Less than three weeks into the networks' fall television season, the annual shakedown of more than $500 million worth of new prime-time programming is already under way.
As early losers head off to one of the costliest scrap heaps in popular culture, nervous network executives and Hollywood producers cross their fingers over the few new series that broke fast from the gate and look as if they could become a weekly part of viewers' lives.
Leading the field is Joan of Arcadia, a CBS drama starring newcomer Amber Tamblyn as a teen-ager to whom God regularly speaks. Other series that have done well in their first two or three outings include ABC's I'm With Her, a romantic comedy about a famous actress who falls in love with an everyday guy, and CBS' Two and a Half Men, an updated version of the Odd Couple starring Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer. Cold Case, a drama about a female homicide detective who tackles unsolved cases for the Philadelphia Police Department, has also done some impressive business for CBS on Sunday nights.
"If there is one new show that you can point to and say this is definitely working, it's Joan of Arcadia," said Marc Berman, a television analyst at Mediaweek magazine in New York.
"Not only is it winning its time period - and remember CBS hasn't had a winning show at 8 on Fridays since the Dukes of Hazzard [in 1979] - it's doing very well with younger viewers 18 to 49 years old, and that's new for any show on CBS."
Beyond Joan of Arcdia, he added, the line between contender and pretender at this stage in the season is more difficult to discern.
"You can look at 12 different sets of [ratings] numbers and come to 12 different conclusions about how your series is doing. And we are all our own best spin doctors," said Mike Tollin, the executive producer of I'm With Her, which airs Tuesday nights at 8:30 and features Teri Polo as a movie star.
"Right now, we're feeling really good about the future. It feels right. But no one is declaring victory yet."
Early losers, however, are easy to spot. One of the biggest so far is NBC's Miss Match, a romantic comedy starring Alicia Silverstone as a divorce attorney by day and matchmaker by night. As the lead actress in one of the most-hyped new series of the fall, Silverstone's picture seemed to be everywhere last month. But, despite the push, Miss Match has been roundly beaten in its head-to-head battle on Friday nights at 8 with Joan of Arcadia.
The performance of Miss Match in that lynchpin spot has been so abysmal that beginning tonight, NBC will reconfigure its entire Friday night lineup. Unfortunately - from an artistic standpoint - the network has canceled Boomtown, its Peabody Award-winning sophomore series. The move allows the network to transfer Miss Match into the 9 p.m. slot and out of direct competition with the show about the girl who converses with God. "Miss Match has got to be a major disappointment for NBC, and I don't think moving it to 9 is going to save it," Berman said.
David E. Kelley's The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire is another expensive flop that CBS will continue to air for a few weeks in hopes of recouping some of the $25 million production costs. But the network could lose as much as $15 million on this failed series that features three adult brothers and their families living in a small New England town.
Other series that Berman labeled as being "in the danger zone" include UPN's The Mullets and Rock Me, Babe; Fox's Luis and ABC's Threat Matrix.
Perhaps as much as three-fourths of the 40 new series will be canceled - many in the next few weeks. "The efficiency quotient of the American television industry has got be among the worst of any industry out there," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"They put so much product out there with the expectation that the overwhelming percentage of it is going to be absolutely worthless that a new television season like this one becomes entertaining on two levels.
"On one," Thompson said, "there are the few good programs themselves that are pleasurable to watch. And on another, there's the spectator sport of the season itself with all this failure. Watching all these shows crash and burn is like watching a car wreck. But you have to wonder how long network television can continue to operate this way."
Indeed, an old rule-of-thumb was that a network would make money if 20 percent of its new series found an audience. But it's already clear that the networks are not going to reach that magic number this season.
Many factors play a role in a series' success. For example, I'm With Her reaps the benefits of following 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter, the sitcom that starred John Ritter, who died earlier this fall. For the past three weeks, which featured Ritter's last appearances, the show has drawn an atypically large audience. That rising tide has carried I'm With Her.