'7th Heaven' back from the dead -- on the cheap

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These days, producing "7th Heaven" has become a little hellish.

In May, on what was heavily promoted as the "last episode ever" of the 10-year-old television series, fans were stunned by a plot twist bordering on the absurd. The drama about a minister and his family waved goodbye with the news that three members of the Camden clan were pregnant -- all with twins.

At the same time, an equally astonishing plot twist was playing out behind the scenes between series creator Brenda Hampton and CBS Corp. The program had been canceled months earlier by Time Warner Inc.'s now defunct WB network, which said it was losing $16 million a year on the series because of its high cost. But the start-up CW network, formed from the merger of WB and CBS's UPN, abruptly uncanceled "7th Heaven" after the finale attracted a robust seven million fans and it became clear to schedulers that they had no other anchor show for Monday night.

The change of heart forced Ms. Hampton to quickly reassemble a writing staff, cut new deals with actors and figure out how to jump-start the show's narrative.

The story of how "7th Heaven" was killed and buried and then exhumed and resuscitated underscores the new agility TV producers must have in the rapidly changing TV business. In the days of vertically integrated media companies, distribution via the Internet, DVDs and instant feedback from fans, shows must be much more nimble than in the past.

Decades ago, new shows were given a season or two to find an audience. Nowadays, shows are lucky to get a few episodes to prove themselves, but new technology can just as easily change network minds. A big network show can be canceled and then brought back to life after selling well on DVD. (The animated series "Family Guy" is an example.) If writers launch a new story line fans don't like, they must quickly retrench or suffer the wrath of bloggers who can hurt ratings with negative buzz ("Desperate Housewives"). And shows must be able to expand or contract from a half hour to an hour and back with a week's notice to cover holes on the schedule ("American Idol").

The return of "7th Heaven" -- the series premiered to soft ratings on Monday, attracting about four million viewers -- also is an example of how networks can rein in escalating production costs. To make "7th Heaven" more affordable, the studio producing it, CBS Paramount Television, cut salaries for actors, producers and writers. Executives ordered that each episode be taped and edited in six days instead of seven, as in the past. Expensive outdoor filming at night? Forget about it.

CW now has to pay only between $1.4 million and $1.8 million an episode to license the show, down from nearly $3 million an episode three years ago, according to two people close to the show. That price is about 70 percent below what the average hourlong show costs per episode.

"When I found out that the show was picked up for an 11th season, my first feeling was of victory," Ms. Hampton says. "The second thought was, 'What have I gone and done?'"

Indeed, in reviving "7th Heaven," Ms. Hampton was faced with a series of storytelling challenges -- many owing to budget constraints. One big one: How to deal with the three sets of twins supposedly on the way. There was no room in the budget for new child actors.

Ms. Hampton had an easy way out with two of the pregnancies. Mary Camden, played by actress Jessica Biel, and Sarah Camden, played by Sarah Danielle Madison, had been mostly written out of the show in recent seasons and returned only for the finale. "So they just went home, problem solved," says Ms. Hampton. "We could hear about the kids, but we didn't have to see them."

Ms. Hampton decided Lucy Camden, still a big part of the series, would suffer a miscarriage, losing both twins. "You have to do what you have to do," Ms. Hampton says.

Another daughter, Ruthie Camden, went off to school in Scotland in the finale in May. She will be returning, but not until deep into the season. "She's going to have to stay there until we find enough money to bring her back," says Ms. Hampton. Meantime, viewers should expect to see the Rev. and Mrs. Camden conducting one-sided phone calls to check in on her. Simon Camden, portrayed by David Gallagher, will stay at school permanently. Mr. Gallagher opted not to sign a new contract -- a move that saved the show about $100,000 a week.

The parents, long the show's central characters, are also causing headaches for Ms. Hampton. Portrayed by Stephen Collins and Catherine Hicks, the Rev. and Mrs. Camden have appeared in every episode of the series until now. But Paramount offered Ms. Hicks a contract to appear in only 10 of the 13 new episodes to save money.

During Monday's premiere episode, viewers got a glimpse of how Ms. Hampton plans to handle the character's absence. In a scene discussing Mary's new twins, Mrs. Camden mentioned that she might go visit her. "Mary is very tired," the actress intoned. "She needs my help."

Bringing back such a well-known show on a shoestring budget is a risk, says Michael Roberts, the CW's executive vice president of current programming. Some diehard fans are sure to notice the nips and tucks, while others may have a problem with the lack of family in a family show. Only four of the seven Camden children remain on the series.

To compensate, Ms. Hampton dreamed up a solution: In a future episode, the family will take in a trio of homeless teenagers named T-Bone, Jane and Margaret. The actors hired to fill the roles are less expensive than the departed cast members because they are less experienced and will be only guests and not regulars. "When a show gets a certain amount of miles on its tires there are bound to be bumps in the road," Mr. Roberts says. "For the most part this series is enduring very nicely."

Fans of the show are grateful to have it back, but wary of the future. "I'd rather have a slimmed-down version of the show than none at all," says Tim Reuter, a Chicago attorney. But he adds: "I'm going to evaluate the first couple of episodes to see if it's still worth the time."

Mr. Roberts says he is confident about the prospects of "7th Heaven" going forward partly because of a new story line Ms. Hampton created for this season. The Rev. Camden will soon be diagnosed with a fatal heart disease that will roil all of the characters on the show. Ms. Hampton is keeping exactly what happens to him under wraps, but if the show does well in the ratings this fall, his health could certainly improve.


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