To regular viewers of Fox's "Arrested Development," blue paint has special meaning. It furnishes one of the many running jokes that have helped make the comedy about a loopy Orange County clan a long-standing favorite among critics and select fans.
Make that very select fans. Showing a tenacity uncommon among network executives -- famous for squelching TV shows that don't deliver high ratings in their first nanoseconds -- Fox this week renewed "Arrested Development" for a full third season, even though shows with its ratings history typically receive nothing but a speedy trip to the trash heap. The news came just two days before the network will lay out its complete fall prime-time lineup for advertisers.
"It's one of the best comedies on television in recent years," Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic programming for Fox, said Tuesday. "We're hoping to see the kind of growth 'Seinfeld,' ['Everybody Loves] Raymond' and 'Murphy Brown' saw by being patient and keeping it on.... We just have to figure out ways to broaden out the audience."
As it happens, patience seems to be the hot new accessory for network executives at this week's "upfront" ad market in New York. NBC picked up more episodes of its critically acclaimed but low-rated "The Office" (5.4 million average viewers), a transplant of the BBC hit, while ABC, in a surprising move, spared the life of the little-seen "Jake in Progress" (5.4 million). By comparison, CBS' hit "Raymond," which had its series finale Monday, averaged 16.9 million viewers this season.
When it comes to devotion, though, few networks can match Fox's for "Arrested Development." According to data from Nielsen Media Research, average ratings this season for "Arrested" fell 5%, to 5.9 million viewers, compared to last season's numbers, which were themselves disappointing. And yet the series has key backing from Fox's former top programmer, Gail Berman, as well as her successor, Peter Liguori, who took over as entertainment president last month. Media buyers asked Tuesday during the upfront presentations about the show's return couldn't resist taking a good-natured jab at its ratings.
"Six people will be very happy," joked Jason Kanefsky, vice president and account director at MPG, of "Arrested's" renewal. But he and other media buyers agreed it was a smart move.
"Any time that you've got a show that's different and quirky on the air, it's a good thing," Kanefsky said.
"It's got upscale numbers, it's got high 'stickiness.' People are engaged with it. It's better than 'Nanny 911,' " a Fox reality offering.
Added Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative: "It's one of the few comedies that has a voice that's completely different from the rest of the comedies that are out there." Fox's perseverance says a great deal about lowered network expectations, not to mention the dismal state of TV comedy.
Thanks in large part to "American Idol," Fox is leading this season among the young-adult viewers advertisers crave. That gives executives more room to give an extra boost to a critically acclaimed ratings laggard like "Arrested." Last fall, the series won the Emmy for best comedy.
Beckman said "Arrested" has struggled in part because it doesn't fit naturally with the rest of Fox's schedule. When Fox announces its fall schedule Thursday, he added, it will likely include a better "companion" series culled from the new comedy pilots.
"There's no natural time period for 'Arrested' on our schedule," Beckman said. "It's spent two years surrounded by animated shows" such as "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."
Fox also hopes that more viewers will be exposed to "Arrested" outside of its regular airing. The first-season DVD was ranked No. 102 on Amazon.com's chart Tuesday. Beckman says the wider exposure is crucial because the comedy depends heavily on in-jokes, such as the blue paint motif that creeps into episodes.
"A lot of its humor comes from knowing the characters and seeing prior episodes," Beckman said. "That's where the value of the DVD comes in."
As it happens, the competitive environment for any comedy is much easier than it was just a year or so ago, because several major hits have ended their runs in the past year, including NBC's "Friends" and "Frasier" and now CBS' "Raymond." Furthermore, the current season's new comedies, such as NBC's "Father of the Pride" and CBS' "Center of the Universe," failed to stir excitement with viewers. The lack of heavy hitters makes executives more willing to work with series that are ratings-challenged but show promise.
ABC President Stephen McPherson told reporters Tuesday, for instance, that the network was giving "Jake" a second chance because it had been moved around the schedule and was not promoted properly.
"It didn't deliver great ratings but ... that was our issue," McPherson said. "We can do a lot better job of giving it a companion and finding the appropriate market launch." Of course, patience does have its limits.
ABC on Tuesday officially axed "My Wife & Kids," the Damon Wayans sitcom that has roughly matched the 6 million or so average weekly viewers "Arrested Development" gets. Also gone is "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," a onetime hit that has struggled since the death of star John Ritter in September 2003.
" 'Wife and Kids' had a great run," McPherson said. But "I think they told a lot of what they wanted to tell."
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.