‘MacGyver’ – ABC Series With Staying Power

ABC’s “MacGyver” is, you might say, a show that gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Come Emmy Awards time, it’s completely overlooked. To the media, it’s not a “hot” show, one that gets written about or commented upon frequently. To it’s network, it’s a functional Monday night show, one that can play before or after “Monday Night Football.” To local stations, it’s a program that can be slotted into the schedule wherever they want – 7 p.m. in Chicago on WLS-Ch. 7, 8 p.m. in New York, 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, and – the ultimate indignity – midnight in Seattle. Eight percent of ABC’s affiliate stations across the nation do not even carry “MacGyver.” For all this, it is a surprisingly resilient show. Having just completed it’s fourth season and already slotted on ABC’s 1989-90 prime-time schedule, it is one show that constantly achieves respectable ratings from audiences.

Here in Canada, executive producer Steve Downing introduces another factor that counts as a strike against “MacGyver.” “Because Vancouver isn’t a media center, it’s hard for the press to get access,” he says. “And that means less exposure for Rick.”
“Rick” is Richard Dean Anderson, who plays the title role. His character is a thinking man’s hero, a nonviolent man working for the philanthropic Phoenix Foundation, a guy who applies his huge knowledge of science to complete dangerous missions, or extricate himself from trouble.

More than anyone else, Anderson has spoken out about the show’s underdog status. It frustrates him. “There has been apparent nonsupport from the network,” he says. “Although last season, they indicated they were very happy with the ratings we were getting. So we’ve been able to relax our attitude a little.” Relations between Anderson and the network allegedly became distinctly frosty at one juncture, however. “I was on the verge of burning some bridges,” he admits. “ABC was unhappy with the way I was mouthing off.”
Rather than complain, Anderson – whose credits include a daytime role on ABC’s “General Hospital” and stints on two CBS series, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1982-83) and “Emerald Point, N.A.S.” (1983-84) – now prefers to sing the praises of “MacGyver.”
“We have a strong moral center to our show,” he says. “I think that’s what people love.” Still he permits himself to grouse about the show’s time period. Noting that the audience for “MacGyver” is predominantly male and overwhelmingly young, Anderson points out the disadvantage of being aired in some cities after 8 o’clock. “Monday night’s a school night,” he says.

Downing echoes Anderson’s thoughts. “In some cities, our younger audience has gone to bed,” he says. “We’re designed as an action- adventure show.” At the same time, Downing says he can almost understand the network’s attitude, “We’re not a prestigious show,” he says almost ruefully. “We’re not going to win any Emmys. But we do serve a purpose. If I was an ABC executive, I’d be saying, ‘hey, moms and dads, look what we have for you. A lot of production values, a good-thinking hero, a role model for your children.” Still, he concedes “you’d want to be associated with ‘L.A. Law’ rather than us. It’s a natural thing to want to be on a show that gets the reviews.”

“MacGyver” is one of a growing number of shows being shot in Canada. The acclaimed CBS series “Wiseguy” is shot in Vancouver by the Stephen Cannell company, which also makes “21 Jump Street” for Fox. The Davy Crockett Stories on “Magical World of Disney” were produced here, as are about a dozen movies of the week each season. Toronto was home to the CBS late-night series “White Heat.”

Apart from the problem that he can’t be as visible here as in Hollywood, Anderson likes working in Vancouver. “The crews certainly believe in the work ethic,” he says. “But at the same time, the atmosphere is a little looser than it would be in Hollywood.”
For his own part, Downing has had problems in dealing with Canadian labor unions, which often insist on using local crew members behind the camera rather than more skilled crews from Los Angeles. Why would Hollywood-based studio’s such as Cannell’s and Paramount (which produces “MacGyver”) want to shoot in Vancouver? For two reasons: It’s cheaper and the shows can look different. “Our show relies a lot on exterior shots,” Downing says, “and I feel as if Los Angeles is all used up.” He refers to Indian Dunes, an area about 30 miles north of Los Angeles, where a lot of wilderness scenes are frequently shot: “I feel as if I know every square inch of Indian Dunes, and I feel as if the viewers do, too. The thing about “MacGyver” is that it is an international show,” he says, “so we need our exteriors to reflect that difference in look.”
The Vancouver area is ideally equipped for such demands. Within 30 miles of downtown, there are urban and suburban areas, wilderness, ski resorts, mountains and forests. And it’s province, British Columbia, has an energetic film commission boasting about it. Whether “MacGyver,” which employs about 160 Canadians and a dozen Americans, will stay in Vancouver is uncertain. But it’s a show that continues to get renewed season after season, even though “action-adventure shows don’t usually last four seasons,” Downing says.

Anderson thinks that “integrity and attention to detail” is what has helped “MacGyver” to hang in. “The crew busts its butt every week to produce a quality show,” he notes. “And there’s a lot of time spent on getting things right.” Money, too – behind Anderson while he relaxed between scenes was an enormous cave setting inside a sound stage, constructed at a cost of $80,000.
“We have a very loyal audience,” says Anderson. “It’s one of those shows that people who watch it like it lot. And I’m very happy with it myself. The producers and writers listen to my input, and what more can any actor ask? I’ll do this show until it runs out of gas – or the audience loses interest.”

David Gritten, Chicago Tribune (TV Week section), 16 July 1989.


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