Producer stays upbeat about sagging 'Hearts Afire''

December 19, 1993|By Tom Jicha | Tom Jicha,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Harry Thomason doesn't believe in going through channels. When he has faith in something, he takes his case directly to those he needs to reach.

Last year, it was Bill Clinton. Mr. Thomason, a fellow Arkansan and long-time friend of the Clintons, became the former governor's top strategist during the 1992 campaign.

This year, Mr. Thomason has a new campaign, the salvation of "Hearts Afire," the CBS series he and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, created and produce.

In a stroke of ingenuity, the Thomasons are bypassing network researchers and show doctors and taking their case right into American households. Each Wednesday night, they make themselves available for an hour or two to the approximately 4 million homes with satellite dishes. (For those with a dish, Telstar 302, Transponder 9H at midnight Eastern time).

This secret audience is invited to fax in comments about "Hearts Afire." The Thomasons and their stars, John Ritter and Markie Post, discuss the suggestions for the dish crowd, and the input is used in plotting future developments.

"Hearts Afire" needs the intensive care. The Nielsen ratings have the sitcom fourth, as in last, in its time period (8 p.m. Wednesdays, WBAL, Channel 11).

Still, Mr. Thomason remains unwavering in his belief in the quality of his product. "Linda thinks the shows she is writing are her best work since 'Designing Women,' and I agree," Harry Thomason said.

There is a basis beyond personal pride for this faith. When CBS tests "Hearts Afire," Mr. Thomason says, it routinely rates as high as any comedy on the No. 1 network. In another unusual move, the Thomasons have asked the network to pre-test every episode. Generally this is done only in advance of new shows.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that not one clunker gets on the air," Mr. Thomason says. If a test audience turns thumbs down on an episode, it would be either fixed or scrapped, he says. So far, this hasn't happened.

The problem is, CBS tests "Hearts Afire" in research facilities, where the audience doesn't have the option of turning to "Unsolved Mysteries" or "Beverly Hills 90210." Twice this season, "Hearts Afire" also has found itself against specially scheduled episodes of "Home Improvement," the highest-rated comedy on TV.

"We really got nuked on those nights," Mr. Thomason says.

As disappointing as the ratings are for "Hearts Afire," they are an improvement on what CBS has had in the time period in recent seasons, Mr. Thomason says. This and the Thomasons' credentials as hit-makers have earned network patience. CBS is moving the series back a half-hour to 8:30 p.m., starting Dec. 29. With the mature, romantic themes of the program, every minute later that it starts is a boost.

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