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Viewers didn't flock to network's big shows

More than a month into a new prime-time television season, and some lessons are starting to emerge. As is often the case, many buck conventional wisdom.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen aren’t TV stars, but Simone DeVeaux and America Ferrera are. Ordinary people with extraordinary powers are interesting. Hostage dramas? Boring! Stephen McPherson’s big gamble paid off, Aaron Sorkin’s hasn’t and we’re still looking for laughs.

More than a month into a new prime-time television season, and some lessons are starting to emerge. As is often the case, many buck conventional wisdom.

“The shows that the networks were highest on creatively were not the shows that people flocked to,” said Jeff Bader, head of scheduling at ABC.

Witness NBC on Monday nights: Creator Sorkin’s much-anticipated return to TV, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” studded with stars like Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet, is struggling to hang on. “Heroes,” littered with unknowns like DeVeaux, is a hit. The last time they ran back-to-back, the “Heroes” audience was nearly twice as big.

ABC scheduled Ferrera’s “Ugly Betty” for the television graveyard of Friday nights until, sensing a buzz, the network switched it to Thursdays. It instantly became ABC’s biggest new hit of the season.

Meanwhile, despite pundits predicting the nuclear catastrophe drama “Jericho” would be a bomb itself, it’s been a pleasant surprise for CBS.

The CBS crime drama “Smith” figured to be a strong candidate for success with names like Liotta and Madsen. Instead, it was gone before the leaves had started falling in most parts of the country.

Even for a business accustomed to more failure than success, have only three modest new-season hits is something of a letdown for many in the television business.

“There were higher expectations because there was a perception — true to a certain extent, I think — that the quality of the (new) programming was better than it had been in a while,” said Preston Beckman, chief scheduling executive at Fox.

Too much like the movies?He found many of the pilots almost cinematic in quality. That also may have been their downfall: some concepts seemed like they’d make a good film but weren’t necessarily TV shows that people would want to return to each week, he said.

Even with “24” on vacation until January, the airwaves were choked with cliffhangers like “Standoff,” “Vanished” and “Runaway.” NBC’s now-departed “Kidnapped” required squeamish viewers to check in on the progress of saving a child in danger.

Other shows were simply too difficult to grasp. ABC is concerned that viewers have wrongly pegged “The Nine” as a hostage drama when it’s really about relationships. And what exactly is “Six Degrees” about, anyway?

“There are reasons why people watch television shows instead of a movie,” Beckman said, “and that’s where we fell down a little bit.”

Hits like “Lost” require an intense commitment by fans to keep up with a convoluted story. Many in TV believe that too many new series this year asked too much of viewers who simply weren’t willing to give the time. ABC’s Bader thinks the success of “Heroes” and “Ugly Betty,” both ongoing stories, contradicts that premise.

Either way, there’s only so much time and a lot of TV in this multi-channel universe.

“Your brain just hurts,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s chief scheduler. “Just try and scroll through your electronic guide (with its) sheer number of choices, and good choices. It’s frustrating as a programmer and I’m sure it’s frustrating for viewers.”

Since television is the most reactive of mediums, expect the response to be development of more self-contained shows that don’t keep story strings untied from week to week. Also, “next year there will be a lot of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ rip-offs,” Beckman said.

Dr. McDreamy and the gang have settled in as television’s new kings and queens, all the more remarkable because it moved to a new night opposite the powerhouse “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The two shows have been topping the Nielsens all season. ABC entertainment chief McPherson’s move is paying off handsomely. Coupled with the success of “Ugly Betty” before it, ABC is suddenly a major player on Thursday, the most lucrative advertising night of the week.

It’s the most significant and successful switch of a network time slot since CBS moved “Survivor” to Thursdays a few seasons ago.

Heading into November, network executives are in the midst of one of the more agonizing parts of their job, trying to decide if new series with middling ratings are worth holding on to in the hope an audience will find them, or if it’s better to cut their losses and run. That’s what NBC faces now with “Studio 60,” for example.

CBS’ “Criminal Minds” illustrates how patience can pay off. It has blossomed into a Top-10 hit in its sophomore season, coming close to beating ABC’s “Lost” in the same time slot.

Prime-time TV’s comedy slump has continued this fall. Even with a limited number of new comedies premiering — ABC put off its “Knights of Prosperity” until January — nothing has caught on. Within the past week, NBC has decided to bunch its best four sitcoms on Thursday, much like CBS does with Monday.

“You worry that (viewers) will lose the habit of looking for comedies on TV, which would be sad and I hope that we never get there,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ chief scheduling executive. “But, quite frankly, we need to do a better job of getting people to laugh.”

Steady CBS remains the nation’s most popular network. ABC expected to lose viewers when it lost “Monday Night Football,” but it hasn’t, and is doing particularly well among its targeted young demographic. NBC is pleased with “Heroes,” but Metcalf will have a lot of holes to fill when football ends in January. Fox’s real season doesn’t begin until “American Idol” and “24” debut this winter but even by those standards it’s been a dismal fall for the network. The new CW and My Network TV are looking for viewers wherever they can be found.

“I don’t think there’s a real game-changer that I’ve seen so far, which tends to favor us,” Kahl said.