WAS IT REALLY JUST 13 YEARS AGO that I sat on the phone with Roseanne and Tom Arnold, listening to them trash ABC execs for canceling the latter’s sitcom vehicle, “The Jackie Thomas Show,” which was falling 30% off its “Roseanne” lead-in? Ah, memories.
At the time, no one except the then-couple and their then-handlers could have seriously protested such a decision, given the expectations for such satellite programs positioned to draft off the coattails of an established hit. A test pattern, the theory went, could have retained a higher percentage of viewers.
Yet with the networks unveiling their primetime fall lineups, it’s interesting to see how long-held convictions about scheduling — terms like “lead-in” and “audience flow” and “tentpoles” — have changed in the past few years, as well as how doggedly they’re hanging on in the face of new schedule-busting technology.
We live, after all, in the Burger King, “Have it your way” era of TV viewing, with TiVo and related DVR products allowing the audience (OK, a few million elitists in Manhattan and L.A.) to record and set their own nightly TV menus.
Before that, the simple combination of an expanded cable roster and the remote control caused the floor to drop out on how many viewers a program can lose. This season, Fox sitcoms such as “Life on a Stick” and “Stacked” have at times plummeted nearly 60% below their stratospheric lead-in from the Wednesday edition of “American Idol,” while “Boston Legal” experienced its own precipitous swoon post-“Desperate Housewives” and still earned a renewal.
Serious about series
For the second year in a row, moreover, ABC’s upfront presentation of its revised schedule dispensed with the customary time-period analysis — you know, offering predictions like “Look for ‘Wife Swap’ to lead horny husbands and bored wives, ages 25-54, into ‘Monday Night Football.’ ” Instead, the network centered its focus squarely on the programs themselves, in essence saying: “Here are our new series. Know them. Love them. Just please don’t do any Vanity Fair photo shoots on them.”
Undoubtedly, standards have radically evolved from old models. CBS’ “Without a Trace” is rightfully considered a success, despite yielding roughly the same portion of “CSI’s” lead-in that got the aforementioned “Jackie Thomas” whacked. On various nights, viewers deftly flit from one channel to another, programming their own lineups, and ABC’s “Lost” exploded at 8 o’clock, proving the ultimate self-starter.
At the same time, faith in the power of lead-ins and concepts like audience flow remains a central tenet of the network equation, with ample evidence that viewers will at least take a gander at what’s “coming up next,” either through inertia or in fear of those baritone-voiced announcers.
Fox’s “House” stumbled through the fall before its EKG finally sparked once “Idol” landed in front of it. Consider the mismatched fortunes of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Eyes,” both launched in the spring to favorable reviews, with the former blossoming after “Housewives” and the latter getting punched out on Wednesday night.
NBC, meanwhile, laid most of the blame for its primetime slump on the weakness of its night-opening programs, with NBC TV group prexy Jeff Zucker stating that 8 p.m. shows (7 o’clock Central) is “really where we fell down this year,” handicapping the series that followed.
At some point, inevitably, TV is expected to morph into a grand video jukebox, spitting out programs (all of them, somehow, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) at our beck and call. A system that user-friendly and convenient is going to win converts.
That pull, however, continues to be balanced by a formidable push. Live coverage of sports and news events, which can’t be so readily time-shifted, remains a powerful counterweight. In addition, the social nature of the viewing experience — including the modern innovation of Internet chatrooms — requires many to hungrily consume favorite programs in the first possible exhibition, if only to prevent their geek friends from spoiling them.
Networks need to experiment with new scheduling approaches, perhaps even toying with previously unthinkable methods of launching series — something like, “Thanks for watching the first half of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ The conclusion will air after this intermission, during which we’ll show you ‘Jake in Progress.’ ”
For all the confusion about the future, though, two observations feel certain: Those old-fashioned scheduling grids still mean something, and in today’s ultra-competitive TV environment, even being hammocked between the tentpoles of “American Idol” and “CSI” wouldn’t have saved “Jackie Thomas.”