Little Rascals: The Kids Behind America’s Fourth Network
March 31, 1987
The young man about to address the TV camera looks grim. Sitting behind a table, wearing a navy blue blazer with four brass buttons, an Oxford blue shirt, a brick-colored tie, he could pass for an anchorman about to report a national tragedy. A very tired anchorman: his tan has gone sallow under the camera lights, the circles under his eyes beg for pancake. His back tensing up, he scans his notes: “Good evening, Dayton.”
Some older Fox Broadcasting executives in the Los Angeles studio are watching him, murmuring out of earshot. The young man, Garth Ancier, is taping a message to an affiliate station that will be holding a promotional party that night. “I’d like to welcome the Miami Valley and all of southwestern Ohio to the Fox family,” announces Garth. He looks miserable. Take two.
Just about 51 weeks ago, Garth Ancier was the subject of an extraordinary bidding war between Goliath and Goliath. The losers were his employers, Grant Tinker and Brandon Turtikoff, former chairman and current president respectively of NBC, where Garth had risen to vice-president of the network’s comedy division. The winners were Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch, chairman and shop owner respectively of Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC). They wanted Garth, now 29, to take charge of all programming on what they hope will become America’s fourth network. His contract began April Fools’ Day, 1986.
FBC made its headline-grabbing debut back in October with its contender for the weeknight 11 p.m. slot, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. On Sunday, April 5, FBC will launch its attack on the Big Three’s primetime programs. Its strategy is to establish beachheads one night at a time, beginning with Sundays (Saturdays are targeted for late spring). So far, 105 affiliates are standing by, schedules cleared away, waiting for the results of a year’s worth of apocalyptic rumors, 16-hour days, many millions of dollars, and Garth’s own highly touted instincts. Will Fort Wayne switch to Channel 55? Is America ready for FBC?
Is FBC ready for America?
Garth puts on his glasses, scans his notes again, removes his glasses. A slender six-footer, with dark brown hair and eyes, he radiates intensity as he squares off for another go-round with the camera. This time he appears to have lowered his narrow shoulders a full quarter of an inch. One older Fox executive mutters, “It’s okay to laugh and smile, Garth. This is for a party.”
His comrade, another executive, retorts, “You wouldn’t be laughing either, if you had only a month to live.”
It’s been 39 years since America last witnessed the birth of a network (ABC, April 19, 1948). The moment still doesn’t seem propitious for a fourth network. Advertising rates are soft, budget cuts merciless. Since the late ’70s, the networks’ share of viewers has declined 15 per cent — not only because of competition from VCRs and cable, but because the networks are clones of one another. The industry quip is that there’s scarcely enough programming for two and a half networks.
Although 637 stations still pledge allegiance to the networks, the number of independents has nearly doubled in the last few years, to 275. And the indies are product-hungry. They’ve turned increasingly toward “first-run syndication” — new, independently produced shows like Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune, which compete well against the Big Three in non-primetime slots.
Enter Rupert Murdoch, former owner of this newspaper, present owner of 20th Century-Fox and sundry other empires. Last year he purchased Metromedia’s seven independent stations (including New York’s Channel 5) for $2 billion. Together with 20th Century’s Barry Diller, former studio head of Paramount and perhaps the last man in Hollywood you’d want to spill your drink on, they’ve created the Fox Broadcasting Company, an “alternative programming service,” fourth force,” or as some potential sponsors have nicknamed it, the ‘Tweenie” — between a network and a first-run syndication company.
Fox has sunk $150 million into first-year start-up costs and doesn’t expect to turn a profit for three to five years. In contrast to the network behemoths, FBC runs lean with 62 employees — they have no plans for such costly undertakings as regular news or sports coverage (though they did bid against ABC for next season’s Monday Night Football). So far, 98 independent stations and five ABC affiliates, plus Murdochs seven, carry The Late Show, and FBC claims it reaches 80 per cent of American households. But most of the Fox indie affiliates are on the weaker-signal UHF band — that never-never land beyond Channel 13. So far, the “network” is more of a buzzword than a broadcasting venture.
On this Monday morning in March, 33 days before launch, the phones in the FBC Century City offices ring persistently, vice-presidents drop whatever they’re doing and rush down the halls preparing explanations… defenses… excuses for the Grand Inquisitor. Mr. Diller is not pleased. Simply put, the problem is that America has not yet been made to feel that Fox Broadcasting should be the most important thing in their lives.
The FBC logo has not yet been settled on. The Show Status Report, a weekly update on publicity campaigns, is studded with “TBDs” (To Be Determined). In some cities at least 45 per cent of the viewers surveyed didn’t know which station carried The Late Show. And about Miss Rivers — her ratings are sliding, her show is over budget, her program an embarrassment. The promos for the new shows aren’t ready. The new shows aren’t ready. And who sent a work-in-progress cassette to the Washington Post for review?
In Garth Ancier’s office, the week does not begin fresh at 7 a.m. on this same Monday morning — it merely continues from the night and day before. He operates out of an innocuous but spacious room with two leather couches, Museum of Broadcasting posters, a brass dish filled with Gummi Bears, an oval desk, no books, two TVs — at least one alway on, sound off, a visual pacifier — and a wall-sized, party-colored chart of the networks’ primetime schedule that looks like a gameboard.
Most of the blocks under the FBC heading are blank. Throughout April and May, perhaps into June, FBC will roll out nine weekend shows. But with only 12 projects — two of which are just pilots — it has virtually no backup programming. By traditional, pilot-heavy network standards, that makes as much sense as doing high-wire act during an earthquake.
With just a month to go, most of its scripts are still in various stages of doodling, rewriting, casting, recasting, shooting and reshooting. One, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, is living up to its name. And will the Household Name Actress please get on the exercycle? Will the Hip Name Actor behave himself, or will his character meet an early, mid-season death? What are the chances TV Guide will hold up its program-schedule deadlines until Fox gets its act together?
Just to make sure America has no excuse not to tune in, FBC will air the premieres of two half-hour programs three times each, between 7 and 10 p.m. on April 5. The sitcom Married… With Children, though, is in the grip of a censorship battle with the network, the sponsors, and the executive producers — as Garth put it, “The whole company is split on ‘Pummel Men’s Scrotums.’ ” And the producers of a comedy-variety showcase called The Tracey Ullman Show, scheduled for a preliminary run-through, are so unsure about it that, as Fox liaison Michael Lansbury reported, “They, uh, don’t want us network fascist types to make their presence felt.”
At least 12 projects, each its own soap opera of complaints and demands, phone in to Garth regularly. But this morning’s major migraine is the show FBC has scheduled for April 12, a $10-million series now entitled 21 Jump Street, from the creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team but also Stingray and Hunter, the pipe-smoking man who signs off every show by whipping a page from a typewriter and tossing it in the air: Stephen J. Cannell. Garth has just taken his third look at the two-hour Jump Street premiere and made copious notes. Character credibility, holes in the plot, objectionable language — from behind his closed door can be heard muffled sounds of high-pitched, fast-talking voices. Garth deputizes Kevin Wendle, second in command of the five-member programming staff, to speak to Cannell.
Kevin returns that night, looking haggard: some disagreements over the premiere have been resolved — “shmuck” is out — others loom, and he’s brought a rough cut of another episode. 21 Jump Street, which kicks off the lineup, is crucial to FBC’s Sunday night counter-programming: “At seven o’clock there’s a real opportunity for getting kids and teens,” explains Kevin, 28, FBC’s vice-president of primetime and late-night programming. “Our House is real soft—”
“—Soft, soft, like watching paint dry,” says Garth, rolling his eyes.
“—Sixty Minutes is sophisticated, urban, older. The Disney Movie is a glossy view of how adults think kids look at the world. We went in for a calculated approach: four young cops undercover in high schools. The idea is to root out bad kids before they become bad adults. You can’t make the cops narcs — kids would resent you. So we make them exciting, likable leads. There’s no greater social purpose here. If it was a realistic script, it wouldn’t be entertaining.”
We watch the rough cut. Among the memorable lines: Teacher—“You lied to me!” Young Cop—“No. I misled you.”
Afterwards, looking boyish and wide-eyed, they ask my reaction. I have jet lag, I am lunchless. I cannot summon the grace to be opaque. I hate the show. They listen without flinching. “I was starting to feel really depressed by what you said,” Garth says later. He is removing his glasses, rubbing his eyes, “But then I remembered: you don’t watch a lot of television.”
Kevin Wendle describes Garth, his boss, as his best friend. They are constantly running into each other’s offices, jabbering, putting out fires all day long. While driving on the freeway, Kevin calls up Garth, and plays audition cassettes for Jump Street’s theme music over the car phone. Publicly, they present a united corporate front — always the brass-buttoned blazer, tie, and loafers. But Garth detests Silly; his latest example of sitcom nadir is ALF. Kevin doesn’t mind a talking car or two “if the concept is well executed.” Kevin drives a snappy white Alfa Romeo, Garth a garden-variety gray 560 SL Mercedes convertible. Kevin, who is slim, has been known to eat actual meals; Garth, who is slimmer still, is a world-class weight neurotic who’ll sit down to a 300-calorie Lean Cuisine dinner at 10:30 p.m. and not eat for another 24 hours. Kevin owns a house-with-pool in a fashionable part of town. Garth? A condo in north Hollywood, practically in the Valley. When Kevin asked him why, he said, “Because that’s where the audience lives.”
One morning, hours after his 5:30 a.m. workout at the Fox gym, Kevin walks familiarly into the Bel-Air Hotel, L.A.’s power breakfast room of the moment. He’s led to a see-and-be-seen table by the window, and orders granola with fruit, skim milk, decaf. Kevin has been working in radio and television for half of his entire life.
Fourteen years ago, New York’s WINS news radio was led to believe its new production assistant on the four-to-midnight shift was 17; he was actually a 14-year-old high school sophomore from northern New Jersey: “Every night my mother would go to sleep, set her alarm, and drive to the bus stop in her pajamas to pick me up at 1:30 a.m.” After a year, he jumped to WPIX-TV and by the time he did turn 17, Kevin was producing PIX’s Midday News. He skipped the rest of his senior year and enrolled in NYU, choosing the easiest degree program he could find — journalism. When he was a 19-year-old associate producer, the show won the first Emmy awarded to an independent station for a newscast.
Kevin’s dream in those days was to produce the top-rated newscast in New York, but there were only three such jobs in the city. Then ABC in Chicago called: “I dropped out of college, read a few books about Chicago. It was pretty funny: I had braces, and I was 20 — not old enough to drink there — and I was producer of the six o’clock news.
“I loved television so much. I was a news junkie in the Eyewitness news fashion — providing information in a provocative way can be fun. I still get the New York Post here.”
Finally Channel 7, ABC’s New York affiliate, summoned. “I produced Roger and Bill — it was the era of Roseanne, Snyder, Ernie, Bob Lape. We went to number one. Two and a half years later I decided to leave news and go into programming. I was 24, and I’d just OD’d on studying the world.”
Kevin’s face is unlined, but his light brown hair is shot with gray. Likable and easy to be around, he’s at once calm and alert, gracious. His comments are all the more stunning because of his affectless delivery. “I’ll be working for a month, more, and I’ll realize I should take a day off, go to the beach, fall in love or something, because you have to experience things so you can think, wouldn’t that be nice to get on television?'”
Kevin’s first programming success for ABC was 1983’s New York Hot Tracks, the black music show shot in the city’s dance clubs; his first failure was New York Style, Regis Philbin’s ill-fated afternoon show. Bored, restless, Kevin quit ABC. Real television, he decided, was being made in Hollywood.
NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff offered to start him as manager in NBC’s drama development. Kevin, who’d been sports-ignorant when he started writing about it at WPIX, who’d been Chicago-ignorant before he produced its newscast, who didn’t have a clue about black music before he put it on TV, felt that perhaps he should tell Tartikoff he knew absolutely nothing about hour-long action shows. “Brandon said, ‘Just listen and learn. In a year you’ll be running the place.’ ”
Kevin also spent the year “learning the town”: memorizing hundreds of career paths, becoming fluent in the machine-gun language of the industry, socializing aggressively, manipulating rumors — skills critical for a young job-jumper. After 14 months’ experience in network programming, Kevin was invited to dine with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch. Several days later he was phoned by Jamie Kellner, the new president of Fox Broadcasting Company: “Barry thinks you’re a name with a bullet.”
Even Kevin didn’t have the background to run all the programming for the new network. “I didn’t think they could get Garth — Garth was Brandon’s right-hand man.” But they did, and on the last Friday morning in March, 1986, Garth resigned at 9:30, Kevin an hour later. NBC strongly advised their former fair-haired boys to be out by noon.
“We were kids in a candy store. We packed Garth’s car with every book on TV we could find — writers books, lists of writers, greatest TV movies — we wanted to study the history of TV. We spent the weekend in Palm Springs plotting the networks, examining their cycles.
“We studied the face of television and took apart the seven nights: which ones lost audience and why? Men, teens, and kids were down 20 share points on Saturday night — there’s nothing for them to watch. That’s why we’ve got Werewolf.” (And, for female viewers home on Saturday nights, Karen’s Song, a dramatic sitcom about an affair between a 40-year-old divorced, working woman and a 28- year-old aspiring caterer.)
“The networks have always programmed by saying, ‘What’s on TV?’ So Garth said, ‘What’s not on TV? How can we counterprogram?’ We’re a threat to the way they do business, the going to lunch, the favors, the relationships with people, the hours spent on projects everyone agrees beforehand won’t fly. I don’t like us to be called a network. Networks are dinosaurs.”
Rather grandly, he says that at 50 he should put himself to pasture, and open a restaurant. Later in the week, he listens to project proposals from a silver-haired, former high-ranking NBC executive. The ideas, Kevin and a staff member conclude, are “too ’70s.”
A new show called Beans Baxter may be Kevin’s favorite in the FBC lineup. With spies who hide in toaster ovens and mail boxes, it certainly approaches Silly. But Kevin — who describes the show as “Hey Wally, can I borrow your Howitzer?” — believes it could develop a cult following.
Wearing a nondescript blazer, politely requesting a phone for the table, Kevin doesn’t look like a guy who’d know a cult hit if it introduced itself to him. Even so: Beans Baxter’s premiere includes Elinor Donohue (of Father Knows Best) as Mom and chainsaw queen Wendy O. Williams as a dominatrix-type bad girl. “Garth and I aren’t hip,” Kevin says, as he finishes his granola, “but hopefully we know people who are.”
When word got out that there was now a fourth market for television programming, Hollywood, pitchpersons stampeded Garth’s door. The Pitch is the traditional first step to a primetime slot: a flatter-tease-and-grovel session of approximately 26 minutes performed by a writer, producer, and two agents for a stone-faced network executive. The tales brought back by the first survivors of the Fox sessions were chilling: Garth did not suffer pitches gladly. And he almost categorically refused to take risks with unknowns.
How different did Fox need to be to romance viewers away from the Big Three? How different could Fox afford to be, and still romance sponsors? FBC’s programming, management decided, would strive for freshness by “network” standards. Garth wanted to lure proven talent; it was not his job to polish diamonds in the rough, he said. That was the responsibility of the production studios.
FBC pays comparable network prices — $300,000 to $500,000 for a half-hour episode. Even so, why would a top producer in television — whose prestige is roughly analogous to a top director’s in film and who can virtually have his way with any of the Big Three — consider signing with a phantom network whose shows would be watched by about 35 people in the whole country?
This is a partial roster of producers and writers working with FBC: Jim Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Lou Grant, Terms of Endearment), Ed Weinberger (M.A.S.H.), Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), Margie Peters and Linda Marsh (Family Ties, Valerie), and Stephen J. Cannell. Disney Studios has a project with them. And so does New York’s radio madman, Howard Stern.
Garth never intended to reinvent network television, but he did reinvent how it is developed. Instead of waiting for pitches, he did the pitching. Producers for FBC would have two things that are almost unheard of: job security in the form of a guaranteed 13 episodes (no make-it-or-break-it pilot) and creative freedom.
It’s time for the generals’ address to the troops — the weekly update that FBC management telecasts to its affiliates. On this Tuesday morning, headquarter’s mission is particularly tricky: convince affiliates that the folks in Century City know exactly what they’re doing, plans are right on schedule, and so how about a little enthusiasm out there?
Five FBC executives, Garth among them, sit behind a table in a studio at KTTV, the Fox-owned station in Los Angeles. In the politest terms, an executive scolds some affiliates for being chickenshit and airing The Late Show after Johnny Carson. (The affiliates have to know, Barry Diller has instructed his generals, that the 11 o’clock franchise is “destiny.”) Next, a message from Our Whiz Kid: programming is moving along nicely, now let’s take a look at a two-minute test from Karen’s Song, “unsweetened,” apologizes Garth, by music or laugh tracks. Then FBC’s April debut strategy explained: to avoid the heavy pounding by the networks during the March and May sweeps. Questions?
Amarillo. Seattle. Norfolk. From around the country, inquiring station managers want to know: “Programming from the network ends at 10 p.m. What do you suggest we follow it with?” Garth?
A. “We offer young, upscale, urban-oriented programming. On Sundays, try an adult sitcom like Taxi or Barney Miller, since there are no sitcoms on CBS and NBC then.”
Another executive adds with some urgency, “If someone is trying to get you to program religion, please think about it carefully.”
Oklahoma City. Davenport. Chattanooga. “Garth, can you confirm the title of Werewolf [a new show]?”
A. “Yes I can.” Pause. Hearty smile. “We’ve spent a half-million bucks to pay for his transformation from man into wolf!”
Raleigh, North Carolina, wants to know if the stars of the shows will be making appearances for publicity interviews.
A. Er. Uh. Maximum impact, major cities, so “not in Raleigh.”
Green Bay has heard rumors that FBC may be signing up a station in Milwaukee, which borders the Green Bay station’s Area of Dominant Influence (ADI). Say it ain’t so, Fox.
A. At the moment there is no Fox station in Milwaukee. But it’s likely there will be by the end of the week.
Savannah. Salt Lake City. Little Rock. “What will FBC do if other networks put up blockbuster movies during their debut?” Garth?
He laughs confidently, with a touch of disdain. “NBC putting on a 7-to-10 movie? They’re stuck with Rags to Riches [a new show] and with only two weeks on the air, they wouldn’t pull it. Besides, they’re well aware that if they did, we’d use it as a publicity stunt.”
No more questions? See you next week then, and remember (a billboard flashes on the monitors): 33 DAYS UNTIL PRIME TIME LAUNCH!
These days, FBC’s young programming staff runs on caffeine, Gummi Bears, excitement, and dread. No one has time to wait for the elevator, no one has time to speak in complete sentences. Garth, who does so much of his work over the phone, throws his legs up on his desk and talks the fastest of them all: “Cheers may go to Wednesday at 9? Oblivion!… Yeah, I hear he’s looking — you going after him?… The studio thinks it’s a great made-for. Now I really wonder about their judgment. They’re supposed to be doing something with us, you know.”
One night he agrees to be wrested from the office for an hour or so. In the vestibule of a crowded Westwood restaurant (Kevin’s recommendation), one of America’s most powerful television executives turns into just another guy who’s daunted by a maitre d’. All the tables in the lounge are taken, and Garth isn’t allowed to sit upstairs, because of course he does not want to order food. He gazes longingly at the TV over the bar, which happens to be tuned to Fox’s KTIV. “Do you think they’d give me a table if I threatened to yank that show off their set?” he says, half kidding.
Edging up to the bar, he orders a sparkling water and inhales basketfuls of popcorn (“very low in calories”). He is starting to unwind. In the office, he’s perceived as a mysterious work machine — coolheaded, efficient, tireless. Outside the office, he’s a young 29, gawky, high-spirited, recounting war stories that are “unbeleeevable!” Like the one about how he was talked into leaving NBC.
“I had my first meeting with [FBC president] Jamie Kellner on Friday night, then Sunday morning at Barry’s house. That night I went to a black-tie functional and sat at a table with [RCA chairman Thornton] Bradshaw, Grant Tinker, and Brandon. I felt like such a turncoat. FBC’s offer came Monday morning at 7:30. Tuesday, Brandon counteroffered. Grant called me and said that a fourth network would never work — NBC tried to make me feel like I was one of three people in the entire world. I called Fox to pass. Wednesday night Barry said, ‘Don’t pass, have drinks with Rupert.’ Rupert was charismatic. He didn’t make a hard sell. He just said he’d like to meet the man who was going to spend his money.”
Garth left because the challenge was gone — NBC had been number one for over a year, in part because of the comedies he’d helped develop. He was tantalized by the prospect of a new venture and by going head-to-head with his mentors. But his greatest challenge would be Barry Diller, a man who clearly enjoys stoking his reputation as Hollywood’s Vlad the Impaler. “Barry tolerates no bullshit. When you’re in a big company like NBC there’s so much wasted time, so much hidden agenda. Here, it’s like a precept at Princeton. Rupert and Barry want total truth. Barry and I fight a lot. I like to win, and I win a lot. But Barry makes me work for everything I get.”
When Garth was growing up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, his parents would lock him out of the house to make him play with other kids. Garth, who still considers himself a loner, preferred TV: “If you don’t like the people, you can change the channel.” Some of his fondest memories from the Lawrenceville School and Princeton, be says, are of sitting around with friends, watching TV.
At 12 he interned at a public television station; at 14 he was running the control board of a beautiful-music radio station. To fulfill FCC requirements, it needed a public affairs program. Garth, then 16, developed the Sunday morning show that has come to be known as American Focus and is carried by 400 stations. The first person he interviewed was the state’s traffic safety coordinator. “Then we interviewed Katharine Graham, because she had just bought the Trenton Times. I was a cocky kid.”
He talked New York’s WNBC into airing the show; then 16 NBC affiliates carried it. When he was graduated, barely, from Princeton in 1979, the show had become a campus institution and had been written up in the national press. “I was traveling across the country, meeting stars, world leaders, having a great time,” says Garth, rather bemused by himself. “When you’re on your second CIA director…”
After graduation, he thought he’d like to go into network programming. He was in Los Angeles to interview Jimmy Stewart for the radio show, but he didn’t have a résumé with him. So he walked into Brandon Tartikoff’s office and handed him a People profile. “Brandon looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you went to Lawrenceville, too?’ ”
Garth watched an awful lot of television over the next seven years. “Most network shows are poorly executed. You can see the jokes coming a mile away. NBC always went for the jokes first. I always look for the story-telling, the emotion, the characters first, then the jokes.” Designing Women, he thinks, is terrible: “one character, split four ways.” He admires Murder She Wrote, 60 Minutes, Kate and Allie, Who’s the Boss, Newhart “most of the time.” Moonlighting, “but they can’t afford to make a lot of Moonlightings at three and a half million an episode.” Cagney and Lacey? “A little dark, a little depressing.” Hill Street? “Well done, but I don’t enjoy it.” At home, Garth owns a 46-inch screen and four monitors.
“The writer-producers are my heroes — they did the shows I watched in college. At NBC I’d worked with Jim Brooks on Taxi. I was totally in awe of this guy, I mean, you’re talking God. He’s so talented I’m scared to death of him. When I heard that he wanted to do something with us [The Tracey Ullman Show] I was too shy to call him up and say thank you, so I sent him a hand-written note.”
Nevertheless, Garth says, it’s been difficult to inspire people. “I’ve been telling them ‘Please be more adventurous.’ They’ve been so beaten down they’re afraid to take chances.” Like the time the Buffalo Bill people wanted to do a show on abortion, and Garth had to negotiate between writers and censors, line by line. The haggling over language, never mind ideas. Sleazeball yes, scumbag no?
It’s 8:30, long past time to phone in to the office. The staff is waiting for him — the hour-long premiere of Duet has just arrived. He gets into the Mercedes, and dials as he drives. “Kevin, you ordered pizza?” A smile crosses his face.
As he’s heading back to work, Garth insists he really is a rebel, given to flashes of spontaneity. Once, he says, he was supposed to be in Aspen for a meeting, but he’d heard the flight was nervous-making. Abruptly, he decided to make the 20-hour drive alone. In the middle of the night his car broke down in a desert town near Las Vegas.
“Everybody was stopping at the gas station. People on their way to gamble. To get married. Get divorced. Husbands and wives yelling at each other. Americans acting just like Americans, you know?” He is beaming, as he replays the memory. “And I thought, ‘Unbelievable! This is just like a comedy series!’ ”
In a middle-class American living room, a boy wearing Rambo-style camouflage garrots his older sister, screaming, “DIE, COMMIE BIMBO!”
His mother is irked. “Remember the effect it had on Gramma?”
So begins the premiere of Married… With Children, the FBC sitcom that is Garth Ancier’s pride and joy, The show is about the 15-year-old marriage between Peggy, a housewife, and Al, a shoe salesman, and their newlywed neighbors, Steve, a bank teller, and Marcy, his boss. It’s open warfare between the sexes: Peggy puts a cactus where Al’s alarm clock used to be; he wipes the blood off his hand with her slip. Steve and Al, complete opposites, discover a common enemy — P.M.S., which they define as “Pummel Men’s Scrotums.”
“Imagine Sam Kinison married to Roseanne Barr,” says Garth.”This is offensive. It’s supposed to break through the blandness of the medium. TV is too… nice—”
“—In an age of nice for niceness’ sake, it’s an original,” finishes Kevin. “It’s a good working-man’s comedy.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the cast is doing a timed run-through in a cavernous rehearsal hall. The observers, industry guests and the ubiquitous Foxies, sit almost in the actors’ laps. Watching a hyperventilated TV sitcom performed life-size is unsettling: without the screen to reduce and frame them, the performances seem grotesque. But the writing is full of surprises, the characters raunchy and affable, and soon the room is hooting with laughter; even the actors break up. Garth’s face is the most animated it’s been in three days: glowing with pleasure, hanging on every line, he is watching TV.
Afterwards, two wild men assail him. One is talking rapid Jewish-Brooklynese, chomping gum, and chain-smoking, dressed in no-name jeans and a sweatstained T-shirt delineating bulk that wishes it could pass for muscle. The instant he pauses to wheeze, the other, a short, stocky black guy dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, finishes the sentence and barrels ahead. They’re the 22-minute-and-10-second champs, Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye. One or both of them have left boot prints on Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons. Now they’re executive producers of Married… With Children.
Garth rushes off to another meeting, and Leavitt and Moye reconvene in an office that looks like an X-rated Romper Room. Toy guns, bows and arrows, a life-sized dummy, and a hip-high cardboard box filled with food for thought: Ding Dongs, Suzie Qs, a gourmet selection of Entenmann’s and… Twinkies?
“If Twinkies can get someone off for murder, they can certainly get us on the air,” asserts Ron.
“Garth told us: ‘Anything you want to do, we’ll leave you alone,’ ” says Michael. “Now, we’ve heard that before from the networks, but usually there’s an asterisk — ‘see below’ — and then we get all those footnotes. Poor Garth! Look what we gave him. At least he knew we were bizarre enough not to be trusted.”
Ron and Michael play hip, talk irreverent, but their dirty little secret is that they’re workaholics and perfectionists. They may work until 3 a.m., but they’ll take their staff out drinking and bowling for the rest of the night. But on this show, there’s even more at stake than usual. Michael’s rage is only slightly closer to the surface than Ron’s. “It’s my rebuttal to all the crap in the family shows. Kids don’t want advice. They want money.”
Ron: “If you want to see that plastic facade shit, you got the networks. We wanted to show a more… realistic 15-year-old marriage. The ugly stuff comes from our lives and we just take it to a ridiculous extreme. Our lives were boring, we have no friends, we’re beaten by our wives, and we wash dishes.
“Garth knew this was a calculated risk. We’re not coming out of the starting gate saying please love us. The show is for people who think, ‘I just wish Cosby had my kids for five minutes.’ ”
Michael: “They’re calling our show a comic version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We just want America to sit back with a beer and say, ‘Holy shit! Now that’s writin’!’ ”
“—And then go pee,” finishes Ron. “Every sitcom has to have a ‘message,’ ” says Michael.
“—Ours doesn’t,” says Ron. “Yeah! It’s about time somebody had nothing to say,” finishes Michael.
The possibility that women viewers might resent female characters portrayed as castrators while their men are long-suffering victims eludes Ron and Michael. “We have a lot of women on our staff [directors, writers, crew], and we set out to do a show that was sexist on both sides. Naturally, being guys, we’re more brutal on women. We can’t find anything wrong with guys,” says Ron. “Look, Al is no dream, he’s not that smart. But make a woman stupid on television and you’ve just fucked with God.”
It’s difficult to imagine Married… With Children getting an air date on a Big Three network. “If we did get on the networks and were a hit, they’d leave us alone,” says Michael. “But if we were mediocre, they’d say, ‘Make Peggy more saintly, make Al more likable, have them say I love you four times a show.’ If the kids have problems, the parents should catch them quickly and crush them.”
Ron: “If FBC says that to us, I hope we have the nerve to say no. I hope instead they’ll say, ‘Please guys, just get the fuck off our network.’ ”
Unlike the other networks, FBC does not have an in-house censor. The day after their bold talk, Leavitt and Moye received memos from Bristol-Meyers, Clorox, Johnson & Johnson, and Kraft expressing their unwillingness to sponsor a show with the line “Pommel Men’s Scrotums.”
“Now we’ll see which way the testicles are swinging — or if they’re just going to pull ’em up,” said Michael. Would FBC bleep on debut night?
As of last week, Leavitt and Moye were refusing to rewrite the line. “Poor Garth,” said Ron. “This is really gonna wrinkle his shirt.”
On Friday night, Southern California fraternity kids swarm into a Fox studio, hired to yuck it up during the first taping of producer Jim Brooks’s new project, The Tracey Ullman Show. The autograph hounds leap on Danny De Vito (a Brooks Taxi alum) and Rhea Perlman, the room’s best-known stars.
In the middle of the row behind the couple, a flamboyant L.A. cockatoo keeps leaving his seat, bored by the deadly pace of the taping. He apologizes distractedly each time he crunches on four pairs of corporate-proper shoes, trips over eight conservatively clad knees. He is unaware they belong to the room’s most powerful stars: Kevin Wendle, Garth Ancier, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch.
Brooks’s new show is an energetic showcase of comedy skits, animation, and variety acts, done on an intimate, anti-glitter scale with two revolving sets. As Garth is fond of saying, there’s nothing on TV like it. So far, the show’s pace, tone, and appearance still exist largely in the minds of Brooks and his comedy writers — Garth knows he may well not see the finished product until a minute before the final deadline.
British pop star Tracey Ullman and sidekick Julie Kavner struggle through the first act. “I’m changing the channel back to Who’s the Boss,” groans a frat kid. Take two. Take three. It is difficult to laugh at a strained joke the fourth time around. One camera breaks. Then another.
Diller and Garth chat up Murdoch.
Act two. Suddenly Ullman pulls out a bravura comic performance, and the audience explodes. Rupert is applauding. Next, the variety act — juggler Daniel Rosen — dazzles everyone, even Diller but especially Rupert. They’ve seen enough, they get the idea. They leave, happy network executives.
The show inches toward its goal: TV that’s hot and cool. Kavner wheeled in as a survivor of a terrible car accident; Ullman as her maddeningly chirpy neighbor, who has been stabbed on a bus with a penknife 32 times. Take four. This half-hour program has been taping for three hours.
Then Ullman, now a modem single woman, hires a band and records a message into her phone answering machine. Throwing her red curls around, parodying rock performers, she brings down the house. “Now, that’s more like it,” rates the fraternity kid.
After a gray, chilly week, the Southern California climate finally comes out with it: sun, blue skies, gentle breeze, the whole bit. A perfect Saturday to go to the beach.
Garth and Kevin, frayed by the march of 7 a.m.-to-midnight hours, head for the ’burbs. The rural bedroom community of Calabasas, California, is about as close to American heartland sensibility as can be found in a morning’s drive from Los Angeles. And Saturday afternoon is the only time you can get a bunch of teens and college kids together to watch a little TV. After months of fine-tuning the counterprogramming strategy, endless hours of fighting and rewriting and second-guessing, FBC is presenting 21 Jump Street (once called The Undercover Kid, then Jump Street Chapel) to its most influential critics — the target audience.
Garth doesn’t like to test pilots before they air, and partly blames the blanding of TV on the practice. The pilots of All in the Family and Miami Vice, he points out, did terribly. “Research only tells you what people are comfortable with, not if it can be a breakout show.” But today he’s making an exception to his own rule. FBC and the Cannell people have reached an impasse on the premiere of 21 Jump Street. The series, the foundation of FBC’s entire Sunday night schedule, has Garth so worried that he’s turning to viewer focus groups for reassurance. Even if, God forbid, they don’t like the show, he hopes their criticisms will persuade Cannell to make the changes — such as rehauling the epilogue — that FBC has been urging.
The official bio for Stephen J. Cannell trumpets him as “one of the most prolific and successful writer/producers working in the television industry today… a trendsetter.” His independent production company, in the STEPHEN J. CANNELL building at La Brea and Hollywood, bas created a record number of pilots that have gone to series. Cannell’s 1986 gross revenues from the shows, sales of soundtracks, and licensing of merchandise, from Rambo dolls to A-Team lunch boxes, was about $150 million.
The day before the Calabasas focus group, Cannell remained publicly unperturbed. “The Fox guys are at their most tense moment — they’re a little white-knuckled. They have a tendency to go to the pilot [premiere show] and fix things and I say, ‘Guys, we gotta go on! If we play with this for the next three weeks we’re in trouble! I mean, it’s just 30 seconds of film!’ ”
A fire crackles in the fireplace at one end of Cannell’s sixth-floor office, which is decorated in what he describes as “English hunting colors” and looks over Hollywood. If Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye are determined not to look like writers, then Cannell is Writer from central casting — a tanned, lithe 45-year-old whose signature style is windbreaker and pipe. He eschews a desk for the informality of a face-to-face chat. His publicist is also in the room.
“I thought Jump Street was a real good idea — I could have sold it to CBS. With the exception of Mod Squad, there’s nothing like it on TV. You got murder in high school, you got drugs. So let ’em OD and die but don’t be a snitch? That’s the moral position?”
He maintains that if the audience saw his version of Jump Street and then the one with Fox’s changes, “they’d say, ‘What’s the difference?’ That’s the position I take. Of course, you do have to care about what you’re doing. Im not in it for the money. Writing is still what’s most important to me. I’m proud of this show — it’s about as good as I get.”
Ten white teens and young adults from Calabasas are watching the best Stephen J. Cannell has to offer. The two-hour premiere of 21 Jump Street introduces a mini-UN of rookie cops, so young-looking (so cute, so potential teen idol) that they “lack authority on the street,” as the show puts it. A long-haired, sour, ex-hippie cop captain trains them to pose as students in different high schools. In this episode, a well-to-do white student serves as a drug runner for two black student dealers who park their (stolen and unreported) Ferraris in the school lot. Following a scuffle, the vice-principal gives the black guys two-week’s detention. Chase scene, cliff-hanger, rescue. In the epilogue, sour ex-hippie cop captain hangs out with garage band buddies, blissfully lip-synching to the Grateful Dead.
As Kevin and Garth observe behind the one-way window, the researcher probes the group for an hour.
John, 21: You’re watching a detective show and a band comes on?
Scott, 18: And that music they were playing was kinda outdated, from the ’70s.
James, 19: But it’s the only show on TV that has kids our age taking on the bad guys.
David, 20: Yeah, it came down to our level. I think it’s very educational.
But one viewer has trouble believing (a) that a high school student would have a Ferrari and (b) same student would be so calm after it was deliberately scratched. Jamie, 18, however, thinks (a) and (b) are realistic.
Certain characters they just don’t get at all. Jamie doesn’t see a lot of hippies around these days, much less hippie cops. Sophia, 21, has never seen students talk back to teachers that way, “but I went to a private high school.” And Morgan can’t figure the black rookie — “You just don’t see a lot of black lady cops.” Others complain she’s too dainty. How come when she got into trouble, everybody looked worried, like she couldn’t take care of herself’?
What about the writing? “If they can keep it up to this caliber, it’s pretty good.” (From the observation room, snickers.)
Violence? “Compared to Miami Vice, this is grammar school.” Message? “It won’t stop kids from dealing. But it will make them more careful about who they deal to.”
How do they feel about narcs in high school? They don’t like them, but “these guys are nice. They want to stop crime and help kids.”
How many would watch Jump Street (“Oh God, here it comes,” murmurs Garth) instead of: Our House? All 10 raise their hands. Miami Vice? Five (“Vice is getting old,” says James). Murder, She Wrote? Eight. Disney Movie? Gales of laughter. Sixty Minutes? Seven.
“Welcome,” says Kevin, “to middle America.”
The researcher steps into the observation room and translates the session for Kevin and Garth. “They’re picking holes in the the plot. Did you hear them though? The first word they said is ‘action.’ They like most of the characters — they’re seeing teenagers, and it’s a show on their level. When they say it’s ‘different,’ they mean you have a good idea. But this age group didn’t buy that ’60s stuff. The ’60s to them is like the ’40s to us.”
“Our specific concerns were the top of the show, the hospital scene, and the entry into the chapel [the rookies’ headquarters],” says Garth. The viewers questioned those scenes, too. “They really didn’t buy the chapel,” replies the researcher. “If you spend a lot of time in it, you’re in trouble.”
But, he adds, “I was surprised they were so positive. They picked it apart, but I’ve seen groups destroy shows. As for the black cop, all she has to do is put one person in his place and it’ll establish her character. Remember, though, you can’t make a living off this age group.”
Kevin says, “We’re mostly interested in just building a big audience for that hour.” The researcher nods. “They did say there’s nothing else on for them to watch. And they all said they felt comfortable watching it with their parents. What you have to do is send up heat around the show — create a campaign that will form their attitude that it’s hip to watch Jump Street. And then, I’d say, you’ve got yourselves a hit.”
Kevin requests that a transcript be sent to the producers right away. Armed with more paperwork, Garth and Kevin will fight the good fight with Cannell. The viewers have indeed backed up their contentions: taken swipes at certain roles, laughed off entire scenes. (In fact, within weeks a drunk driver will kill off the ex-hippie captain — so much for “that ’60s stuff.”) But the viewers have also born out Cannell: they approve of undercover cops moving among them. A quibble here and there, but the whole is just fine with them. And, as every good television programmer knows, all that matters is whether the audience will swallow the concept. Blinking as they step into the bright California afternoon, Garth and Kevin look deeply pleased. FBC may not yet be ready for America, but America is ready for FBC.