"YES," the announcer regularly chirps, "SCTV is still on the air!" As of late May, however, "SCTV Comedy Network," the satirical miracle that has been compared to the most venerable comedy classics in television history, is off the air. NBC has failed to renew the late-Friday-night program, but is now negotiating alternatives that might keep the uncommonly gifted SCTV comedy troupe together in some other format.
"We no longer exist as a late-night show," said Andrew Alexander, senior executive producer of the program, from Los Angeles yesterday. The last new "SCTV" was taped in late February and the program is now in reruns, which sputter out next month. Alexander left Toronto, where the show is taped, to spend the week in L.A. trying to come to terms with NBC program executives.
"SCTV" is a riotous weekly 90-minute pageant of sendups and parodies set at a fictitious, though highly believable, TV network in the equally fictitious middlebrow town of Melonville. Each week the show holds a distorting mirror up to television--which is a distorting mirror itself--with comedy sketches performed by an ensemble that is among the best and brightest ever assembled in broadcasting. It ranks with the original casts of "Your Show of Shows" and "Saturday Night Live." And "Allen's Alley," for that matter.
Joe Flaherty, a founding member of the troupe--his various roles on the program include proudly unctuous talk show host Sammy Maudlin--said from Los Angeles yesterday, "I get the feeling that NBC isn't totally behind us. I'm afraid we'll be dropped. Personally, I'm not hopeful."
Andrea Martin, nominated for an Emmy last year for playing the brawny Edith Prickley and a host of other characters on the show, said yesterday from her home in Toronto, "I've been with the show for seven years the show was in syndication for several years before it moved to NBC two years ago , and it always seems that after a season is over, our future is up in the air. I have never once left 'SCTV' knowing I have a job to come back to in a few months. But now with NBC not picking us up, things look a little worse than usual."
NBC, with the lowest ratings and profits of the three commercial networks, is on a cost-cutting bender. Each 90-minute "SCTV" show costs the network $360,000. But for something like $40,000 a week, one insider says, NBC could throw an old "David Letterman" rerun into the "SCTV" time slot. The network is also reportedly considering a late-night music and variety show, like the old "Midnight Special," to fill the time period at a production cost of about $200,000. That show would be produced by Dick Ebersol, who produces "Saturday Night Live," sources say. Ebersol could not be reached for comment yesterday.
NBC spends much more than $360,000 to produce each week's "Saturday Night Live," but the network owns that program--it is an NBC production--and eventually will make additional profits from it by selling reruns in syndication.
Alexander proposed months ago to NBC that it alternate "SNL" and "SCTV" in the Saturday night slot but says the network has consistently rejected that offer. Unlike "SCTV," "Saturday Night Live" gets terrible reviews, is indeed an appallingly uninspired program, but it gets better ratings--partly because an earlier cast (Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd et al.) and production staff made the show a national habit, and largely because "SNL" is on at an earlier, more accessible hour than SCTV's 12:30 a.m. Siberia. "SCTV" has suffered for its two seasons on NBC because of the impossibly late time slot.
"Even I had trouble staying up and watching it," Alexander said.
Ratings for "SCTV" have not gone through any roofs, but it delivers a demographically young and affluent viewership, one much courted by advertisers. Flaherty said, "We have a small but very loyal audience. They seem to love us. The show just hasn't caught on like fire. Part of it was that time slot. I have friends who said they couldn't stay up for it."
The program weathered its share of additional storms this season, including the at least temporary loss of cast members Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis (who often played the beer-swilling, bacon-frying McKenzie brothers, and who recently completed a movie in those roles) and Catherine O'Hara, who left "SCTV" at midseason for other jobs but said last week on the Letterman show that she couldn't find work. Alexander says he thinks he can coax these expatriates back to the fold at least for occasional appearances, especially if the show goes to prime time.
One source close to the program said Ebersol has tried to lure Thomas and Moranis to the cast of "Saturday Night Live," which has in effect only two productive members, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, both of whom might leave the show at the end of its current season.
Flaherty says he and fellow cast members--including John Candy, Eugene Levy and Martin Short--would like the challenge of prime time, but not for half an hour per week, as NBC has proposed. "It's too weird a show for people to catch onto in prime time for only half an hour," said Flaherty. "They'd all be scratching their heads and saying, 'What the hell was that?' "
Andrea Martin agreed that half an hour was unacceptable, and rejected the notion of "SCTV" getting a "trial run" in prime time this summer. "Why the hell do we have to do any 'trial' thing?" she asked, referring to the long run of the program in syndication before it was picked up by NBC. "I'm not really interested in going back to work this summer," she added. Martin is expecting her second child in 3 1/2 weeks.
Martin said that if SCTV disappears, she has a long-term agreement with NBC to develop a possible prime-time comedy show of her own. But then she exclaimed, "Ugh, I don't have a career! All I want to do is shop."
Alexander said there were avenues other than NBC's for the "SCTV" troupe to explore. "There's been interest, all kinds of interest," from pay-cable networks he could not name, Alexander said, and the possibility of an SCTV movie. Flaherty, Candy and Levy recently completed their own film, "Berserk," directed by David Steinberg and scheduled for release by Universal in July.
Candy and Levy are now making a film at Disney Studios.
"Our company will make a commitment to keeping the cast together whatever that costs," Alexander pledged yesterday. "We will not let this group break up." NBC has made a reputation for itself as the one network where succes d'estimes count for something; it recently renewed the acclaimed prime-time comedy "Cheers" despite its pitifully puny ratings. Now it remains to be seen whether the bottom line will give again, and whether NBC will keep the best comedy show on television alive.