LOS ANGELES - Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy was sitting at an outdoor cafe in Miami's Coconut Grove area when it happened: a fight between rival gangs broke out in the middle of the street.
Hanging out with fellow interns at the Miami Herald on his first night in town, Murphy was energized by a peculiar mix of fear and excitement. But when cable network FX agreed many years later to finance his vision for a TV series about two Miami plastic surgeons, one drawback quickly surfaced.
FX couldn't afford to film in Miami full time.
Much of the show's first episode was shot in San Diego and Los Angeles, and Murphy expects to make only intermittent trips to Miami for stock footage of landmarks in the first season.
"It's hard to do a show (there) on a cable budget . . . just because of the sheer cost of transporting all of the writers and moving the crew out," he said.
Producers across Hollywood are making similar decisions. If Nip/Tuck survives to the start of the fall season, TV will feature three major dramas in which Miami plays a prominent part; the others are ABC's Karen Sisco and CBS's CSI: Miami.
None is based in Miami; all are recreating visions of the Sunshine State in various areas of California.
Based around a character from Elmore Leonard's evocative, Florida-based crime novels, Karen Sisco (a TV version of the film Out of Sight) depends on a stylized, vibrant vision of the city to help build its sophisticated atmosphere.
The show is filming mostly in Los Angeles because its star Carla Gugino (Spy Kids) insisted on it.
"On the pilot, I literally worked 17 hours a day," said Gugino, a Sarasota native who has in Los Angeles a longtime boyfriend whose children she has helped raise for years. "I have major family attachments. The notion of (being away) potentially for eight months over a number of years . . . I couldn't handle that."
Producer Michael Dinner said the show would likely film outdoor scenes and key landmarks in Miami four times a year. He said the network "would rather we were based in Miami."
Susan Albershardt, the state's film commissioner and the official charged with luring movie and TV projects to Florida, said that economic incentives can't overcome concerns like Gugino's.
"Somebody wants to be close to their kids, somebody wants to use their favorite gym, somebody wants to wake up in their own bed in the morning . . . all things that regular people want," said Albershardt, estimating that the state misses out on about $20-million in business for each 22-episode show that forgoes production in Florida. "As a film commissioner, I can say I hate it. But as a former TV production person, sometimes it's easier to keep the crew at home."
Perhaps expectations have been raised too high by Miami Vice, which found enormous success in the '80s by crafting a visual look that depended on shooting every frame of film in Miami. Since then, city officials have tried to sell Hollywood on using the town's ambiance for other projects, with varied results.
But then CSI and CSI: Miami came along, developing a visual style that heavily featured Las Vegas and Miami, respectively. The shows film much of their episodes in California, with occasional trips to the real cities for key scenes and stock footage.
On Nip/Tuck, Murphy pays close attention to lighting and clothing - no sweaters or heavy jackets, please - making sure that characters look appropriately overheated at all times.
"Florida, particularly South Florida, is really about a sort of South American influx," said the producer, who hopes to spend a month shooting in Miami if the show earns a second season. "It's not the cliche of what you've seen before."
Expect the trend to continue as more TV producers turn to faux Florida as a source for story settings.
"More and more people I talk to, when they find out (my) show is in Miami, say "Oh, I'm doing one, too.' Or "I want to do one there. . . . It looks so cool,"' Murphy said. "In talking to other writers and friends of mine who are doing the same jobs . . . I think it's really catching on."