'WKRP: the next generation


August 07, 1991|By Michael Hill

Los Angeles -- "WKRP in Cincinnati" is trying to become the "Star Trek" of comedy.

Like "Star Trek," "WKRP" was probably canceled before its time. Both shows proved to be wildly popular in syndication, and local stations would eagerly buy more episodes if they were available.

Paramount studios decided to make "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which has proven to be a hit on the so-called first-run syndication charts, the Nielsen ratings for new shows that are sold directly to local stations without running on a network first. And Paramount has more episodes of the new "Star Trek" to sell in syndication than of the old one.

Now, MTM studios has decided to make "WKRP in Cincinnati" again. Production began last week on this year's planned 25 episodes, which will hit the air next month. The idea, which originated with Kevin Tannehill, head of MTM's television distribution, is to make 90 episodes during the next four years, doubling the number that MTM has to sell in syndication.

Reviving any show is tricky, but those behind "WKRP" seem to be going about it in the right way.

Three members of the original cast -- Frank Bonner as sleazy salesman Herb Tarlek, Gordon Jump as inept owner Arthur Carlson and Richard Sanders as nerdy newsman Les Nessman -- are returning for the show, which will run in Baltimore on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, starting Sept. 14.

The first two episodes -- a two-parter that will update viewers on what's happened to the station during the nine years since we last visited -- feature guest shots by two other familiar faces, Loni Anderson as receptionist Jennifer Marlowe and Howard Hesseman as disc jockey Johnny Fever. Most other members of the original cast have expressed interest in guest appearances.

Behind the scenes seems solid, too. The executive producer is Bill Dial, who was on the original writing staff. Max Tash, who was also with "WKRP" all four years it was on the air, is a key writer and director.

And when production began last week, Hugh Wilson, the show's creator, was around to observe run-throughs and rehearsals, to give advice certainly, but perhaps more importantly, to give his blessing to the revival.

"I hadn't thought of it until I sat down for the first read-through with the cast," Dial said. "I introduced Hugh to them and said he created this series 14 years ago. It was that long ago but people are still interested."

Following his two years with "WKRP," Dial went on to a prolific television writing and production career with lengthy stints at Universal and Disney studios. He was on the staff of "Simon & Simon" for several years.

"I was in hiding from the last series I did, trying to recover," Dial said. "That was 'E.A.R.T.H. Force.' I still think there is a good series to be made on the environment, but that wasn't it. It didn't work."

After "E.A.R.T.H. Force," the first series canceled last season, the offer to revive "WKRP" seemed attractive.

"And these three guys are just money in the bank," Dial said of the returning cast members.

"It's like getting back on a bicycle again," Jump said. "The seat doesn't fit quite the same, things seem a little different, but you remember how to do it."

The changes in the series seem to be a logical updating of a radio station almost a decade later. The characters who have stayed are those who have roots in the community while those who have left were radio Gypsies, the type who regularly travel from job to job.

With the rise in importance of morning radio, "WKRP" will focus on the station's morning drive team, a husband and wife who are lovey-dovey on the air, but near divorce when the microphone is off. Kathleen Garrett and Michael Des Barres play them.

Tawny Kitaen is going to take over as the sex object from Anderson. She plays late-night D.J. Mona Loveland. Jennifer's voice of competence will come from traffic manager Claire Hartline, played by Hope Alexander-Willis.

Mykelti Williamson, a regular on "Midnight Caller," is the new program director Donavan Aderhold. And character Arthur Carlson Jr. has grown up and is now inflicting himself on the station. Lightfield Lewis plays that part.

The sets, many made from the original plans, are virtually identical to those on old episodes of the series, again with a bit of modification and updating appropriate for the time that has passed. There's still masking tape on the floor around Nessman's desk, marking out his non-existent office.

MTM is making the new "WKRP" episodes on about 80 percent of the budget of a network sitcom. Trims have been made here and there, but not on the writing staff.

"The Writer's Guild contract allows first-run syndication to pay less money," Dial said. "But we're paying network prices because we want to attract top writers."

When CBS canceled "WKRP" in 1982, it went virtually unnoticed because the demise of "Lou Grant" and its controversial star Ed Asner attracted most of the media attention.

But "WKRP" was the show, CBS researchers agree, that had more life left in it. It ran in 11 time slots during its four years. If CBS had left it on Mondays at 9:30, after "M*A*S*H," the network would have had a major hit on its hands. Instead, it kept moving the show around, trying to make it lead off an evening or an hour, but was never able to find the right match for the other half hour.

So now "WKRP in Cincinnati" gets a second chance. It couldn't have happened to a nicer show.

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