''Newsradio'' struggles to stay on the air -- Despite a a cult following, the popular NBC sitcom starring Jon Lovitz remains unsure of its fate

By Bruce Fretts
April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Can NBC’s NewsRadio snatch renewal from the jaws of cancellation one more time?

After taping what might be NewsRadio‘s sign-off installment, creator Paul Simms takes a seat on the L.A. set and waxes philosophical: ”If this is our last episode, it seems somehow perfect that it’s our 97th. That’s emblematic of our whole NewsRadio history — just a little bit short.”

Even though it’s been one of TV’s most consistently hilarious sitcoms, the show Simms jokingly refers to as ”the longest-running failure in network history” has been a perennial ratings underachiever. Of course, NBC certainly didn’t further the series’ cause by moving it nine times in four years. ”We were able to build an audience two or three times,” says the show’s droll star Dave Foley. ”We got into the top 20 on Tuesday and Sunday. But then Wednesday killed us.”

This season, NBC returned the series to Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. — ironically, the same slot in which it premiered — and it has built on its lead-in, 3rd Rock From the Sun (another victim of incessant schedule shuffling). Still, NewsRadio ranks only 75th overall, so the company had to wrap another season unsure if it’ll be their last. ”We’ve shot what we thought would be the final episode four or five times before,” says Simms, a Larry Sanders Show veteran. ”But there’s so much more uncertainty this year.”

The waiting seems even more excruciating for Simms because he’s excited about a concept that could completely reinvent the show for next fall. In this season’s two-part finale (airing April 27 and May 4), WNYX owner Jimmy James (the deeply funny Stephen Root) leaves New York City to run a small AM station in New Hampshire and tries to persuade his employees to come with him. If NewsRadio is renewed, the entire staff will trade the concrete jungle for the Granite State. ”It’ll give us a whole new environment and a new set of problems,” says Simms.

It’ll also take NewsRadio out of the urban office-sitcom market, which has become overcrowded in recent seasons with such inferior product as Suddenly Susan and Working. Vicki Lewis has even wondered aloud about the eerie similarities between her NewsRadio character and Kathy Griffin’s wacky redheaded coworker on Susan (”She plays a character named Vicki — I guess that’s a coincidence”). But Simms isn’t charging plagiarism: ”I can’t claim that anyone copied us when most evidence points to the fact that no one ever saw us.”

To distinguish itself from the pack, NewsRadio has lately become less grounded in the gritty details of workplace life. ”Once so many other shows started mining the same territory, we abandoned it and tried to get more fanciful and outlandish,” explains Simms. The surrealism only increased this season as larger-than-life Jon Lovitz joined the cast following the death of fellow SNL alum Phil Hartman.

NewsRadio survived that tremendous loss, and it still has a shot at seeing another season (NBC probably won’t decide until new entertainment president Garth Ancier starts work in May). But if this is the show’s sayonara, how will NewsRadio ultimately be remembered? ”I’d like it to be remembered every night at 11 o’clock on a local station in every town in America,” says Simms, happy that his sitcom went into syndication this season. ”I’d like people to look at the show and say, ‘Hey, how come I didn’t see this when it was on?”’

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