NBC's new sitcom ''Union Square'' reignites a burning feud between the networks and series producers

By Joe Flint
August 08, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Despite what the NBC marketing department would have you believe, not all of the Peacock net’s Thursday-night time slots are reserved for shows that are strictly Must See. Take the creatively shaky Union Square: Given a primo time slot between Friends and Seinfeld, the fall sitcom aims to combine winning elements from both of its future neighbors (it revolves around a group of pals who congregate at a New York diner). But so far it’s had about as much success as a George Costanza relationship — after the pilot received a resounding thumbs-down from the advertising community in May, the lead actress was soon gone and NBC began to frantically retool. By July’s Television Critics Association tour, when nets present their fall shows to the press, Union Square was still under construction.

Pilots get retooled all the time, of course, but what has industry hackles raised about Union Square is that — like The Single Guy before it — it’s NBC owned. This has added fuel to a growing controversy: TV studios suspect that the networks, recently freed from the government regulations that kept them from owning much of their prime-time lineup, are now making up for lost time (and money) by filling their schedules with homegrown shows — no matter the quality. That leaves studios and producers unattached to networks (including Sony, Universal, and Carsey-Werner) fearing their series will end up on a laugh track to nowhere — unless the nets get a cut.

And the studios aren’t the only potential losers: ”If shows get on because of who owns them, clearly the viewer pays the price,” says Warner Bros. Television president Tony Jonas. ”The networks will lose as well if the show isn’t very good. [And] when a network can put on three or four nights of its own programming, diversity will suffer.”

NBC, bolstered by its No. 1 status, has been the most brazen in pursuing a piece of its programming. So vehement is its bid for ownership that CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves recently compared the Peacock’s tactics to ”mafioso techniques.”

A bit of an overstatement, perhaps. But it is true that of the 25 regular series on NBC’s fall schedule, the net owns or has a piece of eight shows (including its entire Saturday ”Thrillogy”). ”NBC said they would own Saturday night,” says one studio exec. ”You didn’t get to the party if you weren’t willing to play.” That’s why Sleepwalkers, which replaced the canceled Dark Skies (the only non-NBC-owned Saturday-night series from last season), is a joint production of NBC and Columbia.

NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield emphatically denies that ownership plays a part in programming decisions. ”We don’t put a gun to anyone’s head,” he insists. But a Big Three network exec talks of uncomfortable close calls: ”If two shows are on the fence, [programmers] would be fired if [they] didn’t take the one the network had a stake in.”

And chances are good that to varying degrees, similar pressures are applied at CBS and ABC, both of which are aggressively looking for a bigger piece of the action through ownership of shows (see box). Furthermore, upstart nets Fox, the WB, and UPN were literally created to broadcast their sister TV studios’ (Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., and Paramount, respectively) wares.