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On the Air

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Money for Nothing Would you shell out big bucks for a new car without even looking at it, never mind taking it out for a test-drive? Probably not. But that’s exactly what ABC did when it put Timecop on its fall schedule, and now the network’s paying for a lemon.

For the TV industry, hits are a rarity; for every Friends, there are five Hello, Larrys — that’s the nature of the biz. But usually there is a little judicious planning involved in the creation of shows: Networks get pitched scripts, actors are signed, a pilot is made — and then the net decides whether to order episodes.

Not in the case of Timecop, which was taken off duty after just five episodes (a sixth was preempted by a news special about the Oct. 27 stock market crash) — adding up to a $15 million-plus investment that will never pay off. The tale of questionable judgment begins last fall when then ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert cut a deal with Universal Television for an action series based on the studio’s modest film success TimeCop. With no stars or even a script, the Alphabet agreed to purchase 13 episodes at just north of $1 million per show. This despite the frequent failure of movies turned into TV shows (M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple are the exceptions; Party Girl and Dangerous Minds tend to be the rule), and the fact that such a huge outlay undoubtedly cut into spending on the development of perhaps a more worthy project.

The subsequent pilot, a Universal exec acknowledges, was not what it should have been. On top of that, it got a tough time period — as a lead-in for football on Mondays — and ABC did a poor job promoting it. Nevertheless, even if Timecop was shaky, determining a show’s future from five episodes in a difficult slot (remember, because of time zone differences, roughly a third of the country sees the show well after the game is over) hardly seems fair.

It’s one thing to take a chance on a piece of talent that at least has viewer-attracting potential, even if the project isn’t fully cooked (Ted Danson’s Ink comes to mind). But why handicap yourself even more with extreme gambles? Furthermore, why take a risk and then not support it? The Timecop fiasco should serve as a cogent warning to the networks. Most likely, it won’t.

And So On … Fox, which has a horrible track record in late night (The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, The Chevy Chase Show), is rumored to be taking another crack at it. The net is apparently wooing the comedian Billy Crystal for a talk show of his own … Nathan Lane (The Birdcage) has signed with Paramount to develop a sitcom.

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