It took years for The Playboy Club to hop into primetime. It took NBC three weeks to kill it.
Quick cancellations are nothing new in TV, but the rapid demise of The Playboy Club might serve as a cautionary tale for programmers as they depend more on familiar franchises and icons to attract distracted viewers.
With so much competition for the attention of viewers, network execs are looking for anything that might give them an edge in marketing and awareness — which is why so many remakes with familiar titles are hitting the air. The Playboy Club wasn't a reboot of an old show, but rather an original series looking to leverage a popular global brand.
NBC liked that the name "Playboy" would at least cut through the clutter of fall TV's slew of new series launches. "Many programmers would look at it and say, 'Here's a huge brand that should be able to give us baked-in awareness," says one insider.
But the brand may have ultimately prevented audiences from even sampling what was ultimately a rather tepid period crime drama. "It was a fundamentally flawed concept," the insider adds. "It's a soap, which inherently appeals to women. But it's a brand so tied to men. I just think it was doomed from the start."
Early on, the idea of building a primetime series around the Playboy brand seemed like a novel plan. After all, E! Entertainment's The Girls Next Door had helped push Playboy and founder Hugh Hefner into the mainstream — and 60 years after the magazine first launched, Playboy now seemed almost quaint and tame. At the same time, Playboy had just begun to license its name to a new chain of Playboy Clubs (which had been dormant for 20 years) in locations such as Macau and Las Vegas, making it an actual, active business again.
The show also boasted some pretty hefty auspices. If anyone was going to produce a series set in the world of Playboy, it was going to be Imagine TV. Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer — who even has a vintage Playboy pinball machine outside his Beverly Hills office — has been eager to produce a feature film about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner since at least 1999, when he first secured the icon's life rights. Three years later, Imagine also gained the archival rights to Playboy content to use as source material for projects. Oliver Stone was attached to the Hefner biopic at one point, and Brett Ratner later came on board, with Robert Downey, Jr. rumored to star.
But while the feature idea crept along, TV was about to dive right in. In 2009, NBC first bought the script Bunny Tales, about 1960s-era cocktail waitresses working at The Playboy Club, from Imagine and 20th Century Fox TV. But that project, from writer Becky Mode, didn't make it to the pilot stage. A year later, Imagine and 20th tried again, this time with a script by Chad Hodge.
By then, AMC's Mad Men — which even set an episode inside a Playboy Club — had made it cool to set your show in the swinging '60s. And new NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, looking to make a big splash in a short amount of time, was enamored enough with the idea of a Playboy-branded series that in January he gave the show, rechristened Playboy (and later amended to The Playboy Club), his first pilot order at the network.
Early on, there were a few hiccups: Newcomer Jeff Hephner was originally cast as the show's lead but days later replaced by Eddie Cibrian after the show's first table read. But by May, it was clear that fourth-place NBC was eager to put big names and big ideas on the screen as it looked to turn things around. A pre-sold title like The Playboy Club was worth a try. As a matter of fact, when NBC greenlit the show to series, the network stipulated that "Playboy" had to be in the show's title. Insiders said an alternative title, such as dusting off Bunny Tales, wasn't even discussed.
Execs at Imagine and 20th Century Fox TV, which always assumed the title would be changed, were surprised. "That brand is so established in its meaning, so embedded in the conciousness of the audience, for good and for bad," says one insider.
Then came the backlash, which revolved solely around the title, as NBC's Salt Lake City affiliate, owned by the Mormon church, refused to air a show with Playboy in its name. Several groups called for a boycott of NBC stations that aired the show, as well as advertisers that appeared during its commercial breaks. Even women's rights leader Gloria Steinem, who famously wrote in the 1960s about going undercover at a Playboy Club, advocated a boycott.
But most of those cultural critics hadn't actually seen the show. The TV critics who had watched the pilot weren't impressed, perhaps in part because the controversy belied the fact that The Playboy Club was ultimately a run-of-the-mill drama. Says an exec: "Most women look at the show's title and say, 'It's not the show for me, it's a show for my husband. Their husband looks at it and sees there's no T-and-A, because it's on broadcast."
In other words, viewers intrigued by the Playboy name were disappointed by the lack of titillation. Viewers who might be interested in the show's mainstream stories were turned off by the word "Playboy." Net result? No viewers.
In the end, saddled with a weak lead-in (The Sing-Off), bad reviews and too much negative baggage, The Playboy Club never even opened. The show debuted to 5 million viewers, dropping to 3.4 million by Week 3. "I'm sorry NBC's The Playboy Club didn't find its audience," Hefner wrote on Twitter. "It should have been on cable, aimed at a more adult audience."
Hodge told Out magazine that he thought The Playboy Club might fit better on another NBC Universal network like Bravo. But he won't get the chance to find out: 20th and Imagine have no plans to shop the show elsewhere. "If the show were hugely well-reviewed and there was a groundswell of support from a core group of viewers there maybe would be some potential," an exec says. "But it only aired a few times and dropped every week." Adds another exec: "It was an idea targeted at one audience, but a brand connection that unfortunately was at odds with who that audience is."