Networks taking some hits

New shows failing to capture audience

Fall TV

November 24, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A strange pre-holiday ritual begins today. Each year, as the November sweeps ratings period wraps up, television's top executives begin - in a series of teleconference calls - spinning how each network is performing.

This year, they'll be spinning faster than usual. For the first time in the 55-year history of prime-time television, no single new network series can be called a hit. Already - only two months into the season - some analysts are characterizing 2003-2004 as The Year of the Flop.

"There are no hits this season - no new breakout shows," said Marc Berman, television analyst for MediaWeek magazine, an industry trade publication. "And I can't think of another season when that's happened. So far, it's been a season of costly disappointments."

Historically, the networks have relied upon the excitement created by a new fall season to lure viewers back to their TV screens after a summer of outdoor activities and reruns. The networks each year have launched as many as 40 new shows in hopes of creating a half-dozen hits. A single mega-hit like NBC's Friends can mean tens of millions of dollars in profit in the first season.

"It is different this year in that every season there is one show that catches on - that seems to tap into something with viewers around the country - and that just hasn't happened this fall," said Howard Rosenberg, former television critic at the Los Angeles Times, who now teaches at the University of Southern California. "Why that is, I don't know. But it is different from any other year I can think of."

The inverse is also true: one stand-out failure can have devastating effects.

This year, NBC ordered 13 episodes of Coupling, a knockoff of a successful British sitcom about six sexy singles who spend most of their time switching partners. The show cost about $1.45 million per episode. After just three shows, it was canceled at a loss of $14.5 million. That's not including the millions spent to promote and advertise the series, which aired in the key Thursday night time period following the network's biggest hit, Friends.

The network also canceled The Lyon's Den, a legal drama starring Rob Lowe, which was even more expensive. The hourlong drama cost about $2.5 million an episode, and NBC paid for 13 episodes before pulling the plug after the sixth show.

"The economics of it are kind of crazy," said Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer of the WB network's 7th Heaven, a family drama now in its eighth season.

Networks occasionally try to minimize the craziness by removing failures from the air, then repackaging and re-launching them. ABC's crime drama, Karen Sisco, performed as poorly as The Lyon's Den, but rather than canceling it outright, the network pulled the series - then announced its return next spring.

Lots of flops with no hits to offset them, have a ripple effect. Without the buzz created by a hot new show, the networks this season have had a particularly hard time attracting young viewers. NBC, for example, this year has lost 12 percent of its viewers ages 18 to 49 - the core demographic for advertisers.

Even worse from their perspective, the networks collectively have lost 10 percent of their male viewers ages 18 to 34 years of age - an audience segment that commands premium advertising rates.

And the misery has spread: Some of this season's failures are damaging established favorites that air in adjacent time periods. Thanks in part to the poor performance of NBC's Coupling, for example, ER and Friends each are down 6 million viewers on Thursday nights. Scrubs and Will & Grace, which also air Thursdays on NBC, are being watched by 4.4 million and 3.8 million fewer viewers than last season.

Last week, in an annual address to International Radio & Television Society Foundation, NBC President Jeff Zucker offered a blunt assessment of why the networks are having such a dismal fall: "Some of the programming [was awful]," he said.

Pointing to Coupling, he said, "We didn't develop the characters well enough. If we had listened to the research, Coupling would not have been on the air."

MediaWeek's Berman attributed what he termed the "colossal failure of Coupling" to a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of Zucker's programming team. "Just because a series like Friends is ending doesn't mean that you can simply do another show with six friends and clone it. It's not that easy any more," Berman said. "Viewers have too many choices, and you have to be more creative and really try to push the envelope."

The change from a three-network universe to today's multichannel environment makes it far more difficult to launch a new series and have it become a breakout hit. "If we're using the old criteria for what constitutes a hit on network television, then I think we can now officially say that this is a hitless television season," said Robert J, Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

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