Spelling Passing Marks End of Era

Jul 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The death last month of Aaron Spelling, who the Guinness Book of Records called the most prolific TV drama producer in history, marks the passing of one of the last Hollywood players who created a production company independent of the big media empires.

Though his company, Spelling Entertainment, eventually was swallowed up by Viacom, the company generated shows from ABC’s 1970s hit “Charlie’s Angels” to “7th Heaven” on The WB. Mr. Spelling has more than 200 TV and film credits, according to Web site IMDB.com.

Mr. Spelling’s consistency over four decades in choosing projects that resonated with audiences gave him leverage that’s out of reach for most independent producers today, said Darren Star, the creator of the Spelling Television drama “Melrose Place.”

“I was very spoiled,” said Mr. Star, whose first two series were produced through Spelling. “Whatever we decided went. He was the studio. And also at the same time, it was his money. You definitely felt this sense of fiscal responsibility.”

For Mr. Star, Mr. Spelling’s control over the company meant creative decisions weren’t made by outside parties.

“There’s something very attractive about working directly with the person who is paying for your show,” said Mr. Star, who currently has a deal with Sony Pictures Television and is preparing for the fall debut of his new drama, The CW’s “Runaway.” “It’s just a lot more fun.”

Consolidation in the TV industry has removed independents like Mr. Spelling from the picture. Most production companies now are part of larger media companies.

“They are all run by conglomerates,” Mr. Star said. “There are also a lot of wonderful, creative people involved, but ultimately they are responsible to stockholders. An independent producer is really trusting his own instincts.”

Mr. Spelling, who was 83 when he died, formed his company in the 1970s and took it public in 1986. He became part of the Viacom media empire in 1994 after the company bought Blockbuster Video, which then owned about half of Mr. Spelling’s company. Mr. Spelling also launched a comedy and syndication production company, Big Ticket Productions, which produced one of UPN’s first successful comedies, “Moesha,” and the syndicated courtroom show “Judge Judy.”

With the announcement of the merger of CBS Productions and Paramount Network Television, Leslie Moonves, who then was Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer and CBS chairman, kept Spelling Television as a separate entity that reported directly to him. He called Mr. Spelling “an icon in this business” at the time of the merger.

But even Mr. Spelling couldn’t buck the trend of corporate consolidation and the end of the independent scripted TV production company.

In December 2005, Spelling Television laid off about 30 staffers as part of the Paramount merger. The move left Mr. Spelling with about a dozen employees working through an exclusive deal with Paramount.

Most of the remaining independent producers are creating reality shows, not scripted fare, Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros., Television said last Monday.

“It may not be out of the question, but it is certainly a lot more difficult to accomplish,” Mr. Roth said of building an independent production company built around dramas and comedies.

Mr. Roth called Mr. Spelling “one of the great mentors” in the TV business, noting that he first met the producer as a 28-year-old programming executive at ABC. During that time, Roth got to sit in on editing sessions in which Mr. Spelling would help craft episodes.

“He would get up in a room full of 25 people and say, ‘Lovers, here’s what’s missing in this act,'” Mr. Roth recalled. “That’s when you saw his true genius. He taught me about the value and impact of great editing.”

Mr. Spelling’s TV series helped define television for generations of viewers. In the 1960s he produced the Western-themed “Daniel Boone” for NBC and “Honey West” for ABC, plus the counterculture cop series “The Mod Squad” for ABC, which he produced with TV star and producer Danny Thomas.

He generated more hits for ABC in the 1970s, teaming with producer Leonard Goldberg to create decade-defining shows such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “The Rookies” and “Hart to Hart.” Mr. Spelling also produced what became the linchpins of ABC’s Saturday night schedule: “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Spelling began producing with longtime partner E. Duke Vincent, who worked on the ABC evening soap “Dynasty” and the cop drama “T.J. Hooker.” Those two shows made TV history by starring Heather Locklear simultaneously.

Ms. Locklear was just one of many actors Mr. Spelling is credited with discovering and nurturing. Peggy Lipton, Farah Fawcett, Robert Urich, David Soul, Kate Jackson, Michael Ontkean, Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jessica Biel and Mr. Spelling’s daughter, Tori Spelling, all established their careers with help from Mr. Spelling.

Mr. Spelling made a name for the new Fox network in the 1990s with the teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210” and its spinoff, the 20-something soap opera “Melrose Place.” He also developed the NBC daytime drama “Malibu Shores,” and the longest-running family drama in U.S. TV history, “7th Heaven,” for The WB. In the fall, “Heaven” will begin a new season on The CW.

Mr. Spelling also was a prolific TV movie producer, with a variety of titles to his credit, from the 1970s weeper “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” starring John Travolta, to the 1993 HBO AIDS miniseries “And the Band Played On.” Mr. Spelling won an Emmy Award for “Band,” and for the 1989 CBS miniseries profiling the history of the Manhattan Project, “Day One.”

In a September 2005 interview with TelevisionWeek, Brenda Hampton, the creator of “7th Heaven,” said that despite his success and wealth, Mr. Spelling was easy to work with.

“Maybe I expected something imperial, I don’t know,” Ms. Hampton said. “Instead, there was this nice man who pulled up a chair right across from me. I said I wanted to do a show that would be compatible with the 1950s shows like ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best.’ We were on the same page immediately.”

As she was developing the show, Ms. Hampton was also in the process of adopting a girl from Vietnam. Initially she was concerned that if Mr. Spelling found out, it might jeopardize her involvement on the show. Her concerns were unwarranted, she said.

“When Aaron did find out what I was doing, he offered me any help, connections to lawyers, anything,” Ms. Hampton said. “When my daughter arrived, he arranged for her to have the office next to mine to be home-schooled. That is who Aaron Spelling is.”

Mr. Spelling is survived by his wife, Candy, daughter Tori and son Randy.