In summer 2000, TNT might have been best known for Saturday night airings of “MonsterVision,” hosted by cult-movie aficionado Joe Bob Briggs. Imagine the eyebrows the network must have raised when it unveiled “Bull” that August.
“Bull” was a scripted drama from a cable network that had never produced one before, centered on an industry that had really never been the focus of a TV program, led by a producer — Michael S. Chernuchin — better known for his touch with crime dramas like “Law & Order” and “Brooklyn South.” Stanley Tucci, who won excellent notices for his work on the film “Big Night” and the ABC series “Murder One,” appeared as a maverick trader.
And there were other challenges. “Bull” had to woo viewers who had never recognized TNT as a place for high-quality serialized drama. Clouding the effort: “Bull” was compared to another Wall Street series that had yet to launch. Fox was preparing to roll out “The $treet,” a drama about Wall Street traders with a sexier bent and less noble aspirations, in November. (Darren Star, famous for guilty-pleasure fare such as “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the City,” was the exec producer).
In various interviews, Chernuchin told of his almost-decade-long quest to tell the story of a group of young traders who join up with a family scion gone rogue. When Robert Roberts III (George Newbern) — known as “Ditto” — leaves his family’s empire to strike out on his own, a group of ambitious cohorts (played by actors including Elisabeth Rohm and Malik Yoba) go along for the ride.
The dot-com boom had fueled the interest of the average workaday consumer in the inner machinations of Wall Street, which must have sparked enthusiasm during development.
At TNT, “Bull” marked something of a new frontier. In 2000, there was no “Monk,” “The Closer” “or “The Shield” on the air yet, let alone a “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” To be sure, basic cable had made some forays into original programming: Remember “Remember WENN” on AMC in 1996? But many of the entertainment cablers relied on repeats of broadcast shows like “ER” or “Law & Order” to lure viewers.
“We thought it felt fresh at the time, as opposed to what we were seeing on broadcast,” says an exec familiar with TNT at the time of the launch of “Bull.” “No one had ever done Wall Street in any meaningful way that cracked the code about bankers on Wall Street.”
In its early weeks, “Bull” backers seemed pleased. TNT announced in September 2000 that it had picked up nine additional episodes of the skein, noting in a press release that it was confident “Bull” would “successfully serve as the flagship for expanding TNT’s position in the series business.”
TNT aired 11 episodes in 2000 and promised more in 2001.
They never appeared. As the show debuted, the air hissed out of the tech boom that had been goosing the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and with it went a hook for broader interest in the program.
“The headline we missed was nobody really wanted to watch a show about rich people on Wall Street,” says the exec. At Fox, “The $treet” hit a similar dead end.
TNT would soon turn its attention to the sci-fi series “Witchblade,” and eventually to mainstream fare like “The Closer.” But “Bull” charged first.