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TV’s wobbly legs

Slew of nets' vet series are on the brink

With less than two months to go before the nets announce their fall 2002 skeds, producers on an unusually large number of second- and even third-year skeins are anxiously awaiting word on whether they’ll be back next fall.

While completing one full season used to be a good sign a series would have long-term legs, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Thanks to increasing competition, endless timeslot shuffling and the death of patience among network programmers, more and more frosh hits are suffering from sophomore slumps and thus in danger of cancellation — they are, as TV industry insiders put it, “on the bubble.”

Take Fox’s “Dark Angel,” which last year seemed poised to become the next big sci-fi franchise. With red-hot star Jessica Alba and an out-of-the-box cult following, the network felt it was safe to shift the skein from Tuesdays to Fridays.

“Dark Angel” hasn’t completely collapsed, but with no lead-in support whatsoever, its numbers are way down on Fridays. Now, industry observers say it’s 50/50 at best whether the skein will live to season three.

It’s got plenty of company:

  • CBS’ “Family Law” has spent three years on Mondays at 10 p.m., every one of them on the bubble. Its ratings have never been bad enough to warrant immediate death, but they’ve never soared to hit status. Skein almost certainly won’t be back on Mondays next fall, yet it’s too early to write its obit. Another Eye vets whose fate is still up in the air is “Touched by an Angel.”

  • Over at ABC, the net is weighing whether to bring back second-year cop comedy “The Job,” while third-year critical darling “Once & Again” is fighting what seems like certain death. Once-established players “Spin City” and “Dharma & Greg” are also up in the air. Alphabet’s big dilemma come May will be balancing the need to bring in fresh blood with the reality that a net can only launch a limited number of new skeins in the fall without risking total viewer confusion.

  • Second-year dramedy “Ed” and third-year drama “Third Watch” are two Peacock players with uncertain futures, though both have strong supporters inside NBC that make renewals more likely than for most bubble-floaters.

    Though NBC would’ve liked to have seen second season Nielsen growth, “Ed” has some of the richest viewers on the net, making it a fave of NBC’s sales department. And while annual timeslot shifts have damaged “Watch’s” audience, skein has a very powerful exec producer behind it: John Wells.

    Peacock also hasn’t yet picked up “Providence” for next fall, though most believe that renewal is a formality. The jury is also out on midseason laffers “Watching Ellie” and “Leap of Faith,” though the ratings erosion for the former isn’t a good sign.

  • Fox, which this season may have put together the most critically acclaimed skeds of any of the Big Four, nonetheless faces some difficult choices this May. In addition to “Dark Angel,” second- or third-season skeins on the bubble include “Titus” and “Grounded for Life,” while Monday anchor “Ally McBeal” remains one of the net’s biggest scheduling question marks.

    TV industry insiders believe one reason for the high number of veteran skeins on the bubble is the fact that nets have been renewing a number of frosh skeins that probably should have been killed after season one.

    “You’re seeing many more borderline pickups of first-year shows,” one industry wag said. “We’ve all gotten a look how easy it is to (cancel an existing show) and replace it with a 3 rating in the same time period.”

Early renewals

What’s more, veteran shows on the bubble stand out more than usual this season because so many frosh players snagged early second-season renewals last winter — or quick cancellations. Newbies like “Scrubs,” “The Guardian” and “Alias” already know they’ll be back next fall, even as producers on relative old-timer “Third Watch” sweat it out until May.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of frosh laffers and dramas whose future won’t be known for another seven weeks or so. Some of the cliffhangers promise to give net execs some serious heartburn.

CBS, for example, has to figure out whether viewers have forgiven a weak start for “The Education of Max Bickford” and are willing to give star Richard Dreyfuss and his skein another shot. Likewise, the woe-begotten souls at third-place ABC have to balance the so-so early numbers for “Philly” with the fact that the skein is from Steven Bochco and features a clear TV star — Kim Delaney– at its center.

While studio heads sometimes view their net counterparts as the enemy, webheads don’t really look forward to throwing in the towel on any show that’s made it through one, two or three seasons.

“We don’t like to cancel shows,” one exec said. “You look for any ray of hope — sales factors, demos, a ratings uptick late in the season. At the end of the day, it’s easier to give the nod to a show you’ve invested a year in than a new pilot that’s on the bubble.”

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