UPN deals Baltimore's `Contender' a knockout

Television: If the network had picked up the pilot, it would have meant millions of dollars for the city economy.

May 18, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"The Contender," the UPN (United Paramount Network) drama filmed in Baltimore this spring, will not be on the fall schedule announced today by the network in New York, according to Hugh Wilson, creator of the series.

Both UPN and Fox will unveil schedules for the advertising community today, but the big question locally is whether "The Contender," the story of a 19-year-old who forsakes college for a professional boxing career, would become a weekly network series filmed in Baltimore, putting more than $1 million an episode into the economy for up to 22 episodes a season.

The answer is no.

And the reason may be that UPN, a network known for its "WWF Smackdown!" wrestling franchise, was unwilling to pay the price of quality both in terms of money and creative tension.

"I haven't talked to the UPN guys, but I know `The Contender' is not going to make it," said Wilson, who made the feature film "Guarding Tess" in Maryland. "The series is done. I'm really disappointed, because I thought we had some good young talent, and I really like the thought of returning to Baltimore." And Wilson, an Emmy Award-winning producer for his work on "Frank's Place," fears that he's to blame.

"I worry that I might have had something to do with it," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia.

"I didn't get along with the executives, and I let them know it. I mean, I just wasn't going to change things just because they wanted them changed. I wanted this to be a drama we could be proud of."

Wilson resisted making changes in the script for the pilot and insisted on filming in Baltimore because he wanted a realistic setting for the series. Filming here would have cost more than doing it in Los Angeles or Canada.

"I know the pilot tested OK. It didn't test great, but it tested pretty well," Wilson said of the industry process in which pilots are played to focus groups to measure possible audience reaction.

"So I don't think it was that. I think it was just that they didn't want to do what it took to have a quality drama, and I can't tell you how disappointing that is. And I'd like to know what they say, but nobody from UPN's calling me."

Calls to UPN from The Sun were not returned either. But, in also canceling "The Beat," a youth-oriented cop drama from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, it seems that the network is not heading in the direction of quality drama with its new schedule.

Thanks to its much-maligned "WWF Smackdown!" wrestling show on Thursday nights, UPN has attracted a large enough audience of teen-age boys and young men to keep the lights on. And several programs announced in the network's fall schedule seem aimed at attracting that core audience.

On Mondays, the network is seeking to strengthen its block of black comedies with "The Hughleys," which will move over from ABC; and "Girlfriends," a new sitcom starring Tracee Ross, singer Diana Ross' daughter. The show is produced by "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer's production company, which has a deal with Paramount.

("The Hughleys," starring comic D.L. Hughley, becomes the second ABC series drafted to play a key role for one of the emerging networks next season. The WB has picked up "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," which will provide the cornerstone of its Friday night lineup.) Returning shows scheduled for Mondays on UPN include "Moesha" and "The Parkers."

The fledgling network shifts its Friday movie to Tuesday nights, while Wednesdays will feature "7 Days" and "Star Trek: Voyager," although the network has announced that the latter show will end next spring.

"Smackdown" returns on Thursdays, while Friday feature two new action-oriented dramas likely to appeal to the same group: "Freedom" a high-tech show from blockbuster movie producer Joel Silver, and "Level 9," focusing on an elite unit fighting cyber-crimes.

The network dropped "Dilbert," "Shasta," "Malcolm & Eddie" and "Secret Agent Man."

Fox taps Kelley for drama

The Fox network, which has suffered through one of its worst seasons ever, will announce a fall lineup today featuring five new dramas and two sitcoms.

Despite the pedigree of some of the new shows, Fox is in such a deep hole that it will take several seasons to climb out. Between all the series that crashed and burned, such as "Action," and those that ran out of gas, such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Party of Five," next year definitely is a rebuilding season for the network.

Here's how they hope to accomplish that: David E. Kelley will own Monday nights on Fox next fall when his new teacher drama, "Boston Public," settles into the 8 p.m. slot just ahead of his "Ally McBeal." Tuesday night's lineup boasts a new sci-fi drama, "Dark Angel" -- the first television drama by James Cameron, of "Titanic" fame.

Returning to Tuesday night's lineup will be "That '70s Show" and "Titus," a midseason sitcom that managed to win a spot despite weak ratings.

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