Famous movie directors seem unable to develop successful shows for TV

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two powerful names from the movie business -- Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton -- combine Wednesday to bring us CBS' "Family Dog," a prime-time animated comedy series that represents the latest effort by big-time movie directors to establish themselves as successful television producers.

If recent history is any indication, CBS shouldn't expect a hit from directors Spielberg ("Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.") and Burton ("Beetlejuice," "Batman"), even though, between them, they've made some of the biggest box-office hits in movie history.

The truth is, movie directors have run up an embarrassing record lately while trying for TV success. In fact, this summer, the networks will be "playing off" a record number of such projects rather than holding them for use in the much more competitive months of the regular September-April TV season.

The Spielberg-Burton "Family Dog," for example, has been on the CBS shelf for nearly two years. Conceived even before "The Simpsons" became an instant hit on the Fox network, "Family Dog" was supposed to be one of two major entries by CBS in what many thought would be a prime-time animation boom.

But the conspicuous failure of the other CBS cartoon show, Hanna-Barbera's "Fish Police," in the second half of the 1991-1992 TV season, along with the dismal ratings for Steven Bochco's "Capitol Critters" on ABC, obviously convinced CBS to let the dust collect on "Family Dog" rather than jeopardize the network's No. 1 rating during the 1992-1993 season.

Expensive failures

ABC already is playing off two more expensive failures from big Hollywood directors this summer: George Lucas' "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which returned to the air earlier this month with a dozen episodes never before telecast, and Michael Apted's "Crossroads," which ABC canceled early last fall after a few episodes.

This summer, Fox will premiere "Danger Theatre," an action anthology-parody series from Penelope Spheeris ("Wayne's World," the coming "Beverly Hillbillies" movie), which was supposed to be on Fox's lineup last season but was held back. That may not be a bad omen. Fox sometimes introduces its better shows in late summer. However, "Danger Theatre" isn't on the network's fall schedule.

Despite the large number of attempts, it's almost impossible to find a recent example of a big-name movie director who has been able to parlay his big-screen success into a lucrative television-producing sideline the way Alfred Hitchcock did in the 1950s.

George Romero, the horrormeister who made the classic "Night of the Living Dead" and its two sequels, is an exception. He produced "Tales From the Darkside" in 1984 as a syndicated anthology series and made a financial success of it for several seasons.

Another promising start was made by David Lynch, whose "Twin Peaks" became a legitimate national rage in the spring of 1990 with its first few high-rated episodes on ABC, then rapidly deteriorated in both quality and viewer interest.

Mr. Lynch, whose films include "The Elephant Man," "Dune" and "Blue Velvet," surely inspired other directors to get into television, where profits can be enormous for hit series that last several seasons. Since that first taste of TV success, though, Mr. Lynch has come up a big loser. His 1990 Fox series, "American Chronicles," was a permanent fixture in TV's bottom 10 until Fox dumped it, and his "Hotel Room" pilot for HBO was sneered at by critics and failed to get a series commitment.

Why care?

Why would a big-name movie director care about television anyway? Some probably need TV success for purely economic reasons, while others may have more complex motivation.

For someone like Michael Apted, who hasn't had a major hit since 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter," producing and occasionally directing for television can keep him viable while he shops for a big-screen hit. "Crossroads" backfired on him, suggesting success is becoming elusive for him in all media.

For George Lucas, who hasn't directed a movie since 1977's "Star Wars," the move to television was more likely a logical step in his evolution as a major producer of children's entertainment. He came into television in 1984-1985 with his two "Ewoks" movies, both big ratings successes for ABC, but never seriously attempted a beachhead as a series television producer until he landed an enormous two-season contract with ABC for "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which became a major ratings disappointment here, although something of a phenomenon in overseas markets.

Mr. Lucas' friend and frequent collaborator, Mr. Spielberg, also seems to have a strong motive for moving into television: his ambitious quest to become the Walt Disney of the late 20th century.

Mr. Spielberg, of course, came out of television, where he learned the directing craft with some high-profile TV movies. His triumphant return began in 1985 when NBC gave him an astonishing 54-episode commitment for "Amazing Stories," an anthology series that bombed grandly.

Undaunted, Mr. Spielberg continued to press for TV success, landing a deal with Warner Bros. to create "Tiny Toon Adventures," a block of animated programming for syndication in the afternoon kiddie market. It suffered in direct competition with Disney's afternoon cartoons and the Fox network's aggressively promoted Fox Children's Network, but was far from a failure. "Tiny Toons" now is a component of the Fox lineup.

If "Family Dog" stirs little interest, Mr. Spielberg still has another major ace in the hole in his quest for TV success: NBC's big budget sci-fi action series, "Sea Quest DSV," which has a fall berth on NBC's schedule.

Sustaining TV hits

In these highly competitive times, a hot movie director can cool off quickly after a few expensive flops, so it simply makes good sense for them to try for a TV hit that might sustain them through hard times in years to come.

This fall, actor-director Robert Townsend ("Hollywood Shuffle," "The Five Heartbeats") will produce and star in a variety show for Fox called "Townsend Television," and the network has also ordered a backup action drama called "Mantis" from producer Sam Raimi ("Evil Dead," "Darkman") for use during the season. Francis Coppola ("The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now") is developing a live drama anthology for CBS.

If the odds for TV success seem heavily stacked against these big-name movie directors, it's probably because most people who watch series television don't recognize the names of either producers or directors and could care less about them. That means the Spielbergs and the Burtons are starting on an equal playing field with the producers who do nothing but television.

Perhaps that's why so many are learning, the hard way, that getting a hit TV show isn't easy and takes more than just putting your name at the front of the show.

BIG FLOPS

Humiliating ratings flops that are still fresh in memory.

* Oliver Stone ("JFK" "Born on the Fourth of July") produced ABC's dismal "Wild Palms" last month.

* Barry Levinson ("Good Morning, Vietnam," "Rain Man," "Bugsy") did NBC's low-rated "Homicide: Life on the Streets" earlier this year.

* Penny Marshall ("Big," "Awakenings") turned her hit movie "A League of Their Own" into an unimpressive CBS sitcom this spring.

* Joe Dante ("The Howling," "Gremlins") participated in the flop "Eerie, Indiana" on NBC in 1991, and even directed a few episodes.

* Wes Craven ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") did 1989's "The People Next Door." The sitcom lasted only four episodes on CBS.

* Rob Reiner ("Misery," "A Few Good Men") did "Morton & Hayes." The sitcom takeoff on Abbott & Costello made few waves in the summer of 1991.

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