Originally published in Current,
May 12, 2003
By Karen Everhart
There's probably no harder trick in show business than delivering hit No. 2.
For producers of a new 13-part Bill Nye series, the challenge of building on past success has been compounded by shifting creative concepts, infighting among executives and disputes over money with Seattle producing station KCTS, which is scaling back national productions after years of financial losses.
Eyes of Nye, a comeback attempt for the star of the mid-1990s PBS Kids hit Bill Nye the Science Guy, is still in production at KCTS, as producers race to wrap up 13 episodes by June 30, the last day of the station's fiscal year.
The deadline looms as KCTS struggles through a tumultuous end to Burnhill Clark's 16-year presidency. Staff and public reaction to news reports about financial mismanagement under Clark prompted him to move up his retirement date. The KCTS Board appointed an interim manager last week (related article).
PBS funded pilot production and has first option to buy Eyes of Nye, although KCTS has yet to deliver a completed program to Braddock Place. A PBS spokeswoman said programmers consider the show "in development." The National Science Foundation also awarded funding to the series, but an NSF program officer did not respond to an inquiry about the project.
Bill Nye the Science Guy was a source of great pride for KCTS with its entertaining approach to science, innovative distribution deal with Disney and a string of Emmys. Its success fueled Clark's ambition to build KCTS into a national production machine.
But in the past year the station, running low on cash and desperately needing underwriting and ancillary revenues, couldn't produce an Eyes of Nye pilot on time or on budget. The station completed a pilot episode last year and then apparently buried it while timetables shifted and costs ran over budget.
The episode "tackled one of the most difficult subjects, cloning, and will probably not be the pilot," said Clark, during an interview in December. "We wanted to test the subject and see how to handle it. It was enormously helpful to us." Clark said then that producers would use that experience to "work up a new format" and complete all 13 episodes by the end of this month. Another source said producers were to deliver four episodes of the series by January.
Two weeks ago four episodes were near completion, with others in various stages of rough cuts, according to Doug Wilson, who shares executive producer credit with series star Bill Nye. "The first things we shot were not as close or as dead-on as the things we're shooting now," he acknowledged. Wilson, a former e.p. of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, described himself as a "hired gun" who was recruited for the show seven months ago. His experience producing humorous, studio-based shows won him the job, according to Clark.
Although the series originally was to be shot in KCTS's studios, it now includes field production. Nye has more energy when he's "out and about doing things," Wilson said.
The show has "taken a while to become itself" because producers are adapting Nye's uniquely humorous approach for primetime audiences, specifically for young adults, he added.
Programs deal with topics such as antibiotic resistance, stem cell research, global climate change and race. The format mixes sketch comedy with segments featuring Nye in the field or interviewing scientists.
"It'll be fine," said Nye, describing the current formula. "It'll be lovely and fabulous."
Last fall, KCTS planned to spend $2.5 million producing 13 half-hours, according to information the station provided for Current's 2003 Pipeline survey.
Public TV production execs outside KCTS said the $192,300 per episode cost would be high but not out of line, especially since it included set construction and brand-name talent fees.
Both Nye and Wilson professed ignorance about how much the series will ultimately cost and its funding sources. "The numbers are not at my disposal," Wilson said.
"It's always been a mystery," Nye said of the budget. "If you were a hard-hitting investigative reporter aiming to blow the roof off the public TV station in Seattle, you'd try to find out the budget, but you won't be able to."
Others sources said that Nye did not return to the set for several days, although the star denied he would resort to tactics that stalled production.
It's unclear how the dispute was resolved. Nye said KCTS execs set the June 30 completion date and "realized they had to figure out how much money they had to spend." Michael Gross, a veteran producer from the first Nye series who returned for Eyes of Nye, was fired shortly afterwards.
A former producer for the station said Nye returned after KCTS threatened to sue him. The producer requested anonymity.
Other departures included Julie Thompson, who was dismissed as series producer after her efforts to control costs were thwarted, according to several accounts. Rabinovitch left the station when his contract expired in March. He had been co-executive producer with Nye and Gross.
The former producer said Rabinovitch and Nye clashed repeatedly. "I don't think his vision for the show and Bill's were the same," said the producer. "They didn't agree on anything."
Other former KCTS insiders said that Nye is hard to work with.
Nye and Wilson joked about whether Nye was more difficult than the "ever-cheerful Bill Maher," with whom Wilson worked for more than seven years.
"I got along with him well," Wilson said, referring to Maher.
"It's me he's having problems with," quipped Nye.
Until Wilson arrived, Nye said he also worried about a KCTS business deal with Arlin Communications that secured partial series financing from Canadian venture capitalists who ran a troubled offshore bank, but he confined his queries to web searches. He recalled learning that lots of legitimate businesses operate in the Caribbean.
Jim Green of Arlin Communications, Vancouver, negotiated the financing and marketing deal with a subsidiary of Omnicorp Financial Group, an offshore bank, and said he had nearly secured a $1.8 million licensing deal for the Nye series. That licensing deal fell apart with KCTS's delays in delivering the series and revelations of the station's mounting financial problems, Green said.
Arlin's relationship with KCTS later dissolved as the station and Green accused each other of violating the contract. Green said the contract requires mediation of disputes between the parties. He seeks to recoup legal expenses of $20,000 from KCTS, he told Current.
KCTS Board President Doug Beighle said the station is dealing directly with the Canadian investors, who have terminated Green's contract.
"There has been nothing that I would describe as intrigue during my tenure," said Wilson. Leadership turmoil at the station has been distracting, but KCTS managers now working with Wilson have given "unique support during a trying time," he said. "What could have become a negative situation without leadership has become positive," he added. "It's given the project greater clarity and support."
Web page updated May 14, 2003
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