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Networks are slower to cancel TV series, but viewers are still wary

Sunday, October 01, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- The 2000-01 television season begins this week with parched TV watchers finally getting their thirst quenched. Original episodes of old favorites are on the way.

Entirely new series also are on the horizon, but it's understandable if viewers approach them warily. Cancellations ranging from "Now and Again" to "Sports Night" had viewers in an uproar this past spring, many wondering, "Why should I try anything new when they always cancel the shows I like?"

It's a question some network executives take umbrage at, yet others offer a more conciliatory response. NBC entertainment president Garth Ancier said he empathizes with viewers.

"As a viewer myself, that's a risk I can identify with, but it's part of the nature of business," Ancier said. "A network can't stick with every show forever. I give ABC very high marks for sticking with 'Sports Night' for two seasons."

ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Lloyd Braun defended network business practices.

"For every show that didn't stay on long enough, I can give you a show that did," Braun said. "I think networks are more patient now for shows they believe in than they've ever been. CBS was very patient with 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' but at the end of the day, networks do what they have to do."

Leslie Moonves, CBS president, said patience is growing in popularity.

"This past year, we probably had more second-year renewals than any time in the past five years," he said. "We're trying to be as patient as we can."

Moonves said it's in the best interest of networks not to cancel programs.

"What viewers need to understand is that it is a great deal of cost to stop one show and launch another one," he said. "We will give those marginal shows the benefit of the doubt."

He pointed to the renewal of low-rated hospital drama "City of Angels" (returning Oct. 12), although that pickup probably had more to do with the politics of canceling a show with a black cast than any network generosity.

" 'City of Angels' was a very marginal show, and, obviously, for a lot of reasons, we picked it up. I think more and more networks are doing that with shows that are on the fence," Moonves said. "It's harder and harder to launch new shows in this climate."

This spring, The WB's shows that were "marginally rated" were used in a promotional campaign along the lines of, "You'd better watch, or we'll cancel the show." The network used the possibility of cancellation to draw more media attention to "Roswell," "Felicity" and "Jack & Jill" in an effort to boost ratings.

TV writers were sent a picture of "Roswell" star Katherine Heigl surrounded by tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce (the aliens on "Roswell" eat the stuff in mass quantities). Fans then sent Tabasco to The WB as a sign of support for the series.

Jordan Levin, The WB's executive vice president of programming, said fans mounted campaigns to save the shows on their own, which led the network to issue press releases about the response the network was receiving.

"We think the viewers' interest led people to take a look at the shows they weren't looking at when they read that 6,000 people paid $10 or more to send a Tabasco bottle to the network," Levin said. "The hardest thing to do is cancel a show when the audience likes it. We wanted to let people know there were fans out there and facilitate getting that story out."

All three series were renewed.

Whether or not The WB intended to renew the shows all along remains unknown, but it's the kind of patience Pres-ton Beckman wishes he'd see from networks more often. Beckman, who lefts his job as chief of NBC's programming, planning and scheduling in March, is now in a similar position at Fox.

"It's incumbent upon us as programmers to be more patient," he said. "It's the hardest thing to get across to the people in our business."

In a July interview prior to the premiere of the critically acclaimed docudrama "American High," Beckman said he urged Fox executives Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman to stick with the show regardless of its initial ratings.

"We can't look at a number and react to the number," Beckman said. "It's easy for me to say, because it's Sandy's and Gail's jobs on the line, but I've been advising them to keep it on. It just takes a long period of time for things to click."

The Fox executives didn't heed Beckman's advice. "American High" was canceled after only two weeks.

"If something looks different and unique, I think there's a certain cynicism among viewers that the network will probably not be patient with it," he said. "If we believe in shows, we have to keep them on the air. If you play the odds, what you replace the show with more than likely will do lesser [ratings] than [what was on in the first place]."

That's a logical argument, but network executives don't use that logic as their guiding principle. Though it may not be a salve for disappointed viewers, here are some specifics about recent cancellations:

"Now and Again" (CBS): A year ago, Moonves was high on "Now and Again," a Friday night drama about a man whose mind was put in a younger body after he got hit by a subway.

Though the show brought in a younger audience than typically watched CBS in the pre-"Survivor" era, it was a costly production, filmed on location in New York.

"It really was ridiculously expensive," Moonves said. "The cost of that show was about $2.3 million to $2.4 million per episode. So, with ratings being what they were and the cost, it would have been idiotic to pick up that show when you're deficiting over a million dollars and your revenues don't even come close to [matching] that.

"You could make something like that work if you're doing north of a 10.0 rating or an 11.0 rating. At a 6.0 rating, you're in deep trouble, and we were bleeding."

"Sports Night" (ABC): ABC's Braun said the network thought long and hard about canceling "Sports Night," and defended ABC's patience with the low-rated but critically admired series.

"We had it on two years in the best time slot on the network and no matter what we did, we could not make a dent in getting any kind of higher ratings for the show," Braun said. "You can point to other shows that [networks] took time to nurture, but they usually weren't given two years and the kind of promotion and the spot we gave 'Sports Night.' It was very painful canceling it."

Stu Bloomberg, the other co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group, said the network couldn't afford to keep "Sports Night" on because its loyal following was never large enough. He said ABC needed the time slot to develop another series that might bring in more viewers and be moved elsewhere on the schedule where it could lead off a night.

"['Sports Night'] was dropping so much audience, we'd never be able to put it at 9 and start a new show after it," Bloomberg said.

"Wonderland" (ABC): This dark ABC drama, set in a mental hospital, lasted just two episodes in April. Then again, it was up against megahit "ER," so what did ABC expect?

" 'Wonderland' had a tune-out that was very, very dramatic," Braun said. "It was clear to us, as inspired as that show was, a large segment of the viewing population was turned off by the show."

"Get Real" (Fox): "The strength of any individual's passion for a show is not as important as the breadth of people who share that passion," said Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group.

In the case of last season's low-rated "Get Real," Grushow said internal support for the series -- more than the pleading of fans -- led Fox to order additional episodes even when the show's ratings were low enough to warrant cancellation.

That decision also made good business sense. Fox's studio division produced "Get Real" for the network, which had few backup series ready. But Grushow said passion counts for something.

"Sometimes all you need to see is a little bit of [ratings] growth," Grushow said. "Every Thursday morning [after "Get Real" aired Wednesday night], we'd be looking for that one share point [increase] in the 18 to 49 demographic. At a certain point, you feel like you're banging your head against the wall. We did give the show 20 episodes, but at some point you have to fold the tent up. We knew we were disappointing a number of people, but we've got a business to run."

"Freaks and Geeks" (NBC): At least viewers can catch "Freaks and Geeks" reruns Tuesdays from 8 to 10 p.m. on Fox Family Channel. But that's not the same as if NBC ordered a second season of new episodes.

Last year, Fox's Beckman, who worked at NBC until March, was involved in the development of this realistic -- painfully so, some would say -- comedy-drama of high school life circa 1980. He sets out a myriad of reasons why the show never got enough traction to survive on NBC.

"When I read the title 'Freaks and Geeks,' I thought it would be sci-fi, which might have been part of the problem," Beckman said. "My recommendation to [NBC West Coast president] Scott [Sassa] was, I don't know where to put this. Anywhere we put this on the schedule, it will fail. I suggest we order it, make 13 episodes and in January find where this show will help us the most. That's what we did with 'Providence.' "

That didn't happen. Instead, "Freaks and Geeks" was scheduled last fall at 8 p.m. Saturday. It could be argued the show's target audience -- freaks and geeks -- would be home and available to watch, but even if they were, not enough tuned in after the first episode.

"Personally, I think we dropped the ball," Beckman said. "By week two, the promotions were making it look like a teen show, showing a keg party and a girl getting beer spilled on her. We had probably the most critically acclaimed show I've seen on NBC in years and the ratings were pretty good [the first week], why are we selling this now as a teen show? This is a quality show, that's what NBC is about. Then the ratings dropped."

And the show got pre-empted for baseball for several weeks. It returned to more low ratings in late October, got pulled for November sweeps, returned in January and after a few weeks was pulled off the schedule again.

NBC executives promised to air episodes consistently in March to help build a following, but after two weeks of low ratings and scant promotion, they killed "Freaks and Geeks" for good.

Beckman said the show's producers bear some responsibility for its failure. He thinks it was too consistently dreary.

"It's their vision, and you've got to respect that, but I think there's some truth that you can't be that depressing. You've got to give them some victories once in a while, you have to show they can overcome obstacles," Beckman said.

"If I ever taught a course on network television, I could show you episodes where [executive producer] Judd [Apatow] said, 'OK, we're about to get canceled, I'm going to give [the network] what they want.' Then we'd [order another] episode and he'd say, 'OK, now I'm back to doing what I want to do.' I don't think we should subject any creative person to that. Either you believe in the show and the vision of the show, or you don't, and you tell them you know that it's just never going to work on our network."

Ultimately, that was the unspoken message NBC sent along with the show's cancellation.

"They've broken faith with us too many times," says a viewer in VQT founder Dorothy Swanson's new book, "The Viewers for Quality Television Story." Despite that feeling of betrayal, Swanson said she'll tune into this fall's batch of new series.

"We still go back," she said. "I'm not going to avoid what might be a good show just because I'm afraid they might take it off."

'Tis better to have tuned in and lost than never to have tuned in at all? This week, viewers will have to make that call for themselves.

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