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NBC: no laughing matter

Jan 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hollywood insiders are wondering whether NBC is losing its touch in developing hit sitcoms.
The Peacock Network has long been home to upscale, intelligent sitcoms such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” But it now finds some upcoming midseason comedy entries, particularly Hank Azaria’s “Imagine That” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “Watching Ellie,” getting decidedly negative early reviews from TV critics and Hollywood insiders who have seen pilot presentations.
The early frosty reception for both shows-which could be a harbinger of actual viewer response to the shows-comes at a crucial time for NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, who is said to be making considerable progress in tying up a renewal deal for next season for the network’s top-rated “Friends” comedy. As he marks his first year as the NBC programming chief, Mr. Zucker has enjoyed critical success with the medical ensemble “Scrubs” but is nonetheless finding it difficult to maintain viable alternate players in light of the relative ratings failures of critically maligned sitcoms “Emeril” and “Inside Schwartz.”
“If NBC renews `Friends’ for one or two years, they’re in good shape,” said a Hollywood agency packager of network TV series, who requested anonymity. “If `Friends’ is going bye-bye after this season, it’s going to put them in a somewhat weaker position and leave them scrambling, with very few options when it comes to new puzzle pieces.”
Talent agency executives and other Hollywood insiders are increasingly concerned about NBC’s relative inability to develop other new long-term sitcom players, with potential holes opening in the Peacock’s vaunted “Must See TV” Thursday rotation and struggling Tuesday night lineup. In particular, TV critics and agents who viewed the pilots of Mr. Azaria’s “Imagine That” and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus’ “Watching Ellie” expressed disappointment with the execution and concept of both comedies.
“With the Hank Azaria show, it was just so pathetic, completely unfunny and made `Inside Schwartz’ look like sheer brilliance,” said Chuck Barney, TV critic for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. “There is nothing in Azaria’s narcissistic sketch routines that appear different or remotely interesting.”
Charlie McCollum, a TV critic for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, was also disappointed. “It has some of the cheapest, cheesiest and unfunny sex jokes for an 8 o’clock show that I’ve seen in a long time,” Mr. McCollum said. “Wasn’t it a year or two ago where Scott Sassa [president of NBC West Coast] told us that he was looking for more all-family shows to go into the 8 o’clock hour?”
To be fair, Mr. Azaria’s sitcom was developed a full three months before Mr. Zucker took over NBC’s programming in January 2001. And it’s no secret in Hollywood that the show has had creative troubles.
“It is something that is being burned off until the [Winter] Olympics start next month, and that’s it,” said a source close to the production of “Imagine That.” “But then again, it’s just five episodes, and if the audience likes it, who cares what the critics think?”
Still, after pilot tapes of “Watching Ellie” were sent out recently, the response from Hollywood insiders and critics has also been harsh. “The critics are going to have a field day when it comes to writing leads for that review,” Mr. Barney said. “This concept of a real-time sitcom-complete with a countdown clock-is tedious and had no logic to it as pertained to the story line. ”
Originally, the project was pitched by Mr. Hall and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus to several studios, and Carsey-Werner-Mandabach was set to be the lead production company on the project. But when it became clear Ms. Louis-Dreyfus only wanted to produce 12 to 15 episodes per season and NBC Studios was looking to extract a larger ownership stake, executives at CWM were said to have balked-since it appeared it could take up to eight seasons of episodes before the production company could ever recoup any of its deficit investment from the lucrative off-network syndication market.
“It is one of the most colossal failures … especially when it comes to its concept and execution,” said another Hollywood agent. “Now I can see why Carsey-Werner-Mandabach so easily gave up ownership to NBC.”
Mr. Zucker could not be reached for this story. But speaking to EM last month, he said “Watching Ellie” is “a quality project that is trying something unique and different to comedy form … that features one of the biggest stars in recent television history in a new setting that we’re really excited about.”
The jury may be out on “Watching Ellie,” but things are looking similarly iffy for another potential March entry, “Leap of Faith.”
Despite the whisperings, one fan of Mr. Zucker is William Morris network packager Rob Golenberg. “It really takes time and patience to try and build a hit comedy in television these days, so I really only can applaud Jeff for the courage of his convictions in supporting every show he puts out there,” he said.“