Never more for ‘Once’

ABC finally pulls plug

HOLLYWOOD — It’s over and out for “Once and Again,” the critically acclaimed ABC drama from Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick that never quite caught on with a mass aud.

Ending months of speculation over the show’s fate, ABC announced last week that it would air the series finale of “Once and Again” April 15.

Herskovitz and Zwick were informed of the cancellation Thursday; the producers said they’d been expecting the news for some time. Already shot, the final episode of “Once and Again” was produced with the assumption that it would serve as the show’s endpoint.

“We had held on to some hope (that the show would continue), but made an episode that tied up some loose ends and at least gave a respectful end to the series, while opening new avenues in case we did go on,” Herskovitz told Daily Variety.

“We did do something at the end that’s really kind of a ‘thank you’ to the audience,” he said. “When we told ABC we were doing that, they said go ahead — which was another indication the show was probably going away.”

End was in sight

The writing had been on the wall for some time before January, when ABC reduced the show’s episodic order from 22 to 19. Net now hopes to garner interest in the series leading up to its finale.

“For the past three seasons, we’ve been incredibly proud of the creative work done on ‘Once and Again,’ ” ABC Entertainment prexy Susan Lyne said. “We owe it to Marshall and Ed, and the phenomenal cast they assembled, to give the series a great sendoff.”

In the end, Touchstone Television and Herskovitz and Zwick’s Bedford Falls produced 63 episodes of “Once and Again,” which debuted in September 1999. Show stars Sela Ward (who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her perf) and Billy Campbell as divorced people who meet and fall in love.

“It’s sad to see the masterful work of everyone involved coming to an end, but this sendoff is the right ending for those individuals and the devoted fans,” said Touchstone TV prexy Steve McPherson.

“Once” was among the first wave of primetime skeins to be repurposed on a cable web; in this case, Lifetime continues to air episodes just days after the initial ABC run.

But Herskovitz said the cost of keeping “Once and Again” in firstrun production is prohibitive for a cable net like Lifetime.

ABC had argued in the past that it made a profit on “Once and Again” despite its low ratings, as advertisers paid a premium to air a spot during the show. But the show slumped to anemic lows this year.

Season-to-date, “Once” has averaged just a 2.8 rating/8 share among adults 18-49, compared with a 4.2/11 last season. Show attracted 6.5 million viewers this year, down from 8.5 million last year.

Freshman peak

“Once and Again” peaked in its freshman year, when the show attracted 10.9 million viewers and pulled a 5.3/14 in the demo.

“The show was never going to be a hit,” Herskovitz said. “Even at our best, it was marginal in terms of ratings. It’s a reality of what we do and the reality of the TV landscape. … Our show was a difficult one to program. It doesn’t fit in with some of the other things they do.”

Indeed, ABC never found a suitable home for “Once and Again,” shuttling the show seven times during its short life. More often than not, “Once” found itself leasing, rather than owning, another program’s timeslot.

The show premiered in September 1999 in “NYPD Blue’s” Tuesday night slot, then moved to Monday at 10 p.m. in January 2000 when “Monday Night Football” ended its season run. “Once” moved back to “NYPD Blue’s” slot in fall 2000 when “Monday Night Football” returned.

Then “Blue” came back in January 2001, forcing “Once” to pack its bags again — moving this time to Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

For once, “Once and Again” wasn’t keeping someone else’s slot warm. But it wasn’t meant to last.

Friday flap

For the show’s return in fall 2001, ABC decided to air “Once” temporarily in “20/20’s” Friday night digs. Not only did the move upset “20/20” anchor Barbara Walters, but “Once” failed to pick up steam in the slot. Show slid down to Fridays at 9 p.m. this January, but that lasted only two weeks.

As a last hurrah, “Once” returned to Mondays at 10 p.m. on March 4. By then, jet lag had taken its toll.

Those moves didn’t stop “Once” from developing a small but fiercely loyal fan base. “Once” fans lobbied ABC hard to keep the show, even buying full-page ads in trade publications such as Daily Variety to plead their case.

“The outpouring of affection and passion for the show has been astounding to us,” Herskovitz said. “People did care. That’s why you do this work.”

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