May Days

There's a sense of urgency and emergency as networks scuffle for high-stakes ratings


THE END OF THE TV SEASON begins this week and that means a certain kind of madness soon will descend upon our television screens.

Beloved characters will die and story lines will take bizarre turns. Familiar casting lineups will be disrupted and long-time series shot down. A new online venture, which could transform the future of TV, will be launched.

And it will seem as if there are new episodes of American Idol and Deal or No Deal airing every night of every week.

May sweeps -- a 28-night programming blitz that marks the end of the network season and determines advertising rates (via audience measurements in 210 cities) -- begins Thursday and runs through May 24. In coming weeks, viewers will make their last visit to the Oval Office graced by President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on NBC's The West Wing, find out if Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) can bring down a crooked President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) on Fox's 24, and learn the fate of TV's first female president (Geena Davis) as ABC decides whether to renew the Commander in Chief series.

From Katie Couric's sendoff on NBC's Today, to ABC's bold experiment in offering hits such as Lost and Desperate Housewives online and free of charge, the stakes are higher than usual this May. As the networks try harder than ever to attract viewers, here are 10 dates to mark, shows to watch, races to monitor or questions to ponder during the next month.

Good byes

While there will be no grand finales to rival those of Cheers or M*A*S*H, the departures of NBC's The West Wing (May 14) and Will & Grace (May 18), as well as ABC's Alias (May 22), are certainly worth noting.

At the height of the series' popularity during the 2001-2002 season, 17 million viewers tuned in each week for the machine-gun-fire dialogue that filled the corridors of President Bartlet's White House. The West Wing was never the same after creator Aaron Sorkin left at the end of the fifth season, but in fairness to producer John Wells, the essential dignity of Sorkin's characters was preserved.

With badinage that seemed more suitable for the Broadway stage in its comic heyday of the 1930s than for contemporary television, Sorkin's scripts pushed prime-time dramatic writing to new heights. And they did so at a time when most other shows seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.

But the greatest accomplishment of the series, which won 25 Emmys, is the picture it presented of the Presidency in the hands of an administration dedicated to public service.

Alias and 24 made debuts within weeks of each other in the wake of 9 / 11, and it was hard to tell which was more exciting -- that's how live-wire and of-the-moment both seemed in the fall of 2001. Alias never found as large an audience as 24, but it is not the fault of star Jennifer Garner or creator J.J. Abrams. They gave us one of the most liberating female characters in years with Sydney Bristow.

Will & Grace ran eight seasons, but it deserves no such kind words. What started out in 1998 looking like a breakthrough series for gay identity on network TV has become an empty-headed comedy of cliches and stereotypes.

Last chances

May also is when series on the verge of cancellation are given one last run at renewal. Chief among this group is Commander in Chief, the enlightened and engaging series starring Academy-Award-winner Geena Davis as President MacKenzie Allen. After starting out as the fall's highest-rated new series with an audience of 16 million viewers a week, Commander has become a case study in network mismanagement.

Three weeks after the series' launch in September, ABC decided that creator Rod Lurie lacked the production experience to keep a weekly drama on schedule. It fired him and brought in Steven Bochco, one of Hollywood's most experienced producers. The public hated the episodes that Bochco produced, and ratings plunged.

By January, the series was on hiatus. It is back for one last chance, but has been given an unforgiving time slot: Thursday nights at 10 opposite the CBS hit Without a Trace. The suspicion is that ABC is just burning off episodes for which it has already paid. But still, there is a chance, and now is the time for all good women and men to come the aid of Commander in Chief.

Other worthy productions that find themselves on the bubble and looking for a spike in viewership: Bernie Mac (Fox), Sons and Daughters (ABC), Invasion (ABC),Close to Home (CBS) and Everwood (WB).

The merger

CBS announced earlier this spring that it would create a new network aimed at youth audiences by merging UPN and the WB. A byproduct of the merger undoubtedly will be the demise of numerous series. Indeed the CW network is not expected to include any of the UPN's African-American-themed series except Chris Rock's Everybody Hates Chris.

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