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'Breaking News' blues

TNT develops an ambitious drama about a 24-hour TV news network. It never airs an episode. The show gains good buzz. Bravo picks it up. Its future looks bright. And short.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

[Bravo photos]
Tim Matheson plays an arrogant but talented TV news anchor in Breaking News. The series was slated for TNT but will now debut Wednesday on Bravo. “This was one of those things where everybody seemed to have a passion for the show. And to see that (TNT owner AOL Time Warner) would rather sell Witchblade than Breaking News . . . It is confusing,” Matheson says.

At first, the tapes circulated among TV critics like some sort of forbidden fruit.

In one instance last July, groups of professional couch potatoes gathered in a hotel room at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, eager to see the series that was too good for TNT to broadcast. (One episode even featured a plot point inspired by the Tampa Bay area rampage of hostage-taker Hank Earl Carr; more on that later.)

Finally, after more than a year of waiting, viewers will see what TV writers have buzzed about for more than a year: Breaking News.

The ambitious drama about an upstart 24-hour cable TV news channel debuts Wednesday on Bravo, a cable outlet better known for unctuous Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton than for original drama series.

And the story behind Breaking News' 18-month delay in coming to TV -- including TNT's decision to spend $20-million producing 13 episodes and then taking a tax benefit to shelve the show without airing it -- is a tale that rivals any in the series.

"It was the weirdest thing I've even been involved with, in all my years in the business," said star Tim Matheson, who took a break from his occasional role as Vice President John Hoynes on NBC's hit The West Wing to play Breaking News' pompous yet effective anchor, Bill Dunne.

"(Often) you feel like whatever you're working on is the best thing in the world, and 99 percent of the time, you're wrong," said Matheson, whose earliest credits include appearances on the TV series Jonny Quest and Bonanza in the '60s and '70s. "But this was one of those things where everybody seemed to have a passion for the show. And to see that (TNT owner AOL Time Warner) would rather sell Witchblade than Breaking News . . . It is confusing."

After screening the six episodes Bravo provided to critics for review, it's obvious Breaking News offers quality drama.

Centered on a new Chicago-based cable news channel, I-24, the series outlines the high-stress, demanding job of filling a channel with news 24 hours a day.
Clancy Brown stars as a tough-talking general manager of I-24, a fictional Chicago based 24-hour news channel in Breaking News.

Along the way, we meet a hard-driving general manager (The Shawshank Redemption's Clancy Brown), an aggressive executive producer (Emeril's Lisa Ann Walter), a streetwise producer (Party of Five's Scott Bairstow), a slightly ditsy features reporter (Myndy Crist), an unhinged consumer reporter (Three's Company star John Ritter in a cameo) and an arrogant but expert anchor (Matheson). The series' director, former thirtysomething star Ken Olin, also makes an appearance as I-24's news director, and his wife, thirtysomething co-star Patricia Wettig, plays Dunne's wife.

The show has a great pedigree: Executive producer and creator Gardner Stern has worked as a producer and/or writer on NYPD Blue, The Practice, Chicago Hope and Law & Order; Olin is becoming one of TV's most-sought after directors; and Matheson and Brown have appeared in everything from National Lampoon's Animal House to The Laramie Project.

Even soundtrack composer Stewart Copeland made rock history years ago as drummer for pop/new wave pioneers the Police.

Eventually, Breaking News tackles all the subjects you'd expect: pressure from a Rupert Murdoch-style media mogul owner for higher ratings; dismay among staffers that work has become their lives; the struggle to keep journalistic principles while providing a newscast people watch and more. I-24 is an odd amalgam of the Big Three cable news channels, featuring MSNBC's thirst for respect and ratings, CNN's taste for old-school journalism and Fox's media mogul owner.

But unlike many onscreen portrayals of journalists as bottom-feeders who will do anything to get stories, Breaking News humanizes its subjects as mostly competent professionals trying to act responsibly.
Patricia Wettig plays the wife of anchor Matheson.

Do they air tape found in a camcorder at an airline crash site showing a family that was returning from a happy vacation? Do they develop a feature story on a sleazy reality show that airs on a network owned by the channel's owners?

"That's the question: Where does the show business end and the journalism begin?" said Matheson, who researched his part by watching staffers at MSNBC, crafting Dunne as a character with the visual style of anchor Brian Williams and the semipompous traditional journalism viewpoint of Dan Rather. "I love and respect the world of journalism. And to try and do that in the world and commerce of television is a noble enterprise fraught with peril."

This being TV, some liberties are taken. Despite being a 24-hour operation, I-24 seems to have only one anchor. The network also broadcasts material it isn't sure is true until after the material airs (of course, it's always proven right).

Creator Stern said many plot points that seem outlandish were taken from real incidents, including a situation based on Hank Earl Carr's rampage: I-24 calls a man holding his wife and several other people hostage in a coin laundry.

(Three Tampa Bay area news outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, called Carr while he was holding a gas station cashier hostage after killing three police officers and his girlfriend's 4-year-old son in 1998. He eventually killed himself.)

Nearly a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, TNT executives insisted the show tone down the activities of an Osama bin Laden-style terrorist, likely so it wouldn't appear to be demonizing Arab characters.

"In the original story, we had (terrorists) killing a U.S. congressman. . . . The sad thing is now, that seems like small potatoes," said Stern, who also has an episode featuring a reporter hiring a publicist who gets the St. Petersburg Times to write a feature about her.

"News seems to be so much in the news these days. . . . I thought those were all elements that would make for a perfect drama," he said.

So did TNT, at least initially, Stern said. He said the channel expressed nothing but support for the show during its production in late 2000 and before its scheduled debut in January 2001.

But after AOL acquired Time Warner, new executives were put in charge of the corporation's TV programming, including TNT's. And the series' debut kept shifting: first to June, then to July, then to January 2002.

In the end, Stern said, no one from TNT ever called him directly to say the show wouldn't air. (Brown, upset by the corporate wrangling, arranged a screening for family and friends last year in a hotel room near his western Ohio hometown.)

Stern speculates that several factors may have contributed to Breaking News' disappearance: flagging ratings for another expensive original series, Bull; a reluctance of new AOL Time Warner executives to see any premerger project succeed; a decision to help bolster AOL Time Warner's money losses, and concern about how the series would reflect on the company's cable news channel, CNN.

"Maybe there was the unspoken specter: Do we want a show depicting a warts-and-all 24-hour news channel when our own news channel is having problems?" Stern said. "I read that (Turner Broadcasting System CEO) Jamie Kellner hadn't even seen the show until after the decision was made. I was not only shocked but perplexed at the same time."

Ask whether Breaking News -- which was taken to Bravo by production studio New Line Television -- has a chance of making a second season, and the upbeat talk grows vague.

Two years is an eternity in TV, and many who worked on the show have moved on.

Olin is a full-time director on ABC's spy hit Alias, and Stern is co-executive producer on Fox's new fall show John Doe. Among the actors, whose initial contracts with the show expired in December 2001, Brown is appearing next year in an HBO series dubbed Carnivale, and Matheson will be helping President Bartlet run for re-election on The West Wing.

"I always tell people I serve at the pleasure of (West Wing creator) Aaron Sorkin," said Matheson, who added that he still could be available to film new Breaking News episodes. "I don't think Aaron ever knows when he'll use me until he sits down to write. So I just build it into anything else I do that I have to be available if requested to do a West Wing."

Even if Bravo decided to make new episodes, the price tag would likely run to just under $2-million for each one (with Canada standing in as I-24's Chicago home base). That's a lot of change for a channel that focuses on low-cost interview shows and reruns of series such as The Larry Sanders Show (debuting in October) and The West Wing (debuting next year).

Frances Berwick, Bravo's senior vice president of programming and production, said the channel would consider producing more episodes if Breaking News is a hit, but she wouldn't say how successful the show must be to reach that level.

"We'll know if it's a hit . . . (but) we haven't quantified what that means," she said. "Our ability to produce more episodes will also depend on whether we can gather the key creative talent and the cast."

A number of cable channels have scored lately with well-produced, high-cost original series that embody the outlet's attitude, including FX's cop drama, The Shield; TNT's supernatural police series, Witchblade, and USA Network's reinvention of Stephen King's psychic drama The Dead Zone.

And with MSNBC's newly revamped "hot talk" prime-time lineup debuting Monday, featuring a show from legendary host Phil Donahue, there couldn't be a more buzzworthy time to launch a series about a cable news channel.

But could Stern ditch his John Doe duties to write another season of Breaking News?

"That's a dilemma I'd love to have," the producer said diplomatically. "Let's keep our fingers crossed."

TV review

Breaking News debuts at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo. Grade: A.

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