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Why cult favourites deserve to go

Critics rage about networks that don’t give good shows a chance. They're wrong.

JAIME J. WEINMAN November 20 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Why cult favourites deserve to go

Critics rage about networks that don’t give good shows a chance. They're wrong.

JAIME J. WEINMAN November 20 2006

Why cult favourites deserve to go

tv

Critics rage about networks that don’t give good shows a chance. They're wrong.

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Friday Night Lights, the new show about high school football in a small town, is a hit with critics and with fans of quality TV. But it’s not a hit according to the ratings. NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it’s too early to despair over the show’s fate, and implied that he was going to keep it on for a while because he’d been getting so many emails about what a great show it was. “When I see that kind of anecdotal evidence,” he said, “even for a show that’s not pulling big ratings, there is something going on.” But can a good show with low ratings really recover and become a hit? We’d all like to think so. But it may not be true.

The Hollywood Reporter recently talked about shows that are “on the brink of cancellation before exploding into megahits,” and it’s standard for critics and executives to say that a show can bounce back after looking like a failure. But it’s hard to think of a current hit that wasn’t at least moderately popular from the beginning. House, which is cited in the Hollywood Reporter article as one of those on-the-brink-of-cancellation shows, actually got fairly good ratings even before it got to follow American Idol. Other shows, like Lost and Desperate Housewives, were hits right away. The evidence almost seems to suggest that networks should just give up on shows that don’t succeed right away.

In talking about shows that took time to find an audience, many commentators bring up Seinfeld, which became a blockbuster after several seasons in semi-obscurity. But while it took Seinfeld several years to become a huge hit, it was never anything resembling a flop. Warren Littlefield, the NBC executive who programmed the show, recalled in a

documentary that the initial ratings “weren’t great, but they weren’t bad,” even though the first episodes aired during the summer when viewership was traditionally low. Its ratings were always good enough to fit the basic criterion for renewing a show: it was doing better than most shows would in its time slot.

Even Friday Night Lights, for all its struggles, fits the Seinfeld pattern of a show whose ratings aren’t as bad as they look; NBC has pointed to the fact that it sometimes does better than its hyped, expensive flop Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The problem with many cult shows, by contrast, is that they don’t outperform shows that the network might put in their place. CBS was criticized for yanking the acclaimed caper drama Smith (starring Ray Liotta) after only three episodes. But CBS has gotten somewhat better ratings by filling the time slot with repeats of another drama, The Unit. As an artistic decision, CBS’s abandonment of Smith may have been a travesty, but as a business decision, it made sense— particularly since it costs less to rerun a popular show than to produce new episodes of the lavishly budgeted Smith.

In recent years, there have been a number of shows that were perennially expected to find an audience and never did. The most infamous case was the sitcom Arrested Development, which got some of the most glowing reviews

ever written, an Emmy award, a fanatically loyal fan base—and terrible ratings. The Fox network renewed it twice, always claiming that it was just about to find an audience. It never did, and in its third and final season, an in-joke had the main character, Michael (Jason Bateman), all but admitting that it was a lost cause: “The fact is, we’ve been given plenty of chances. Maybe we’re not worth saving. Maybe we’re just not that likeable.”

Of course, some shows have come back from the ratings grave. The most famous example is Cheers, which was one of TV’s lowest-rated shows in its first year, but eventually wound up as the No. 1 show in the U.S. But that was when there were only three networks and a smaller range of programs to choose from. Today, with more channels available, viewers may give a show only one chance. And that means a more typical example of a low-rated show today would be the superb detective show Veronica Mars, which has gone through three renewals and one and a half networks and still can’t command an audience beyond its diehard fans.

Critics will continue to complain that networks are too quick to pull promising shows off the air—and they should; the job of critics is to call attention to quality television work. But the network executives, who have to look at things from a business perspective, maybe noticing something sad but obvious: when they give a low-rated show a chance to find an audience, it usually doesn’t. M