industry recognition that attracts audiences. "In recent years, the networks have let a lot of their best-quality programming go to cable," says Steve White, executive vice president of movies and miniseries for NBC. "A lot of the awards that used to be exclusively for the network movies and miniseries have gone to the cable companies." A glance at the bushel of Emmy Award nominations for HBO's "The Sopranos" underlines the point.

Beyond that, TV is simply continuing its trend of tracking the viewing habits of the baby boomers. "This generation were newborns with Ricky, 11-year-olds with Beaver," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television in Syracuse, N.Y., "angst-filled 30-somethings in the '80s, and angst-filled mature adults and parents of teens right now."

The media guru points to the surprise success last fall of serious adult fare such as "Judging Amy," "Providence," and "West Wing," and adds that as the boomers take on adult responsibilities, it should be no surprise to see TV fare to match.

On the flip side, says ABC's Bloomberg, the smaller networks are carving out a niche for themselves with younger audiences. "We tend to look for a broader audience than just focusing on teens, which is something that obviously the WB can do more of," he says.

A few new shows, mostly on the smaller networks, are geared toward these younger viewers. Fox's "Freakylinks" is a special-effects laden extravaganza targeting teens who think "The Blair Witch Project" is only the tip of the spooky iceberg; "Gilmore Girls" (The WB) is a multigenerational drama that manages to keep the mom in the "Friends" age range; "Level 9" and "Freedom" are both high-action, high-testosterone dramas on UPN; and "The $treet" (Fox), while nominally about Wall Street, is mostly about the after-hours antics of the financial-world dating scene.

"Grosse Pointe" (The WB), a satire about a soap whose blond star got her job via her high-profile producer dad, has already hit at least one person where it hurts. Producer Aaron Spelling, apparently miffed at what he believed to be a comparison with his daughter who starred in his show "Beverly Hills, 90210," phoned the producers to complain. The character's hair color is now darker to lessen the likeness.

Momentarily down, but never far from the action, Mr. Spelling himself, now in his fifth decade of programming, has a new show on NBC, "Titans." Catch the cotton-candy entry quickly if you want a glimpse of the vintage Spelling TV prime-time soap formula - beautiful babes and story lines so complex they verge on camp.

The presence of these heavy hitters behind and in front of the camera is made possible in part by the recent trend toward filling prime time with reality programming like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "Survivor."

"If there's one blessing in the dawn of reality TV programming," writer David Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice") says, "it's been there's much less pilot development. A lot of writers who would be off ... getting their own shows, are now falling back into the ranks, where they're available to go on staff. As a result, I have the strongest writing staffs that I've ever had."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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