NBC's decision to cut cop drama irks creatives

As much grief as it got for launching “The Jay Leno Show” in primetime, NBC’s recent cancellation of “Southland” seemed to wave an even bigger white flag for the Peacock’s status as a broadcast network of import.

Though decidedly unpopular with many in TV’s creative community, NBC’s bet on “Leno” could be easily chalked up as the best offense being a good defense: Leno posed a threat to NBC if he left for another network, while keeping him in a cost-efficient program freed funds for NBC to rebuild its scripted slate.

In contrast, the axing of cop drama “Southland” appears to be a more overt retreat. NBC pulled the plug on the John Wells Prods. drama amid circumstances that leave many observers scratching their heads.

For starters, “Southland” was the best-reviewed and highest-rated freshman series in 2008-09 on a network that has been starved for fresh hits.

Further, instead of keeping other networks from using an NBC-developed asset, as was the case with Leno, the axing invites rivals to take the product and run, as CBS did earlier this year with “Medium.”

The cut also potentially angers Wells, a TV powerhouse whose “ER” was a linchpin of more successful times at the Peacock net, and feeds — if not confirms — the perception that NBC is one of the last places you’d want to take a drama of note.

Perhaps what’s most shocking about “Southland” heading south is NBC’s apparent intention not to air any of the episodes it ordered just in May. The skein was in production on its sixth when NBC turned out the lights.

The ratings of “Southland” did taper off during its initial springtime run, and had NBC decided not to renew the series then, justification would have been easy and relatively painless. Same thing if the show returned this fall to even softer numbers after multiple episodes had run.

Instead, NBC pulled the show 15 days before “Southland’s” season premiere in what appears at least in part to be a bid simply to save the licensing fee the Peacock would have had to pay Warner Bros.

Some observers have said NBC realized (perhaps better late than never) that “Southland” was too darkly themed to air at 9 p.m. But it’s not a very strong argument in an era when crime, violence and death regularly populate that timeslot — particularly from a network whose “Friends” played a leading role in putting one of the final nails in the coffin of the 8 p.m. “family hour” last decade. But even if NBC were correct about “Southland” being too grim, the network still must contend with the perception of some producers who see the network as being at a nadir of creative vision. The network will still be a port in the recessionary storm for some new projects, but for creators that have their pick of outlets, NBC figures to be the port of last resort.

NBC no longer aspires to be the network of “Hill Street Blues” — that much is clear. Nor does it aspire to be an AMC, FX or TNT, networks that don’t saturate the smallscreen with original series but clearly aim high when they do greenlight such fare.

But its aspirations of late seem to be a muddle even to those who seek to do business with the Peacock. Survival simply for the sake of survival doesn’t make for much of a vision.

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