Lifetime eyes multicamera comedy

New production plan for pilots

Lifetime is looking to make its first foray into the multicamera comedy format with a new production model that allows the network bigger ownership and a way to strip a show.

The network has inked a deal with Media Rights Capital for two multicamera comedy pilots, "Libertyville," starring Christine Ebersole and executive produced by Caryn Mandabach, and "Rita Rocks." Both pilots will be overseen by Mindy Schultheis and Michael Hanel ("Reba"), who have joined MRC in a hybrid executive-producer capacity.

Lifetime might pick up one or both of the pilots to series. If not, MRC will produce two more pilots. One of the four is guaranteed to go to series.

Such off-network multicamera comedies as "Frasier," "Will & Grace," "Still Standing" and especially "Reba" have done well for Lifetime.

Faced with a drying-up pipeline of family sitcoms as broadcast networks are moving away from the multicamera format, "We thought, wouldn't it be great to create our own sitcom to run initially weekly and then stripped?" Lifetime entertainment president Susanne Daniels said.

Under the agreement with MRC, Lifetime will co-own the series they do together. Lifetime also will have a share of the profits if the series is sold into syndication.

"We control domestic in perpetuity -- it's a luxury, and I think it's a game-changer in the business," Daniels said.

MRC TV head Keith Samples has a background in multicamera comedies -- his Rysher Entertainment produced the long-running sitcom "Saved by the Bell."

He sparked to Daniels' interest in the genre and worked out a business model that would benefit both sides.

"We came up with that plan, trying to give her better odds for hitting success," Samples said. "It also works for us as we want to be in the episodic production business, not in the development business."

Since MRC entered the primetime arena with the appointment of Samples in the summer, the indie company has landed three straight-to-series orders at ABC, HBO and Comedy Central.

Once it's ordered to series, the plan for the MRC-produced Lifetime series is to begin airing weekly while going on an accelerated production schedule to quickly amass enough episodes to start running Monday-Friday.

"Liberty¬ville," written and executive produced by Tom Saunders, is set in Saunders' hometown of Libertyville, Ohio, and centers on Susie (Ebersole), a divorced mother fearful of dating whose life is complicated by her lazy 22-year-old daughter and cantankerous father who live with her. Tony winner Ebersole is repped by APA.

The project marks veteran sitcom producer Mandabach's return to the genre once dominated by her former company, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach.

She got the initial idea for "Libertyville" a couple of years ago after reading an article in the British press about the so-called "sandwich generation" woman who has to take in and look after her parents and grown children who can't afford to live on their own -- "people she may or may not care about so much," Mandabach said.

The project originally was developed at Lionsgate TV, which reverted the rights to Mandabach when her deal was up. She then took it to Lifetime.

"They are very good with strong characters, and I hope it will be a great match for them," Mandabach said.

"Rita," penned and executive produced by Stan Zimmerman and Jim Berg, centers on an overworked wife and mother in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis who starts a garage band with her postwoman and neighbor.

Both pilots will be shot back-to-back in March in Los Angeles in front of a live audience.