"I'll Fly Away" -- the name of a spiritual -- has always seemed like a strange title for a TV show. Now, sadly, it may become prophetic.
Network television's most engrossing series -- a subtle, challenging and ultimately uplifting weekly dramatic event -- is poised at the brink of the abyss. Making an unusual commitment to such a low-rated show, on Friday NBC ordered two more episodes. Still, it will take a miracle to keep the program from flying away into history after January.
"I'll Fly Away" fits uncomfortably in the mold of other shows with small but fervent audiences -- CBS' "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Picket Fences"; ABC's "Homefront," "Civil Wars" and "Going to Extremes."
Usually richly layered dramas with engrossing characters, they're the poor cousins in the group of so-called quality series that includes such successes as CBS's "Northern Exposure" and NBC's "Law & Order."
It's great for a network's prestige to present such programming. But when very few people -- or the wrong kind of people -- watch, it can be brutal on the bottom line. The juggling of budget and image can be wondrous to behold.
Mariel Hemingway doffs her duds -- behind distorting glass -- to lure viewers to "Civil Wars." NBC shuffles "I'll Fly Away" to 8 p.m. without warning, because affiliate stations complain it's costing them crowds of viewers, and piles of money, as a lead-in to their local Friday-night news shows. (Now it's back at 10 p.m.) CBS plays schedule tricks with "Picket Fences" to see if it can find an audience.
Nobody wants to cancel these shows, because when the networks do, loyal fans go nuts.
"A quality show," said NBC programming vice president Preston Beckman with a sigh. "The odds are great that it's not going to succeed. It'll probably get an older audience. And I'll get the [stuffing] kicked out of me when I cancel it."
CBS has taken widespread and withering criticism for its sublime-to-the-ridiculous shelving of "Brooklyn Bridge" in favor of show about real-life miracles, with Darren McGavin as host
The outcry over "I'll Fly Away," a show that is much more intense and stimulating than "Brooklyn Bridge," should be much more intense and uncomfortably stimulating to the executives at NBC, if they decide to cancel the show.
But they certainly quieted some of it Friday, providing an 11th-hour reprieve that was almost as dramatic as some of the show's developments. Combined with four episodes already in the can, the series will now run at least through Jan. 29, when a two-hour installment is planned.
"I'll Fly Away," a drama about personal and family relationships during the turbulent civil-rights era in the South, is now scheduled for Friday; Dec. 18; Jan. 8, Jan. 15, Jan. 22 and Jan. 29. All episodes except the last begin at 10 p.m.
NBC says that both it and Lorimar, the company that produces "I'll Fly Away," bent over backward to keep things going, hoping that running the show on consecutive Fridays in January, with strong promotion and solid lead-in programs, would boost its ratings. If that happens, NBC may order the six additional hours necessary to give it a full second-season run.