In surprise move, NBC says it will renew 'Homicide' Acclaimed but low-rated Baltimore-based drama survives ratings ultimatum

January 18, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- In a move yesterday that surprised even the producers, NBC renewed the police drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" for the 1998-1999 television season.

The critically acclaimed but low-rated series, which is filmed in Baltimore and contributes an estimated $20 million a year and 120 jobs to the local economy, was expected by many to be canceled at the end of this season after failing a ratings ultimatum from NBC.

But events in network television in recent weeks -- NBC's losing professional football and agreeing to pay a record $13 million an episode to keep the medical drama "ER" for three more years, and Jerry Seinfeld's decision to walk away from NBC's offer of $5 million an episode for another season of "Seinfeld" -- apparently helped make "Homicide" more attractive to the network and contributed to the renewal.

"Surprised? This all happened so fast, I don't know what I am," executive producer Tom Fontana said yesterday in Los Angeles. "All I can say is that we're thrilled NBC decided that we'll be back."

In Baltimore, producer David Simon said: "I never thought we'd hear until the end of the season one way or the other.

"NBC did say we had to do better in the ratings to get renewed, and, in some ways, I think we are. But we didn't know if it would be enough."

Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, told Fontana in May that "Homicide" had to beat the CBS police drama "Nash Bridges" to stay on the air for a sixth season.

So far, "Homicide" has topped "Nash Bridges" in total audience only once, and that was in a crossover episode in November featuring characters from another, higher-rated NBC drama, "Law & Order."

When asked yesterday about the change of heart, Littlefield said, "I think we should be able to beat 'Nash Bridges.' But, taking a hard look at our assets -- looking at what is quality television and what are you ready to say goodbye to vs. the risk of what's new -- we wound up thinking, 'Why wouldn't we renew? Why would we want to say goodbye to a show that is this good?'

"Look, Tom Fontana is willing to come back as executive producer, and it's an extremely well-produced show by the group in Baltimore. Plus, you have most of the cast coming back, so there are just no obstacles. When you look at it like that, renewing this series is a no-brainer."

The one cast member not expected to be back is star Andre Braugher, who has said unequivocally that he will not return next season.

"Again, this all happened so fast, I can't say whether Andre will or will not be back," Fontana said. "We're just happy we'll be back and working with NBC."

The cooperation between NBC and executive producers Fontana and Barry Levinson was key to the show's renewal.

Three years ago, NBC became a partner with Fontana and Levinson in producing "Homicide." That means that, unlike "ER" -- which is owned by Warner Bros. Television and essentially rented to NBC for $13 million for the rights to air an episode twice -- "Homicide" is co-owned by the network.

Such co-ownership deals are seen by the networks as one of the best new ways of keeping out of bidding wars like the one that found NBC agreeing to pay $858 million for the rights to "ER" through the 2000-2001 season.

In the end, "Homicide" offers the network quality and prestige at a relatively low price. "Homicide" will cost NBC $1.4 million an episode next year compared with the $13 million for "ER."

When demographics are considered, the "ER" deal also makes "Homicide" more attractive to the network. While the overall audience for "Homicide" is small, it draws viewers who are attractive to advertisers, Littlefield said.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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