Midseason skeins need damage control

Shows face harsh reality

HOLLYWOOD — The bodies are piling up fast in TV’s midseason.

Over the past month, the Big Six have collectively unveiled nearly a dozen comedies and dramas — including projects from heavyweights such as Stephen King (“Kingdom Hospital”), Mike White (“Cracking Up”) and Paul Attanasio (“Century City.”)

Hit with a tough fall season, webheads were hoping to end the season with a glimmer of hope. After all, midseason has given birth to some of TV’s biggest hits, from “The Simpsons” to “Providence” to “Malcolm in the Middle.”

But not this year.

In a troubling turn as nets try to move toward year-round development, viewers have been systematically squashing the scripted newcomers:

  • ABC, the net most desperate for a new hit, struck out with “Kingdom Hospital,” while “The D.A.” — despite solid reviews — has failed to wow on Fridays. Ratings for the preem of laffer “The Big House” were nothing special.

  • Even with an “American Idol” halo, Fox was unable to find an audience for the well-reviewed “Wonderfalls” or the White laffer “Cracking Up.” Latter skein exits the sked after tonight, while a dismal Thursday perf doesn’t bode well for the future of the former skein.

  • “Century City’s” Nielsen numbers might look OK in another five or 10 years, but the futuristic legal drama’s ratings caused CBS to pull the show after just three weeks in the 9 p.m. Tuesday slot. Laffer “The Stones,” from the creators of “Will & Grace,” is on life support, too.

  • The WB’s Friday laffer “The Help” is in need of just that, while it was game over for UPN’s “Game Over” the moment the CGI toon bowed.

  • Things have been so dismal NBC even changed its mind and decided to hold back its one midseason laffer, “Come to Papa.”

“It’s another tough season for midscripted shows,” said NBC topper Jeff Zucker, who notes that last season’s midseason contenders also struck out.

Second choices

As one top executive puts it: “The fact is, most of the shows held to midseason are held for a reason: If they had been strong enough, they would have been put on in the fall.”

Indeed, the networks frequently pick up shows for midseason in the weeks following upfront. In a jubilant mood, they sometimes overlook those shows’ faults — and forget that there’s a reason why those shows weren’t ordered for fall.

But once they’re produced and sitting on the shelf, the nets feel a financial obligation to throw them on the air — even if they’d ultimately rather toss the shows away. (Of course, in the case of truly dreadful shows, the networks eat their losses and the series really do never see the light of day.)

Fittingly for a season dominated by reality shows, the only sparks of life since January have come from a trio of first-year unscripted skeins: NBC’s “The Apprentice,” ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”

Hot ‘Model’

UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model,” which bowed last summer, also wowed in its first at-bat during the regular season.

” ‘The Apprentice’ has taken NBC from dire straits to decent shape, just as ‘Top Model’ has done the same for UPN,” said one scheduling exec.

Peacock also got some mileage out of the return of “Crossing Jordan” on Sundays, but that drama was a known commodity and followed an established hit (“Law & Order: CI”).

The midseason mess has put a halt to conventional wisdom that launching after January may give you an edge. In the recent past, shows like “Malcolm” scored by premiering away from the clutter of fall.

The problem is that clutter has now creeped into midseason as well.

“Those days are gone,” said ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader. “It’s essentially a world now where, other than comedies, there are very few repeats. Where you used to be able to launch against drama repeats, those slots are now taken over by alternative series.”

Poor timeslot

For starters, most of the scripted midseason newcomers had to settle for pretty awful timeslots.

“I don’t think these shows were in time periods where they could succeed,” said Fox scheduling czar Preston Beckman. “There were holes to fill, and these shows ended up plugging the holes.”

In Fox’s case, “Wonderfalls” started out in the horrific 9 p.m. Friday slot and then shifted to the ghastly 9 p.m. Thursday time period. “Cracking Up” got some exposure after “American Idol,” but then moved to Mondays as part of an untested comedy block.

“We took a shot with two really quirky, offbeat shows,” Beckman said. “Those shows take a lot of patience to build.”

In a perfect world, Fox might have held the shows for summer or even next fall.

“The dilemma we had was, we wanted to see if there was any life in those shows in-season (now) so we can make decisions about the future.”

‘Century’s’ lesson

The monstrous success of Fox’s “American Idol” has also neutralized the benefit of launching shows in midseason — a lesson “Century City” learned the hard way.

“Launching new shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8 to 10 is impossible when ‘Idol’ is on,” said one network exec.

According to Bader, the midseason slump simply mirrors what happened this fall.

“This is pretty much the way the season has been over all,” he said. “Six out of the top 10 shows are alternative series. Every network’s top show, except CBS, is a reality show. That is the genre of choice right now. And by the way, I will take the numbers wherever they come from.”

Bader said he’s now learning to adjust to the new reality no pun intended), one in which scripted series just aren’t sampled the way alternative series are.

“A year ago we were still saying that scripted series were our bread and butter, and that we were looking to limit alternative series to two hours at the most,” he said. “It’s gone beyond that now. It’s even changed with the advertising community, which embraces the genre now.”

At least one network executive said the reason behind the scripted series disaster is simple: This midseason’s crop of shows just weren’t that good.

“We just haven’t offered up anything awfully exciting,” he said. “Quite frankly, a lot of this stuff was not good enough for the fall schedule. Maybe that should tell us something.”

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