TV or Not TV?

That's no longer the question for visionary Stephen J. Cannell, who now lives the novel life

Not a year ago, Cannell sold a pilot to NBC, the premise of which was unlike anything previously on television (it's such a good idea Cannell would rather not recount the story on the record, lest it be stolen). At the time, Garth Ancier was president of NBC Entertainment, and he and Cannell had a long history together: Ancier was running Fox in the mid-'80s when Cannell came to him with 21 Jump Street, a pretty cops-and-robbers show starring a young Johnny Depp. But when it came time to produce the new pilot, Ancier was out and former Today executive producer Jeff Zucker was in, and Zucker had no interest in playing with Ancier's toys, so he passed on Cannell's offering and instead loaded the current season's schedule with Inside Schwartz, Emeril and midseason replacement Imagine That--all already canceled--and a third Law & Order spin-off. Forthcoming from Zucker is Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Watching Ellie, the third strike for former Seinfeld cast members, after Jason Alexander's recent short-lived fiasco Bob Patterson.

Cannell's legacy, aside from a fistful of critically beloved shows and commercially viable offerings (The A-Team was NBC's sole Top 20 show in 1982 and is currently being developed into a feature film), is that of the writer who took control of the product--from creation to cancellation, from inception to syndication. He got rich thinking like an artist and acting like an accountant, conceiving high-concept shows on a low-budget ledger. He let his writers take credit while he took the cash, and if one show failed, he had six others on the air. ("Hopefully," Cannell says with a chuckle, "my legacy is I didn't fuck anybody up.") He insists that in order to understand why network television loses audiences and acclaim to the likes of HBO, one must first appreciate the position programming executives like Zucker are in.

"I'll tell you what's going on," Cannell says, with a knowing smile. "They're telling Garth [Ancier], "Turn this motherfucker around in 18 months.' Well, the fact of the matter is, if you play it safe and do Friends rip-offs and have your one gay character in every half-hour comedy and all the things everyone else is doing, you are not going to fail big. You could fail, but you'll fail in the middle range somewhere, and you might get a hit, and you might have an actor break out and make something happen. You put The Sopranos on, you have a chance of tanking big, and you can't hold onto a show like that for a year under the directive you have and eat that seven share week in and week out, because you have 18 months. That's their problem. So what do they do? They go, "Well, let's get Bob Patterson on. We know that guy, and everybody loved him. Maybe that'll work.'

T-Rex, still kicking: Rockford Files and Wiseguy creator Stephen J. Cannell switched off TV when Congress allowed networks to  own their own product.
T-Rex, still kicking: Rockford Files and Wiseguy creator Stephen J. Cannell switched off TV when Congress allowed networks to own their own product.

"It's just the pressure is so great. I watch these guys. They aren't happy people. Garth is a nice man, but he gained weight, he didn't look happy, he had people pounding on him all the time: Get it going, get it going. Affiliates are shouting at him. So they start to go to easy formulas and pray and say, "Let's give another show to somebody who was on Cheers. Maybe it'll work.' I mean, Emeril--what the fuck were they thinking?"

Cannell's most recent series--1996's Profit, a witty, wicked soap with Machiavellian overtones--was critically acclaimed but lasted a mere four episodes on the cowardly Fox. Long gone are the visionaries like Cannell's old friend Brandon Tartikoff, who renewed Cheers at NBC when the bar was still in the ratings basement. Television is run now by the dumb and the desperate--children who can't balance a checkbook and adults who get a pink slip with every fifth paycheck. It's a bankrupt biz, financially and creatively: Shows that once cost $500,000 an episode run four to six times that, and series worthy of attention get pulled before an audience can ever find them.

"And nobody cares," Cannell says. "They can spend $6 million on an hour of television, and nobody's gonna do anything about it. Then you maintain it has to be done that way because your show's so beautiful and so creative and so magnificent that it requires that extra care. It's all bullshit. It's all ego."

Burke insists there will come a time when the networks beg Cannell to return to the box. He says there's a generation of programming execs climbing up the rungs with old A-Team videos under their arms, waiting to get back in biz with B.A. Barracus' creator. But Cannell does not wait for their entreaties.

"What I miss most about television is the social aspects of it--coming together with 150 people who are all talented and contributing," he says. "But now, they're gonna have to fit themselves into my busy schedule." He grins. "I'm not waiting around to be called back into the television business. If the right project--something I haven't done before, something that's not just Wiseguy sideways or another version of Rockford or The A-Team with an all-female cast--comes along, then I can get seduced by it. But I don't need money."

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