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Tuned In: 'West Wing' switch angers NBC viewers

Thursday, October 23, 2003

By Rob Owen

It's time for another lesson in an ongoing Tuned In course: TV Programming 101. This week's topic comes courtesy of NBC, which yanked an original episode of "The West Wing" last week the afternoon before it was scheduled to air. Original episodes of NBC shows scheduled for last Thursday night were also pulled because the network didn't want to waste original episodes against baseball playoffs that were getting more attention and higher ratings than usual.

Some viewers were miffed, nay, in a tizzy about the decision. One caller even deemed it "cowardice" on the part of NBC. Others attributed their concern to paranoia that "West Wing" had been suddenly canceled, a condition that can be traced to trigger-fingered networks that have killed adored quality shows in the past ("Boomtown," "My So-Called Life," "Homefront," "EZ Streets," "Nothing Sacred," etc.).

Though consternation over the bait and switch is understandable, so were NBC's last-minute changes, at least from a programmer's perspective. It also wasn't the first time this sort of thing has happened, and it won't be the last.

If you're a network programmer with only 22 original episodes a season -- the same number it's been for about 20 years -- and the season lasts about 34 weeks, it makes sense to hold back an original episode and throw a "Law & Order" rerun on in its place ("L&O" reruns always do better in the ratings than "West Wing" reruns, which is why "West Wing" was off the air most of the summer.)

It's an inconvenience for viewers, but, honestly, when was the last time a TV network executive cared about viewers?

"We are still giving viewers the opportunity to watch their shows," NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks told The Associated Press. "For people who are torn, we feel like we are helping those viewers."

Last night's "West Wing" was scheduled to be a rerun, but instead NBC ended up playing the original set for last week in its place.

NBC should have announced in advance its plans to hold back the "West Wing" episode last week, and the network should have explained the decision on air before the "Law & Order" rerun. It did not, earning the enmity of not only viewers but network affiliates and TV critics who had to field dozens of calls about the changes.

Channel 11, no doubt deluged with calls from angry fans, was wise to throw an explainer on screen a few minutes into the episode, but it was too late for many viewers who'd already clicked away.

And remember, when a network messes with its programming, your best immediate recourse is to call the local affiliate. Their phone numbers are on the Post-Gazette Web site (www.post-gazette.com-/tv) under TV Links, and they're also listed in the Yellow Pages under "Television Stations and Broadcasting Companies." (One exception: UPN affiliate WNPA is not listed; call KDKA for WNPA).

Miller on 'Boston Public'

Castle Shannon native Dennis Miller begins a four-episode guest stint on Fox's "Boston Public," which airs at a special time -- 8 p.m. -- tomorrow.

Miller plays Charlie Bixby, an investment banker convicted of securities fraud who's sentenced to teach algebra at Winslow High. He's essentially playing a Miller-esque character who teaches his students "gangsta math" (his word problems include references to pimps and hos) and counsels lovelorn vice principal Scott Guber, "Don't throw the babe out with the bath water."

Fox shows flop

Monday's premieres of "Joe Millionaire" and "Skin" made a resounding SPLAT! in the Nielsen ratings, drawing fewer than 7 million viewers each.

The WB's "7th Heaven" had more viewers than "Joe," and "Skin" fared worse than last year's "girls club," which was canceled after two episodes.

Williams in town

NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who will take over as anchor of "NBC Nightly News" late next year when Tom Brokaw retires, was expected to be in Pittsburgh today taping a story at an area steel plant. No air date has been scheduled.

Captions restored

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a problem with WPXI's news headlines that pop on screen for 30 seconds during NBC's 10 p.m. dramas. The headlines were stopping the closed captioning dead in its tracks.

Channel 11 news director Pat Maday said he'd look into the problem, and the good news for the hard of hearing is that a solution has been found. The headlines no longer disable the closed captioning, allowing viewers to keep up with the story on their favorite 10 p.m. shows.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette-.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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