Fall shows put nets in limbo

Mediocre ratings are rewarded with pickups

With primetime ratings hitting all-time lows, it’s more difficult than ever to know when to cheer — and when to panic.

As a result, network programmers are actually practicing the patience they preach and have stuck with more of those marginal first-year ratings performers this season.

“It’s a fact of life, you have time periods where a 13 or 14 share is a gigantic hit,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s senior VP of program planning and scheduling. “That’s the world we’re dealing with now … There are fewer shows at both extremes, the clear successes and the clear failures.”

With the exception of CBS drama “CSI: Miami,” a spinoff of the monster Thursday hit, and ABC laffer “8 Simple Rules,” no new program appears a lock to return next season.

There are also other solid performers (including the WB’s “Everwood” and the Eye’s “Without a Trace”), but alongside them are an unusually high number of rookie series still scratching and clawing despite tame Nielsens. Shows such as CBS’ “Presidio Med” and Fox’s “Firefly” are in limbo, where they probably don’t deserve to stay on the air, but also don’t necessarily warrant cancellation.

Webheads have also apparently finally figured out the dirty little secret of canceling shows: Midseason replacement series, more often than not, will even do worse.

“I think all the networks are paying for their lack of patience by the fact that we do have the kind of numbers that we have now,” says Preston Beckman, Fox exec VP program planning and scheduling. “Networks have not allowed shows to percolate or marinate, and viewers have gotten to the point where they say, ‘Why should we commit to shows?’ And now we have low ratings.”

Scheduling gurus like Metcalf and Beckman say patience makes sense for a lot of reasons, including the high cost of having to launch a new show.

“It doesn’t pay to panic and make a rash decision,” Metcalf says. “If you take a show off after six weeks, you’re going to have to replace it with something else, spend a lot of promotional resources and ad dollars to launch it — and then you have unused episodes of the old show that get thrown in the garbage can.”

Patience can be rewarded, of course, as often cited by the eventual mega successes of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Touched by an Angel” and NBC’s “Seinfeld,” none of which popped a big number out of the box.

This season, ABC hopes to do the same with Tuesday laffers “Life with Bonnie” and “Less than Perfect.”

The Alphabet web rewarded both skeins with full-season orders even though their ratings so far have been, well, less than perfect. But ABC execs believe in the shows, and their strategy appears to be working. After dipping in November, both shows are showing new signs of life in December.

Fox, meanwhile, hasn’t yet given up on action drama “Fastlane,” which has revved up less-than-desirable ratings after a pretty good start. The net still believes in the show, however, and feels at least part of the downturn for the show can be attributed to airing opposite ABC’s popular “The Bachelor.”

As a result, “Fastlane” will get another shot on Fridays at 8 in January.

“Firefly,” which “Fastlane” is replacing on Fridays, is another drama that hasn’t been shown the door despite regularly placing fourth in its slot. It’s not on the net’s January sked, but because it’s generating passable male demos, it could return to fill out its episode order on another night.

A couple of CBS dramas — Friday’s “Hack” and Wednesday’s “Presidio Med” — aren’t wowing auds but have given orders for additional episodes.

“Hack” isn’t much of a factor in key demos but has drawn enough older viewers to place second for its hour in overall auds, while “Presidio” has struggled opposite “Law & Order” but is getting some tweaks prior to its January relaunch.

NBC’s comedy “In-Laws” and drama “Boomtown” are also hanging around into the new year despite middling success.

“In-Laws,” airing in the tough NBC slot of Tuesday at 8:30, hasn’t made much of an impression yet. But it fared decently in a 9:30 post-“Frasier” airing and could get another shot there.

As for “Boomtown,” it continues to perform better than “UC: Undercover” from a year ago, but not by much. It’s garnered the best reviews for any new show this season, though, so NBC may be patient since the show isn’t killing the night.

Over at the WB, the net hasn’t axed any of its new laffers, even though “Family Affair” and “Do Over” barely register on Nielsen’s charts on Thursday and “What I Like About You” and “Greetings From Tucson” aren’t exactly lighting things up on Friday.

The net likes the direction of the shows, though — unlike its drama “Birds of Prey,” which was canceled despite decent ratings — and will look to try different combinations of these shows around its only real comedy hit, “Reba.”

And UPN is sticking with its update of “The Twilight Zone,” even though it’s retaining just 60% of its “Enterprise” lead-in.

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