Networks get trigger happy

TV on quest for quick hits

The box office mentality that’s plagued the feature world for years has spread to the small screen.

Like their film counterparts, webheads have recently grown increasingly impatient, frequently condemning shows to death — or declaring them “hits” — after seeing just a few weeks of Nielsen data.

CBS, for example, pulled the John Wells-produced Ray Liotta vehicle “Smith” last week after just three airings (Daily Variety, Oct. 5). On the other end of the spectrum, NBC opted to announce a full-season order for comicbook caper “Heroes” on Thursday after just two episodes had aired.

“Everybody seems anxious to declare something a hit or miss after one or two weeks,” a network exec said. “But we all know we need to be patient with certain shows and temper our expectations.”

Still, webheads know it’s harder for shows to find themselves over time these days — hence their itchy trigger fingers. Viewers have so many options that nets need to see some sign that they’re coming to a show, or might still be convinced to sample a show, in order to resist pulling the plug.

“Give me a reason to be patient,” one longtime ratings warrior said last week.

That attitude’s particularly prevalent this year, as serialized shows dominate the fall pack. Series that practically demand auds show up week after week to keep up with storylines can foster viewer loyalty. But if people don’t show up in the first place — or if they uniformly reject that first episode — it’s unlikely they’re going to show up later, given how difficult it is to catch up on a serialized skein.

“The theory is, if you don’t get viewers pretty early, they’re not going to come in down the road,” said one net exec. “If you don’t have critical mass to start from, you’re never going to get to where you need to be.”

The tight race for adults 18-49 has also stepped up the competish, as one or two underperforming shows can make the difference between worst and first.

Helping feed the frenzied atmosphere behind such hair-trigger decision-making: intense scrutiny of the ratings race by both the media and the blogosphere.

Big papers once waited several weeks, if not a month, before weighing in on the early shape of the fall season. But now there seems to be an unstated race among reporters who cover television to be the first to publish a comprehensive analysis of the season’s winners and losers.

One publication printed a front-page trend story Sept. 26 essentially declaring there were no new hits this fall — just eight days after the season started, and before major players such as “Ugly Betty,” “The Nine” and “Heroes” had been issued their first Nielsen report cards.

A year ago, less than a month into the 2005-06 season, Variety declared ABC an early winner thanks in part to the strong performance of “Commander in Chief” — a show that would be canceled nine months later.

And just last week, Daily Variety published a front-page piece spelling out trouble for frosh NBC skein “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” after three airings.

But mainstream pubs have nothing on the Net’s nattering nabobs of negativism.

NBC Universal-owned Web site Brilliant but Canceled has been running a fall season “death watch” poll, allowing users to win iPods if they correctly predict which shows will fail first. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s sent out a number of erroneous emails to users informing them of shows’ supposed demise, followed by hasty retractions.

“Everyone wants a story,” lamented one network exec. “There’s this desire to pick winners and losers. But a lot of these reporters are a lot like some of the Wall Street analysts. They don’t even really understand the business they cover.”

Another webhead noted that many major consumer publications still emphasize total viewer data when analyzing how well nets are doing. “But total viewers isn’t what we sell,” the suit said.

While constant coverage may pump up the terror alert level inside networks a bit, reporters aren’t the ones deciding which shows live or die.

Execs retain that power, and most insist their decision-making isn’t driven by fear or the need to impress shareholders.

When canceling a skein, they note that they’ve seen the upcoming four or five episodes — and if the show’s quality hasn’t improved, it’s sometimes easier to cut bait quickly than keep a low-rated show you don’t believe in on the air.

“It’s all about the creative,” one exec said. “You stick with something because you believe in it. If you don’t think it’s getting better, you don’t (stick with it).”

That’s certainly the rationale NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly used with “The Office.” When he renewed the skein for a second season back in May 2005, he cited slow-growing Peacock skeins such as “Seinfeld” and “Cheers” in explaining his move.

“We could not face the prospect of not bringing it back given (NBC’s) history,” he told reporters at the time.

Reilly’s patience paid off, rewarding him with what’s now TV’s No. 2 half-hour comedy among young adults.

In an even more extreme example, Fox’s “House” (produced by NBC U) launched in November 2004 with a dismal 2.7 rating/6 share in the demo — bad enough for fourth place.

Fox could have easily written the show off right then and there; the net’s competitors sure did. One chief NBC U exec, for example, bragged that his conglom had made the right choice by ordering “Medical Investigation” rather than “House,” and that he wouldn’t trade shows if he somehow had a chance.

But Fox execs saw a glimmer of hope in “House” and stuck with it.

Slowly, viewers came — and once “House” aired behind “American Idol,” enough of an audience actually sampled the show and liked it to turn it into a hit.

Fox’s decision to stick with “House” (and also with “Arrested Development” for three years) is the exception to the rule, however.

The networks have always been quick to drop a show that flops at the outset. Back in 1961, CBS canned the Jackie Gleason gameshow disaster “You’re in the Picture” after one week. (Gleason went on air the following week to apologize for setting “the biggest bomb in history.”)

But in an age in which a quickie reality show can easily outperform a scripted dud at a fraction of the cost, it’s much easier to ax a show if the numbers are dragging a net’s weekly averages down.

Last year, ABC dropped “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” after just one episode despite launching the show with a heavy marketing campaign. Viewers ignored the launch, and network execs weren’t happy with the show’s future episodes.

Over at CBS, history suggests the net will do just as well if not better — at least in the short term — by replacing “Smith” with repeats of its other crimetime hits such as “Criminal Minds” and “CSI.”

It also doesn’t make economic sense to keep a show in production if the network has lost faith in it.

Even studio chiefs are more realistic about it — if the writing’s on the wall, keeping a costly show in production is pointless unless the money from international distribution is substantial.

Ironically, it’s those same competitive pressures that prevent net execs from admitting that they’ve canceled a show even after they more or less have.

Technically, no network has canceled anything this year. But “Smith” is nowhere to be found, NBC shuttled “Kidnapped” off to Saturday Siberia, and Fox was able to use baseball as a reason to rest several of its new shows — and it’s still dubious whether some of those (“Happy Hour”) will actually return.

“It seems like a silly game to me,” one exec said. “You look at plenty of shows that we know are damn well canceled but no one wants to say it.”

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