Tom Fontana, Dean Valentine, and Lorne Michaels made news the week of April 24, 1998

By Joe Flint
Updated April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The odd couple

TV insiders have been abuzz over a strange alliance: A recent Variety item had Tom Fontana — the mind behind NBC’s gritty Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s prison drama Oz — working on a sitcom. And not just any sitcom: ABC’s Mary and Rhoda, the much-vaunted reunion of Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper. Fontana, it turns out, was no less shocked at the news. He’d been approached by old friend Moore to exec-produce the show and immediately balked: ”I said it was either the best idea I’d ever heard or the worst, but I was the worst possible person to do it,” says Fontana. ”Unless she wanted Mary to have been a heroin addict for the last 20 years — that I could do.” Although Fontana consulted on the project, Spin City‘s Jeff Lowell is writing the pilot. But Fontana says the story still provokes disbelief from his friends. ”I’m getting s— from everybody, and I’m not even getting paid for it!”

What, me worry?

Lorne Michaels says he’s not sweating Saturday-night competition, as in the arrival of CBS’ soon-to-be Howard Stern show. ”I’ve been preparing for this since 1977,” says the exec producer of Saturday Night Live. His cool is justified; neither high-profile wannabes (Roseanne’s short-lived 1996 variety hour) nor snarky upstarts (Fox’s yet-to-be-renewed MAD TV), nor recent critics’ gripes that the show has grown tired, have dented NBC’s franchise. (The 23-year-old SNL is up 4 percent in total viewers this season.)

But Stern has his own formidable franchise (King of All Media), and his untitled show is a decidedly low-risk venture. Initially, the hour will be an expansion of Stern’s raunchy E! show, which is a videotaped edition of his daily radio program. Since production costs will be low, profitability is almost guaranteed. As ratings grow, so will the amount of original material.

Still, Michaels is not only not nervous about the Stern invasion, he’s looking forward to stirring things up: ”With Howard, maybe Saturday-night prime time won’t be so dead. It used to be the biggest night of TV, now it’s video night.”

And so on

How far will TV executives go to sell a show? DreamWorks exec producer Ted Harbert sang ”Night and Day” while hypnotized in order to persuade a net to buy a special from hypnotist Tom Silver. ”It worked,” says CBS TV president Leslie Moonves. ”We were all cracking up while he kept a straight face, singing.” How could they not buy the show, asks Harbert, ”after I humiliated myself in front of them?”… As UPN continues to be beaten by The WB, Dean Valentine isn’t getting mad, he’s getting even. Next October, UPN’s CEO will expand his floundering net from three to five nights (Monday through Friday). The bold step won’t be easy or cheap. For starters, Valentine wants to remake much of the current lineup (Voyager and Moesha are the net’s only standout shows), which means having to find programming for UPN’s new and existing nights. The good news: Last week’s Love Boat premiere made a ratings splash, which bodes well for its future, and Valentine has high hopes for another familiar name, UPN’s animated version of Dilbert, due this fall.

— (Additional reporting by Bruce Fretts)