Don't expect Ken Burns to do a documentary on the automotive industry within the next decade. General Motors has agreed to be the filmmaker's sole corporate underwriter for the next 10 years.
GM has been Burns's sole corporate underwriter for 10 years already, ponying up 35 percent of the funding for "The Civil War," "Baseball," "The West," "Thomas Jefferson," "Lewis & Clark" and "Frank Lloyd Wright." In return, PBS has designated each of Burns's projects a "GM Mark of Excellence Presentation," and GM got top billing when PBS rattled off the names of underwriters at the beginning and end of each Burns broadcast.
But in the past, Burns has had to go begging to GM on each project. Now, Burns says, he can spend more time thinking about and working on film projects and less time "with my red dress on with the slit up to here."
GM announced the new deal with much fanfare last week, along with Washington's WETA, which has been Burns's presenting PBS station since the '80s. But the idea wasn't the car company's; it was Burns's. As he tells it, he put on the red dress and went to see the GM folks one more time; he reminded them that "I haven't made a horrible film" since their relationship began, and wasn't it time to take their relationship to the next level?
As for that car industry documentary and possible friction with his Motor City Medici, Burns says it's not something he was planning to do anyway, so why test the new friendship? Tops on his to-do list are projects about Martin Luther King Jr., the country's national parks and the history of the buffalo. His next project, "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony," debuts Nov. 7--also underwritten by GM and presented by WETA.
WB will air the comedy series "Movie Stars" on consecutive Sunday and Monday nights when it debuts next month. The first episode will air July 11 at 9 p.m., following the return of "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane"; the second episode will air July 12 at 9 p.m., following "Seventh Heaven." And so on, until they've broadcast all of the eight ordered episodes. Then, in August, the network may flip the episodes, airing the ones that ran on Sunday on Monday and vice versa.
Welcome to scheduling by committee.
It all started last season when network brass decided to try out some sitcoms in the Monday 9 p.m. time slot. WB execs were frustrated at their own inability to find a companion drama for their biggest hit, "Seventh Heaven," which airs at 8 p.m. Mondays. The problem, they reasoned, wasn't the product ("Hyperion Bay" and "Rescue 77" this past season), it was the competition--specifically, ABC's "Monday Night Football" and Fox's "Ally McBeal."
"Movie Stars," which stars Harry Hamlin and Cary Grant's daughter, Jennifer Grant, as a loving Hollywood movie star couple who have children saddled with names like Apache and Moonglow, was selected as one of the sitcoms for the experiment, explained WB honcho Brad Turrell. But the producers at Castle Rock Entertainment hated the idea; they wanted a Sunday berth, alongside WB's other sitcoms. After debate, both agreed to hold the show for a summer run.
Summer rolls around; the two sides still don't see eye to eye. A committee sits down to decide the issue. When the dust settles, the show is airing on both nights.
ABC has renewed "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" for another year. The latest pickup will carry the late-night talk show, which moved to ABC in January 1997 following a 3 1/2-year run on Comedy Central, through its fourth season.
During the May sweeps, "PI" averaged 1.66 million viewers in the key demographic of adults aged 18 to 49--up 16 percent from the same period a year ago and just behind the second half of CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" (1.74 million). NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" led the half-hour with 2.95 million adults 18-49. ABC execs credit the introduction of "real people" panelists and more frequent road shows with the improvement.
To that end, ABC may travel the show next summer for the Republican and Democratic political conventions. In addition, a week of shows from Boston is in the works for fall as well as a post-Super Bowl program from Atlanta for January 2000.
Meanwhile, ABC has picked up another sitcom, "Talk to Me," for next season, though the leads are being recast. Kyra Sedgwick ("Something to Talk About," "Phenom") has signed on to star in the new comedy, which is produced by ABC parent Disney; the network gave the show a six-episode order for mid-season.
Sedgwick replaces pilot lead Amy Pietz in the role of Janey, a single, successful radio talk show host in New York whose personal life is a wreck. On to the scene comes the Dr. Laura Schlessinger-esque character who is hired to work alongside Janey at the station. Shelley Fabares ("Coach") played Dr. Debra in the "Talk to Me" pilot, but that role and others are expected to be recast. With ABC's mid-season order of "Talk to Me," Disney's tally of new television series for ABC grows to five.
A judge threw out a $100 million lawsuit filed by a man who claims Jerry Seinfeld and his TV producers stole his identity for the character of George Costanza.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Harold Tompkins said Michael Costanza's suit was frivolous, the Associated Press reported.
Costanza, a real estate agent who lives on Long Island, said his rights were violated when Seinfeld used his "name, likeness and persona" to create the neurotic and nutty George for "Seinfeld."
Costanza said the show portrayed him in a negative, humiliating light, and that "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David defamed him when he called Costanza a "liar" and "flagrant opportunist" trying to cash in.
Tompkins found the lawsuit baseless and assessed sanctions of $2,500 each against Costanza, 43, and his lawyer, Jonathan Fisher.
CAPTION: Ken Burns, right, with Ethel Hall, 100, a subject in one of his films.