With a new television season starting Monday, this is the time of year network executives go to sleep with visions of big hits in their heads — and get a reality check when they wake before dawn to check the ratings on their Blackberrys.
A Web site connected to the Bravo network is playing to their nightmares this year.
The site, Brilliantbutcancelled.com, is running a sweepstakes for fans to predict which of the 24 new series being introduced by the broadcast networks this fall will be the first canceled.
The "Fall Season Death Watch 2006" game actually regenerates each week for nine weeks. Participants who guess the first show axed each week are entered into a sweepstakes to win a video iPod; everyone competes for the iPod on weeks when no series bite the dust.
"It's all in good fun," said Jason Klarman, Bravo executive. He may not think so if an NBC show is first — Bravo is a corporate cousin, also owned by the General Electric Co. — and he has to deal with some cold stares in the hallway.
The Web site is an outgrowth of the Bravo program, "Brilliant But Cancelled," which brings back to life good or groundbreaking television shows that didn't last long. It's a true niche audience, since a show like "EZ Streets" would have survived if more than a handful of people liked it, but passionate niches are what make Web sites successful.
As people place their bets in the game, the odds of a show being the first to go are adjusted accordingly.
By the end of last week, the show judged most likely to die is "Happy Hour," a Fox comedy about a suddenly single man and his party-hearty friend in Chicago. It has already been on the air a few times, so fans may be speaking from experience in giving the show 3-to-1 odds.
Second in players' estimation is ABC's "Men in Trees," starring Anne Heche as a single woman set adrift in Alaska. In setting the 4-to-1 odds, players probably noticed that a "sneak peek" of the show aired last week following "Dancing With the Stars" and led more than a third of the audience to change the channel.
That's Aaron Barnhart's choice of the first to go. Barnhart, TV critic for the Kansas City Star, said it's primarily because "Men in Trees" is scheduled for Fridays, and "Friday is the night where shows go to die," he said.
"It's no longer possible to draw a large audience to women-oriented shows on Friday nights," Barnhart said.
And after dumping a Heather Graham comedy last winter after it aired only once, ABC has proven it will move quickly, even if a star is involved.
Two other experts predicted CBS' Wednesday night drama "Jericho," about a Kansas town in the aftermath of a nuclear strike, would be first shelved.
"It is so dark, so pessimistic," said Bob Laurence, critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I don't see a reason to come back next week."
"Jericho" seems to use "Lost" as a role model as a serial, said Sharianne Brill, TV analyst for the Madison Avenue firm Carat USA. But "Lost" has good-looking actors in skimpy clothes on a tropical island. "Jericho" is in Kansas, she said.
"Wednesday at 8 is almost the Bermuda Triangle for (CBS)," she said. "It never works. Now the Bermuda Triangle has a show about a nuclear event. I think it's something that's better suited for a miniseries than an ongoing series."
But CBS should be happy that, at 292-to-one odds, it has two shows deemed least likely to go: "Shark," which stars James Woods as a big-name defense attorney turned prosecutor; and "Smith," with Ray Liotta leading a group of criminals. "Kidnapped" on NBC and "The Nine" on ABC share the same long odds.
NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has similar long odds at 277-to-one, a reflection that despite so-so reviews, fans know the network is likely to give this star-packed series from Aaron Sorkin ("West Wing") every chance to succeed.
Bravo's Klarman said he's been impressed by the savvy shown by game players. How many are television executives playing under the cover of anonymity he'll never know.
"Why are people interested in seeing the box office returns on Monday morning?" he said. "Not everybody is in the movie industry. But people are interested in the horse race."