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THE ENVELOPE / CHANNEL ISLAND EXTRA

It's Fourth And Long

With the clock ticking, 'Friday Night Lights' draws up a new play for viewers.

August 08, 2007|SCOTT COLLINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"FRIDAY Night Lights" was supposed to be tasting the thrill of victory right now.

Industry veterans figured that the acclaimed but little-watched drama about a football-obsessed small town in Texas would grab a clutch of major Emmy nominations. And that brilliant showing would in turn abet NBC's efforts to boost the show's audience beyond a small but rabid fan base.

Such an outcome might have made for a satisfying dramatic arc. But life ain't a TV show.

"Friday Night Lights" wound up several yards short of a first down, with a complete shutout in the major Emmy categories (although it did get two nods overall). Now the series will head into a make-or-break second season minus a critical marketing component the network could have used to help draft new viewers.

The turnaround prospects couldn't look any bleaker, but like the coach of a struggling team, the network is trying to put the best face on the situation.

"Obviously, it was a disappointment," Erin Gough Wehrenberg, NBC's executive vice president of current series, said of the "Friday Night Lights" Emmy scorecard. "It's a challenge for any first-year show to get a nomination. But it certainly doesn't change our perception of the show."

Emmy nominations following a tough first season don't automatically translate into high tune-in, of course. Fox's low-rated "Arrested Development" won the Emmy for best comedy, yet still endured a painful struggle for viewers and was finally canceled at the end of its third year.

But most producers hope to follow the older, more inspiring example of the 1980s groundbreaking cop drama "Hill Street Blues," which was a ratings also-ran until a passel of Emmy wins after its first season helped transform it into a cultural sensation; the show lasted seven years.

Dedicated fans hope that "Friday Night Lights" will carry the day thanks to nuanced characters and a strong cast, led by Kyle Chandler as a conflicted high school coach. But even some who like the series see some serious hurdles for NBC, including a lingering perception that it's a show for hard-core sports fans. (NBC likely helped foster that impression by heavily promoting "Friday Night Lights" last fall during its Sunday night NFL broadcasts.)

Football maniacs, meanwhile, may be dismayed that the drama spends much less time on the playing field than in the homes and homerooms of its teen characters.

"The Emmys got it wrong but there are no do-overs, and NBC has got to look for another marketing tool to energize the deserving fan base for this show," said John Rash, senior vice president at ad firm Campbell Mithun. "It's got one more year to catch on, at most."

The problem, as Rash sees it, is one primarily of marketing. "For those expecting football, it was too little action and too much drama, occasionally melodrama," he said.

NBC says it now recognizes that viewers may have gotten the wrong idea. "We're altering the marketing message a little bit and selling elements of the show people may not have known were there," Wehrenberg said. "We'll work hard to get the message out that the show is not entirely about football."

Network execs are also optimistic that moving the show to 9 p.m. Fridays this season will help it stand out from the midweek TV pack, not to mention prove a better fit with the title. The first season DVD, due for release soon, may also help drum up interest.

But the game clock is ticking and the pressure's on for "Friday Night Lights" to huddle with new viewers. Or else.

scott.collins@latimes.com

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