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Web site busily tracks shark-jumping shows

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

By Mark Sachs, Los Angeles Times

Babies, breakups, breakdowns: Another frantic TV sweeps period closed last week, with ratings-hungry series leaving no ploy unturned in a determined attempt to goose their Nielsen numbers at any cost.

This has left a nation of viewers feeling enthralled, confused or even angry. But it has left Jon Hein feeling more exhausted than anything else.

The industry's periodic sweeps are the busiest time of year for the 34-year-old creator of the Jump the Shark Web site (http://www.jumptheshark.com), the forum on which the creative arc of a series' life span is dragged into the court of public opinion.

With each new wrinkle introduced in a series -- changes that tend to be particularly pronounced during sweeps periods -- fans waste no time weighing in online, giving thumbs up or down to new revelations or directions. If the fans feel that a show has gone too far in its attempt to spark interest, they cast their votes that the series has "jumped the shark," meaning that it's never going to be quite the same again.

That creates a virtual logjam for Hein, who has been the New York-based venture's primary caretaker since launching it in 1997.

"The site is updated every day, and as the 'jumps' happen, we get flooded with e-mail," said Hein. "For example, when Will and Grace were discussing having a baby, or a promo appeared with Frasier and Roz in bed together, we got a ton of e-mail at that precise moment. It's an interesting indicator."

For those unfamiliar with the term "jump" (references to it have popped up on several TV shows), the usage came from Hein's college roommate, who based it on a fateful episode of "Happy Days." During a three-part story that sent the whole gang from Milwaukee to Hollywood, the plot's climax called upon Fonzie to jump over a penned-up shark while on water skis, leather jacket and all.

Reflecting on the moment years later, the idea for a Web site was born. It seemed to Hein and his roommate, Sean Connolly, that the stunt epitomized the lengths series would go to re-boot their appeal for audiences. As Hein notes, not much has changed.

Hein said other developments, such as TV Guide's recent ranking of the 50 best shows of all time, spark a jump in activity on his site.

"The appearance of any sort of list gets things going," he said, adding that fans often take issue with one another's opinions; generally, he allows them to have at it.

"The language, for the most part, I let go," he said. The site "is rated R. But I won't let someone attack someone else unless they're making a point about a show. I read every posting before it goes up. It keeps the site special in my eyes.

"Some thought 'Friends' jumped the shark when Ross and Rachel got back together for the third time a couple of years ago," Hein said. "But there are few shows that improve when they have a baby on the program."

And what does the site's most famous jumper think of the hubbub? Henry Winkler, once TV's Fonzie, maintains that he has never been on the Web site but acknowledged that he has run into plenty of people who have.

"I think the first time was when I was doing a play in New York and somebody came up and said, 'Hey, have you heard about Jump the Shark?' But everyone who mentions it does so in a warm, positive way," Winkler said. "It's a great compliment that something we did so long ago continues the legacy. That character was bigger than life."

Folks asking Winkler about the site, meanwhile, could increase in the months to come. A book based on the site will be published in September by Dutton, and Hein said he is negotiating with King World for a "Shark" TV game show. Both projects will open the subject area up to include sports, politics and music.

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