Rookies do well in Spring bow, but falter against stronger competish

ABC execs were euphoric last spring, as “What About Joan” preemed to strong reviews and some of the Alphabet web’s best midseason premiere ratings in years.

Net execs promptly picked up the Joan Cusack starrer for fall even though only eight episodes had run. Returning Oct. 2, “Joan” was yanked after two airings.

What happened? The same thing that has befallen a clutch of midseason hopefuls, from “Soul Man” and “It’s Like, You Know” to “Getting Personal.”

While spring brings irrational exuberance to webheads, it’s not a good time to get an accurate read on whether new shows will catch on.

That’s because late-season entries frequently launch big.

Midseason shows benefit from heavy marketing campaigns, usually in big events like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and (this year) the Olympics.

And, unlike their fall counterparts, midseason shows launch against repeats and less clutter.

“It’s easy to get a decent number for your first four or five shows against repeats,” says CBS scheduling guru Kelly Kahl. “But you can’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a hit show after a few episodes.”

It takes a strong show like “The Practice” (which debuted in March 1997) and “My Wife and Kids” (March 2001) to break the spring curse.

Still, one can’t blame network execs for getting excited when a midseason show pops.

They’re entering the tail end of the season bruised and battered. Most of their freshman skeins have already been axed, and by March, reality specials, newsmags and repeats of hit series have been called into duty to fill those gaping schedule holes.

Along comes a midseason show with some promise, and webheads can suddenly ride a wave of momentum heading into the May upfronts.

“The biggest danger in all of this stuff is to make sure you’re not getting a ‘false positive,'” says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker.

After all, most series take weeks or months to settle into a permanent groove; execs only have a few weeks’ worth of ratings before they have to decide a midseason show’s fate for next season — compared to an entire year’s worth of results from fall shows.

Even if a late midseason show exhibits potential, and it’s picked up for fall, much of that energy is squashed during the long summer.

Most skeins that launch in March only have six-episode orders — hardly enough to repeat over the summer and develop some solid viewer traction. On top of that, when fall arrives, the nets focus their marketing dollars on new series — and that returning midseason show gets lost in the shuffle.

Thus when NBC enlisted midseason laffer “Daddio” in fall 2000 to open up Monday nights — even though the show had virtually no track record, only a five-episode run that previous spring — “Daddio” was dead-io after just four tries that October.

For the most part, nets have looked at January as TV’s fertile midseason launching pad.

Success stories like Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” have taken some of the stigma away from debuting mid-year. In comparison, March remains the home for shows that are either being burned off or are last-minute attempts at squeezing out a semi-hit before the upfronts.

This year’s a little different. The networks are launching more late-season entries than usual due to the Winter Olympics and the season’s late start.

“A lot of people were hesitant to get something on the air in January, knowing that for two weeks you weren’t going to be able to sustain those shows (opposite the Olympics),” Beckman says.

Unlike most years, this crop of midseason shows will be up against more first-run competition, which should help execs get a more accurate read on those skeins’ performances.

Still, it’s too soon to tell whether any of this spring’s entries are long-term players.

NBC’s “Waking Ellie” started off strong the last week of February, but lost almost half of its auds by its fourth episode. Peacock execs will have to think long and hard about bringing “Ellie” back for another year.

CBS’ “Baby Bob” and Fox’s “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” also opened to strong numbers last week, while ABC has hopes for “George Lopez” and “The Court.”

But all of those new series won’t have too long to strut their stuff before judgement day: The upfronts are less than two months away.

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