Miércoles 12 de Septiembre de 2007, Ip nº 207

Ratings-Challenged Shows Get a Second Chance
Por Lauren Horwitch And Andrew Salomon

Showrunner David Manson knows just how unpredictable the television industry can be. In 1997 he created ABC's Nothing Sacred, a one-hour drama that starred Kevin Anderson as a priest conflicted about his faith. The show seemed to have the necessary ingredients to last for at least a few seasons: praise from critics, award nominations, and enough religious controversy to generate free publicity throughout its first season. But there was a hitch: It aired on Thursdays at 8 p.m.

"It was a show that was a 10 o'clock show," Manson said. "It was a sophisticated, intelligent show that was meant for an adult audience, and we were up against Friends, and we got creamed [in the ratings]." ABC didn't renew Nothing Sacred for a second season.

Three weeks ago, Manson was thrown another curve when Fox officials informed him his new series, New Amsterdam, was being moved from the fall season to sometime after the first of the year. For Manson, who has worked in the business for 30 years, it's all part of the seemingly random roller coaster that is television. "I've done this for a long time, and I'm always a little fatalistic about this process," he said. "It's tough to distinguish yourself from the crowd."

As fans of shows such as Nothing Sacred, Fox's Arrested Development and Wonderfalls, and ABC's Twin Peaks will tell you, a show's cancellation often has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with whether it found a big-enough audience. However, some of the most successful shows in TV history, including Seinfeld, All in the Family, Hill Street Blues, and The Cosby Show, were not embraced by TV viewers right away. The programs' successes were due to network executives who gave producers second -- and even third -- chances to retool, recast, and find loyal audiences for their shows.

Such opportunities are rare but not impossible. "Ratings-challenged" programs such as HBO's comedy Flight of the Conchords, which according to TV industry trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable averaged 1 million viewers Sundays at 10:30 p.m., will be back for a second season in the fall. The network's John From Cincinnati, on the other hand, was not renewed, despite its higher average viewers -- 1.5 million per episode, according to B&C. (Pay cable does not compete with the broadcast networks as it generally has fewer viewers.)

Similarly, NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip -- with a respectable 8.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen's 2006-07 prime-time wrap-up -- will not return, while the network's less-watched Friday Night Lights, which according to Nielsen averages 6.1 million viewers, will get a second chance.

Alchemy TV

Why are some shows given second chances while others get the ax? Erin Gough Wehrenberg, executive vice president of current series at NBC Entertainment, said network executives consider a number of factors when deciding whether to renew a show -- and ratings aren't everything.

"It's really hard to pinpoint it to anything specific," she said. "It's anything from what kind of potential we see in terms of the long-term success of the show, the growth curve we've seen over the course of a season…[or] our needs on the schedule…. There's a lot of scrutiny involved in terms of picking things up, especially when it comes to lower-rated shows."

In addition to Friday Night Lights, Wehrenberg said, the network agonized over whether to order a second season of Tina Fey's comedy 30 Rock, which lagged with an average of 5.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen, despite praise from critics. "The show had a lot of critical acclaim, we were loving it creatively, [and] we love the creative entities behind it. Tina Fey obviously is a talent that we've nurtured at this company for a long time," Wehrenberg said. "We knew that we had put it in a place where it wasn't getting nearly the exposure that it needed. It was in the most competitive time period on television, opposite Grey's Anatomy and CSI. We felt like we did have the potential to grow the ratings for this show if we could move it to a different time period." This season, 30 Rock will air in a less competitive slot: Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., between NBC's highest-rated comedies, My Name Is Earl and The Office.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, at Syracuse University, agreed that there are no set rules when it comes to whether a show will be renewed. "This isn't science; it's show business. It's not chemistry; it's alchemy," he said.

However, Thompson said there are certain factors that determine a show's fate. One is desperation: If a network is in last place and doesn't have much new content, executives can afford to let a low-rated show with potential play for a few seasons. Hill Street Blues was a prime example of this in 1981, when NBC was ranked third in a three-network universe. After stumbling out of the gate, the police drama later became a part of the network's Thursday-night lineup that, as a whole, was a ratings juggernaut.

A show that has passionate support at the network could also be given a bit of leeway. Former NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly championed The Office when the show languished with 5.4 million viewers in its freshman season, according to Nielsen's 2004-05 wrap-up. Reilly was later thanked for his support with a cameo on the show.

Thompson said network execs are also often influenced when low-rated shows receive critical acclaim and awards. Arrested Development, which limped along with mediocre ratings its first year, sustained itself for a renewal -- in part because it won five Emmy awards that year, including for outstanding comedy series. 30 Rock has been nominated for five 2007 Emmys, including outstanding comedy. Studio 60, though it scored higher ratings, was panned by critics.

Demographic Fix

Execs will often consider whether a show appeals to advertisers' coveted demographic: 18-to-34-year-olds. Wehrenberg cited Scrubs as an example of a show that has never earned big ratings but has been kept on the air due to its appeal to the younger, edgier, hipper crowd.

However, she noted it's become so difficult to attract 18-to-34-year-old audiences that scoring with their demographic is becoming less important. "It's getting less and less that [needing to succeed in that demographic] actually applies, because the audience is just so fractured -- they're diverging to so many different places right now."

TV is losing its most coveted viewers to the Internet. In a recent IBM survey of more than 2,400 households in the United States, the U.K., Germany, Japan, and Australia, 19 percent of consumers said they spent six hours or more per day on personal Internet usage, yet only 9 percent reported spending the same amount of time watching TV. Sixty-six percent reported viewing one to four hours of TV per day, versus 60 percent who reported the same levels of personal Internet usage. "The Internet is becoming consumers' primary entertainment source," said Saul Berman, IBM media and entertainment strategy and change practice leader, in a statement. "The TV is increasingly taking a back seat to the cell phone and the personal computer among consumers age 18-34."

But perhaps TV can get a boost from the Web's popularity. According to a November 2006 Newsday article, The Office was "saved" after its dismal first season because the show was an immediate hit on iTunes, where it became the most downloaded program.

Angela Bromstad, then president of NBC Universal Television Studio, told Newsday, "I'm not sure that we'd still have the show on the air without the iTunes boost…. The network had only ordered so many episodes, but when it went on iTunes and really started taking off, that gave us another way to see the true potential other than just Nielsen. It just kind of happened at a great time."

This year, Conchords' free episodes also often ranked at the top of iTunes' charts, and the podcast maintained by the comedy duo on which the show is based is currently among the most downloaded. Wehrenberg noted The Office had already been picked up for a second season before it became an iTunes success. Still, The Office's significant online popularity helped the show build momentum. "It's not one of the main factors, but if someone's fighting for a show, you certainly could throw into the mix that it's doing really well on iTunes and there's a fan base for it."

Wait and See

David Denman, who plays Roy Anderson on The Office, said it's impossible to predict whether a pilot will become a hit. "I've done, like, eight pilots, and every time, everyone thinks it's going to go for 10 years. We were all very excited about [The Office], and we were proud of the work…. We all kind of felt like this is going to be a sleeper hit and that if you put it on Thursday nights in the Friends spot, we're going die right off the bat."

He said speculation over the show's cancellation continued after it had been picked up for a second season. Although star Steve Carell had a huge hit in the intervening summer with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and had won a Golden Globe for The Office, NBC chose to funnel its promotional dollars into My Name Is Earl, which preceded The Office on Thursday nights. That proved to be a good strategy, as more people stayed on NBC to watch The Office. A boost in its ratings helped the show stay on the air long enough to find a voice that distinguished it from the original British version, and eventually audiences caught on.

Denman has learned to take a wait-and-see attitude when he's cast in a pilot. "There's nothing you can do about that stuff. It doesn't behoove you as an actor to sit around and worry," said Denman, who recently completed the pilot Backyards & Bullets, executive-produced by Jamie Tarses (My Boys). "You always have that danger when you do a pilot of getting this gigantic chunk of change, and all of a sudden you're like, 'It's going to run forever, and I'm buying a house in the Hollywood Hills.' I've known numerous actors who got a pilot that they thought was going to run forever, and they went out and blew all of the money. Now they've got a mortgage they can't pay for.

"I always keep it in perspective," he added. "You hope it does really well because you're proud of it and you love the show, but you can't control whether or not people watch it…. The executives are going to make all of the choices, and you hope that they feel the same way about the show."

  31/08/2007. Backstage.com.