Famous movie directors seem unable to develop successful shows for TV

June 20, 1993|By Ron Miller | Ron Miller,Knight-Ridder News Service

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.

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