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Now, focus turns to closings

With premieres almost done, TV execs sort out what's not working.

September 26, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

TV premiere week is heading into its final few days. Let the death watch begin.

For viewers, the launch of the fall TV season holds the promise of exciting new programs to be discovered and stars to be born. But for network and studio executives, the next few weeks are more about managing failure.

That's because the results of a year's worth of casting, scripting and scheduling all comes down to a few crammed weeks and a bald reality that fewer than 20% of the season's 38 new shows are likely to see a second season. Unfortunately, figuring out in advance which shows will work and which won't is a guessing game at best.

So executives are waking up extra early these days to await the buzz of their BlackBerrys with the "overnights" -- the preliminary ratings results of the previous night's programs -- at about 5:30 a.m., an early indicator for executives of whether they will have a good day ahead.

Once in the office, they are poring through reams of more data to analyze trends upward (or downward) and specific demographics -- shows attracting the affluent young adults advertisers crave get extra consideration from networks, even if their overall viewership is only so-so. Sometimes, however, "you just know" if a show is worth dropping, says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.

Making sense of the numbers can be stomach-churning. Take the example of NBC's "Whoopi."

The Tuesday night comedy has been on the air only three weeks and already its perceived fortunes have taken a roller-coaster ride. In midsummer, it topped many lists of the first show likely to be canceled, as advertising executives and some critics panned its edgy humor about such politically incorrect topics as interracial dating and Middle Eastern stereotypes. While NBC says the ad time on "Whoopi" sold out, ad agency Carat USA called "Whoopi" and its companion "Happy Family" "Must Flee TV."

So NBC gave it an early start and reran the episodes -- the pilot has aired three times already -- to ensure viewers got to check it out. They tuned in sufficiently -- 15.1 million viewers the first night -- that they set off speculation that maybe the show wasn't so doomed after all.

Then came the sudden death of John Ritter, star of ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," a modest hit that runs opposite "Whoopi." The NBC show's potential soared as it appeared that ABC would cancel "8 Simple Rules." But ABC decided to keep its show in production, and the outlook for "Whoopi" dimmed considerably in the eyes of the official and unofficial oddsmakers. Tuesday, "8 Simple Rules" won its time period, while "Whoopi" fell to 8.9 million viewers, down 41% from its debut.

That no one really knows what will work and what won't is a humbling fact to even the most savvy network executive. CBS Television Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and his team were convinced three seasons ago that "The Fugitive" was their big show for fall, and they spent their promotional dollars accordingly, all but ignoring the lowly "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which followed it on the schedule. "We thought maybe 'CSI' would hold onto 80% of the 'Fugitive' audience," Moonves recalls. From week one, however, "CSI" outdrew it. "The Fugitive" was canceled and "CSI" went on to become the most-watched show on television.

Tempering the hype and managing expectations are key -- and getting harder in an entertainment-obsessed media culture. "The rush to judgment by the press is sometimes less than fun to deal with," says Susan Lyne, ABC Entertainment president. "Everybody is a Monday morning quarterback and they want to keep score, and I think that the initial numbers can often be deceiving." Reporters, she says, can puff up shows that "get one set of good numbers, and then audiences never go back to look at it a second or third week, or alternatively, they never look at a show" that opens poorly but gradually builds an audience base.

The sitcom "According to Jim," she notes, has been written off by the press since it premiered in 2001, yet Tuesday night it beat NBC's former powerhouse "Frasier" among the 18-to-49-year-olds who are the key target for advertisers.

The networks and studios themselves contribute to the hype, declaring shows a hit after a week when tune-in might have been driven merely by curiosity. "There's a general mistrust generated on the part of the audience when every network is immediately declaring they have the new hit America's talking about," says WB President Jordan Levin.

"You don't know anything after one week," Moonves says. "The whole question mark is where is the show going to settle in." Managing the unpredictability is made more difficult by the pressure to make snap decisions about throwing a show out. Increasingly, the model for TV has become the film business, Levin says, where "expectation shapes performance as much as performance itself."

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