Modestly rated vets may be in danger of cancellation
Watch streaming video of Josef Adalian discuss why shows don’t get cheaper as they go deeper on Variety Vision.The bubble may be about to burst on a number of long-running network shows — and, believe it or not, the women of “Desperate Housewives” may be partly to blame. ABC’s runaway hit — along with the Alphabet’s “Lost,” NBC’s “Medium,” Fox’s “House” and CBS’ “Numbers” — has some network execs suddenly bullish about the state of scripted TV. In particular, webheads are starting to believe that being bold can pay off — leaving less room for modestly performing vets with relatively big production pricetags. As a result, shows that a year ago would have been shoo-ins for renewal — think “8 Simple Rules,” “Bernie Mac,” “Third Watch” or “60 Minutes Wednesday” — find themselves on the bubble, teetering between renewal and cancellation. “People right now think conditions are ripe for getting a hit,” one insider says. “When you’re coming off a season like this, in which there are a few smash hits, that boosts everyone’s collective optimism.” Most encouraging is the fact that ABC — a network with one foot in the grave a year ago — has had the most luck finding hits this year. Competing nets with far stronger underlying skeds are now pondering whether it might be time to clear out the cobwebs and roll the dice on some newcomers. “What’s been proven this year is that it’s not a fait accompli that ratings for the networks have to go down every year,” says one network suit. The nets have already cleared some shelf space for next season. “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “NYPD Blue” started the year knowing the end was in sight. More recently, UPN’s “Star Trek: Enterprise” and the WB’s “Grounded for Life” have had their exits cast in stone. Other veterans that will have to fight their way back for another year (in addition to the ones mentioned above) include “Judging Amy,” “Third Watch,” “JAG,” the CBS Sunday Movie and “American Dreams.” ABC’s “The Bachelor” will likely be back, but probably won’t air as often. “King of the Hill” episodes will air next season, but the show might also end up with a much shorter season than usual. As with most things in network TV, however, money plays a key role in deciding the fate of a veteran skein. “Unless you can pull a ‘Boston Legal,’ shows usually don’t get cheaper as they go deeper,” one web wag observes, noting that cast and writer salary bumps can add millions to a show’s budget. At the same time costs soar, ratings almost always dip. “You look at the time period and say, ‘Am I losing money or making money?’ ” the exec adds. While it’s true that most new shows actually end up scoring lower numbers than the skeins they replaced, the frosh series often cost a hell of a lot less. “If you sacrifice two-tenths of a ratings point but the new show is $2 million cheaper, then you’ve done well,” the web suit says. In a perfect world, nets would make decisions on bubble shows right now. That way, producers could pen appropriate finales, while network marketing machines could crank up the hype and start signaling the long goodbye (remember NBC’s never-ending swan song for “Friends”?). But shows that look old and haggard in February — when nets are giddy with anticipation over their “best development season ever”– can seem a lot shinier come May after several promising pilots have crashed and burned. “Quite often, there’s a show that everyone thought was dead, and come May, you’re standing at the scheduling board and you’re literally a half-hour or hour short,” says one scheduling guru. “We shrug and say, ‘We thought we wouldn’t need it,’ and then you reach for the old show and put it on the board.”
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