Trigger-happy TV execs make snap decisions

Filmmakers and studio heads often talk about the fear and anxiety that occur when opening weekend arrives.

Years of hard work, huge amounts of money — often exceeding $100 million — and thousands of hours spent by a cast and crew can routinely, even unfairly, be classified as a success or failure on the basis of Friday-through-Sunday grosses.

Has that quick-to-judge mentality taken over the TV business, where opening-night ratings will determine the fate of a show? Can a series come out of the gate slowly and gather Nielsen momentum or, if those numbers are low, does that initial disappointment doom a show?

“Unfortunately, I think some of us want to believe that’s how TV shows should be judged,” says Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman of the box office analogy. “I think that sometimes blows up in your face, though. It all depends on the show.”

“I would agree we’re headed that way, but that’s largely a result of the press wanting to put (labels) on shows right away,” adds Kelly Kahl, CBS’ programming VP. “We like to give shows several weeks to prove something or not.”

Certainly, shows last year that were serialized, such as “Kidnapped” and “The Nine,” didn’t do themselves any favors. Viewers who missed the first couple of episodes might have felt they had fallen too far behind and were reluctant to come aboard three or four weeks in — especially if poor ratings hinted there was little chance the series would actually make it through an entire season.

“Hopefully, we’re phasing out the ‘Lost’ effect, in which we were making highly complicated must-be-there-from-the-beginning serialized shows that, if you didn’t get an audience immediately, the chances for the show’s success went down quickly,” Beckman says.

Of course, serialized shows that connect from day one can be longtime, profitable hits. “Lost,” “24” and “Heroes” are examples of series that, for one reason or another — great word of mouth, star power, winning timeslots — were instant hits.

This fall’s lineup certainly has fewer serialized shows — or, at least, fewer shows marketing themselves as serialized. Whether that’s a direct result of last year’s failures — “Kidnapped,” “The Nine,” “Vanished,” “Six Degrees,” “Smith” — is speculation, but this new crop gives off a feeling that if you miss an episode, that’s OK.

Certainly, it shouldn’t be hard to catch on to what happens in NBC’s geek-friendly “Chuck,” ABC’s male-centric “Big Shots” or CW’s critical fave “Reaper.” While each is far from procedurals and has a continuing storyline, none will have an overriding sense of heavy drama from week to week.

Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios, agrees that while some shows can look DOA after a week or two, it’s wrong to categorize series as losers that don’t come out of the gate as gangbusters.

“I actually think TV is not like the movies,” she says. “There is more patience among all the networks than ever to grow a show and not have an itchy trigger finger. The networks want these shows to work. There’s not that hubris anymore that we’ll get something better to replace it.”

For the studios and networks, early cancellation brings plenty of heartache, and a huge financial loss. So — especially if a show has any kind of critical support — sometimes it’s better to stick with what you have, even though those numbers might be less than exemplary, than to go with something completely new and possibly have even worse results.

That patience has paid off for such shows as the “The Office,” “House” and “Ghost Whisperer,” all of which got off to tough starts but have found their place. “House,” after gaining a plum post-“American Idol” timeslot, truly exploded and is now hugely popular.

Kahl says that while those opening numbers are vital to gauge how a show is resonating — “It’s your first feed and gives you information about what demos you have, who you missed and guidance down the road” — it’s those ratings several weeks after the premiere that will determine if you have a possible hit or little chance for redemption.

“The most important numbers aren’t from week one, but weeks four or five,” he says. “For week one, you’re looking to see if you’re reached critical mass. You just don’t want a real ugly number. You can work with a modest number or a good number.”

Beckman says, like it or not, networks target certain shows that they need to succeed more than others. They pump up the marketing machine for those series, thus raising the stakes for the entire network on its success or failure.

“You have to be careful of what you ask for,” he says. “Sometimes you set the bar so high, you can’t jump over it.”

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