What do these shows have in common? They all debuted at some point during this soon-to-wrap TV season, yet each saw their run either cut surprisingly short or handicapped by irregular scheduling. Was 2005-06 the worst year ever to sample a new show? Were the networks especially hasty in deciding the fate of freshman series? TVGuide.com consulted a panel of experts with unique points of view to examine this strange little season gone by.
Are New Shows Getting Short Shrift?
Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC entertainment programming and scheduling, dismisses the suggestion that prime time is a crueler-than-ever proving ground for new series. "Emily's [Reasons Why Not] being pulled after one week... that is unusual. But I don't think shows are being pulled any quicker this year than in the past," he maintains, pointing out that In Justice delivered its entire 13-episode first season, and Fred Savage's Crumbs survived several airings. "A lot of shows come on for a four-, five-, six-week trial run. That's often the plan."
Yet Marc Berman, television analyst for MediaWeek.com, tears pages from the broadcast history books to argue that networks should exhibit more patience, certainly longer than six weeks, when evaluating newcomers. "This is my philosophy: You have to believe in your show, you have to believe that viewers will watch it, you have to find a time period that you think would work best, and you have to promote it and let viewers find it," he says. "It's rare a show, like Desperate Housewives, launches as a big hit. More often than not, it takes time to find an audience."
Citing reasons to play the waiting game, Berman says, "Seinfeld, for the first year and a half, didn't have much of an audience. Cheers initially had nothing. All in the Family had nothing. A drama like The Waltons didn't have the initial audience it built that first season. There are a lot of examples where if the networks were impatient, they would not have found themselves with hit shows."
Robert Thompson, professor at Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Pop Culture, concurs, saying "to introduce a show and eliminate it after three showings" especially in today's age of multichannel offerings, where it takes viewers longer to "find" a new favorite "is ludicrous." Still, he understands how and why certain decisions are being made, particularly when it comes to serialized dramas such as Fox's Reunion and ABC's Invasion (the latter was handicapped by extended hiatuses in its first year). "In most cases here, it's not a matter of not being patient with a low rating that might climb. It's not being patient with a rating that starts out at X and every week goes to X minus Y. That's the kiss of death. That means that the people who have tuned in didn't like it and are tuning out."
But what of the loyal and ardent few who believe in a show, who long to see its promise explored? The cancellation of Reunion, a show whose very concept lay in a murder mystery unspooling over a full season of 20 episodes, was met with disbelief and anger by its emotional audience. But as the saying goes, it's business, not personal. "[Paying mind to] the narrative integrity of a show like that is not where these decisions are being made," says Thompson. "If they saw that Reunion had started low [in the ratings] and was progressively losing its audience, there was no way they were going to keep it on to satisfy the six million or however many that were watching it. Not when it's essentially killing the time slot."
Location, Location, Location
As in real estate, location is everything. So while an audience of five to seven million is "still a lot of people... more than watch a hit show on a cable network" (as ABC's Bader points out), the science of scheduling is dependent on more factors than how many are tuning in. For example, who's not tuning in? And how many are checking out a time-slot competitor? Assessing a show's performance, Bader says, depends on "how much the network believes creatively in the project and how crucial the time period is [to that network's overall strategy]," as well as the answers to such questions as "Can you live with a lower number because no one is really blazing the time period, or are you actually benefiting a rival show by leaving yours where it is? There are a lot of factors."
Some factors are out of even the mightiest network exec's hands. Take Commander in Chief, which opened very strong last fall to a viewership of 16 million only to be saddled by not one but two show-runner changes and accompanying hiatuses. "You can't air episodes if they don't exist," Bader says, "and for the month of December, there were no episodes." Come February sweeps, Commander's inventory was refreshed, yet again the drama was sidelined. "We would have aired some episodes, but it really was just not working in the [Tuesdays-at-9] time period." Bader admits, "I do think the show was hurt by having to be off the air so many times in its first 13 weeks." [Commander has since been shelved for the remainder of May sweeps.]
Such time-slot tinkering can do far more harm than good, Berman believes. "Critics liked Bernie Mac and it had an audience, but then Fox moved it again and again, to the point where viewers got confused and stopped watching it. They basically killed it." [To be fair, the comedy just marked its 100th episode.] Other examples from Berman: "CBS immediately moved Courting Alex from Monday to Wednesday, then yanked it after two episodes. NBC advertised they were running [Celebrity Cooking Showdown] Monday to Friday, but yanked it after Wednesday and burned it off is a Saturday double-episode. That's not how you run a network. You have to make a commitment to your viewer. Stop moving things around."
Many point admiringly to the "24 style" of programming blow through a full season without ever stopping for repeats as an approach that could benefit shows with similar tones (think Invasion). While that is enticing to execs, it simply isn't always feasible. "We did that first with NYPD Blue eons ago, and also with Alias," Bader notes. "It's a nice luxury, and Invasion absolutely would have benefited from that, but that means you can't premiere a show until January. And especially with your top shows, it's very hard to hold them off that long."
What's in a Name?
Trotting out again the most glaring example of the year, Emily's Reasons Why Not was met by dismal reviews, but still it's Heather Graham, "movie star." Surely she doesn't come cheap, and ABC obviously had production and promotional monies invested in her series debut. Similarly, that was Dougray Scott of Mission: Impossible II fame fronting NBC's unceremoniously yanked Heist. How does one rationalize the bum's rush for big names?
Professor Thompson says Boogie Nights' Rollergirl is but the latest example of a film star failing to shine on the smaller screen. "Oscar winner Sally Field's The Court? Three episodes," he recalls. "George C. Scott, another Oscar winner, barely eked a year out of Mr. President. Oliver Stone tried to do a miniseries [Wild Palms] and it didn't do any business. Geena Davis, another Oscar winner, is on her third producer now at Commander in Chief. When it comes to people with pedigree, many are called, few are chosen." Conversely, holding up the tremendously successful Friends as an example, Thompson notes, "When you look at the shows that have really done well, nobody had heard of any of [their cast members]."
Reality Versus Fiction
Of course it's easy to theorize that the grotesque (in a good way) ratings enjoyed by such unscripted fare as American Idol (which is drawing close to 30 million a night in this its fifth season) and Deal or No Deal (the newbie game show reeling in 16 million a week) may be distorting the picture for programming execs. But experts doubt that is the case. "You can't compare anything to Idol," says Berman, "because it's in a class of its own. It's a different type of hit show."
Thompson adds, "It's not so much that Idol is setting the bar high. What's being looked at is when a show like Lost, which is just as complicated if not more than Reunion, gets killer ratings. With something like Reunion or Invasion, you only get a little chance to see whether they're going to take off or not. You've got to cut bait early on, because there's nothing like a complex serialized drama to totally tank once it has started that process."
Rather, if you want to debut a drama, Berman suggests thinking CSI versus thirtysomething. "You have to remember that in television, there haven't been too many relationship-drama hits. That's just the nature of the game."
When All Is Said and Done, Is Patience a Lost Virtue?
While the examples and certain opinions discussed above might indicate that fans' pleas for patience never again will be heard, Berman, for one, says not to lose hope. "No, I don't think the days of showing patience are over. Look at a show like Arrested Development. People can complain all they want, but Fox ran it for almost three seasons. They couldn't walk away from it because it was up for so many Emmys, so they gave it time to try to find an audience. Scrubs is not a hit show and has never been, but NBC has been patient and they brought it back for a fifth season."
Do "Save [insert show name here]" online petitions fulfill their perceived promise of letting disgruntled viewers' voices be sufficiently heard? "Probably not," admits Thompson. "A million [signatures] could come in, but in the end what the network is selling is their audience size as measured by the ratings. Unless all of that outrage and the letters translate into people, it doesn't matter."
In other words, at the end of the day there will always be fans who latch onto a new series only to wonder weeks later where it went. As the song goes, everybody loves somebody sometime. Or, as Bader puts it, "Every show is somebody's favorite."