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Network patience (yes, it exists) pays off

Four sophomore series -- `Close to Home,' `Supernatural,' `Bones' and `How I Met Your Mother' -- benefit from careful nurturing.

February 02, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

When "Close to Home" premiered in fall 2005, the CBS show centered on a happily married suburban woman returning to her career as a prosecuting attorney after the birth of her first child. Whether it was its Tuesday time slot, a whisper-quiet marketing campaign or its working woman-centric focus, the program's ratings didn't exactly pop. It moved to Fridays and did better there, but "Close to Home" ended its freshman season on the renewal bubble.

The show hung on, but by its sophomore premiere much had changed. Behind the scenes, "Close to Home" had a new executive producer and its story lines dealt more and more with career and crime and less and less with home and child. But that can happen when you kill off the main character's husband and introduce a new hunk, played by former "JAG" star David James Elliott.

"He's a leading-man type that tests very well with the ladies," said Eric Overmeyer, the show's new executive producer. "We're doing our best to get his shirt off as much as we can this season, though this is difficult because he's a district attorney."

But "Close to Home's" most notable makeover has come in its ratings, which have gone from wobbly to fairly sure-footed. The show has picked up an additional 2 million weekly viewers this season, upping its audience to the 11 million-plus range, good enough on some weeks to finish among the top 30 most-watched programs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
'Close to Home': An article about sophomore television shows in Friday's Calendar section misspelled the last name of "Close to Home" executive producer Eric Overmyer as Overmeyer.

Television isn't fantasyland, and if your numbers don't add up, you're gone. Just ask CBS about its high-profile, high-cost crime drama "Smith," or NBC about its oldster sitcom "Twenty Good Years," or Fox about its aptly named drama "Vanished." They're all washed-out members of this year's freshman class that couldn't get past its first semester.

Between sidelining low-rated shows and cheering the obvious winners such as NBC's "Heroes" lies one of network executives' hardest tasks: demonstrating patience with new programs that haven't found an audience yet. While the last season generated some clear winners, such as CBS' "Criminal Minds" and Fox's "Prison Break," the class of 2005-06 produced more shows with smaller constituencies that are still looking to break away from the pack.

Sophomore shows such as "Close to Home," the CW's horror-thriller "Supernatural," Fox's crime investigative drama "Bones" and CBS' sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" have shored up some of their initial ratings doldrums. But they haven't completely outrun the scheduling ax just yet. For now, the networks will wait and see, hoping to build the promising shows into prime-time stalwarts.

"Out-of-the-box hits are a true rarity," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Studios, which produces "Supernatural" and "Close to Home." "Most shows invade a new time period and then we need to habituate an audience to watching it."

Traditional pressures on network television have only been magnified in recent years with audience fragmentation caused by computer games, iPods and a smorgasbord of cable channels. However, networks and studios that stand behind shows can be richly rewarded. The most famous examples are "Seinfeld" and "The X-Files," neither of which burned up the ratings initially.

"Network executives may have 10 failing shows and all 10 of their executive producers are all saying they can turn their ship around," said Tim Brooks, a noted television historian and also an executive vice president of research at Lifetime Networks. "That's what the suits get paid the big bucks for -- to evaluate which of the failing 10 will find an audience."

Like most second-year shows that didn't blow up the Nielsen ratings, "Supernatural" has undergone a creative back-and-forth with both the network and the studio in a bid to draw the largest possible audience. Eric Kripke, the show's creator and an executive producer, described the process last season with the now-defunct WB as "fairly amicable" but admits it was not without its tensions.

"The network wanted a more rollicking, red-blooded tone that was more evident in the pilot," said Kripke, whose episodes carry titles like "Bloody Mary," "Hell House" and "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things." "But every so often we wanted to try and stretch our legs and tell a story that had a more philosophical bent or was more somber in tone."

The show's creative team and the network clashed over scripts and story lines. Sometimes the creative team backed down, and other times they found even more "creative" ways around the impasse.

"The huge advantage any TV producer has on their side is the breakneck schedule, and I'll fully own up to taking great advantage of that a time or two," Kripke said. "If we pulled the script for the [network's] story suggestions, that means shutting down production. There's not any time for that, so we'd have to move forward."

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