Canceled net serials leave viewers hanging

BEYOND THE customary Memorial Day commemorations and sales, the holiday gives the TV industry occasion to consider its casualties from the just-wrapped primetime season. And once again, fans are lamenting also-rans that breathed their last without resolution — the equivalent of a novel without a last chapter or a movie lacking a final reel.

For all the talk about new media, nobody has devised a solution for this particular problem. Sure, NBC might have dumped the conclusion of “Celebrity Cooking Showdown” onto the Internet, but where’s the wrap-up episode explaining what the hell happens on “Invasion,” the ABC drama that left its protagonists ankle-deep in uncertainty, with alien-human hybrids poised to take over the world?

The 2005-06 campaign was partly characterized as the year of the sci-fi serial, with “Invasion,” NBC’s sea-monster mash “Surface” and CBS’ aliens-among-us premise “Threshold” seeking their taste of the “Lost” enchilada. Nine months later all three are history, their respective threats destined to loom out there for all eternity.

Granted, if the shows had done better in the ratings, none of this would matter. Yet several million people were watching each series at the end, and those unsatisfied customers — some of whom have taken their complaints to Internet message boards — can only guess at the outcome. Personally, I’m still irked over CBS canceling “Now and Again” a few years ago in mid-cliffhanger, before star Eric Close began finding missing persons on “Without a Trace” and Dennis Haysbert became first the president (“24”) and then a Special Forces officer (“The Unit”).

Despite the sundry channels at each network’s disposal — cable, broadband and otherwise — the wastefulness of this process remains unaddressed. Cable nets generally can’t or won’t ante up to continue producing these expensive projects tarred with failure at the network level, even if half their audience would represent a hit by any basic cable channel’s standards. Actors move on, and viewers eventually get over it.

The hard-to-answer question, though, is whether those viewers, like a jilted lover, become more reserved on the next go-round — and whether, once hooked on a program, they would be willing to help finance a legitimate finale instead of stranding their curiosity in limbo.

This debate also circles back to complicated issues facing the industry regarding what viewers will actually buy. Would 250,000 fans of “Threshold,” the best of the aforementioned trio, pony up $10 for a DVD to achieve closure? Barring that, would they settle for a graphic novel, or even a detailed blog, where the producers outline where the series ultimately would have gone? Hey, if you’ve ever been to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

Jonas Pate, who co-created “Surface” with his brother Josh, says they did have a “master plan” for the show that theoretically could have been truncated into a two-hour finale, which, at the least, might have bumped up potential DVD sales.

Agreeing with the “customer relations” metaphor, he says, “With all three shows so serialized, you wonder how many times viewers will commit before deciding the risk of having the curtain come down with no warning outweighs the fun of keeping up.”

This much is clear: As old models break down, the traditional TV habit of building equity in a concept and then blithely throwing it away seems inefficient at best. And while CBS chairman Leslie Moonves was right when he said, “A bad show doesn’t get any better on a 2-inch screen,” one of the allures of new media is that they don’t require network TV’s critical mass, offering the means to wring mileage (and maybe a modest profit) out of lesser properties.

Until someone cracks that code, however, viewers can only speculate about TV’s latest wave of serialized invaders, who were thwarted by the Nielsens before their fictional heroes could do the job. Because while a good cliffhanger can be tantalizing, nobody likes being left dangling forever, even by a bad one.

SAVE OUR SUMMER

Reading last week’s New York Times article about rabid TV enthusiasts flummoxed by the prospect of their favorite programs taking a summer siesta, networks and advertisers appear to be missing key sponsorship opportunities.

For people who can barely survive on the reruns and fill-in reality shows that kill time until Labor Day, networks should develop primetime and web-based fare sponsored by products tailored to those apt to suffer from this affliction. Think Soup for One, acne creams, online dating services and inflatable dolls.

As someone who watches TV for a living, I’m perhaps tenuously positioned to throw stones, but approaching the summer as a period of intense deprivation sounds like a cry for help. I mean, there’s “Lost,” and then there’s really lost.

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