By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/29/2006 7:00:00 PM
Before this season began, not so long ago, the media were hailing the new class of network shows as one of the strongest they'd seen in years. Critics cheered the triumphant return of Aaron Sorkin with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. They marveled at the Hollywood production quality of new serialized dramas like Kidnapped and The Nine. They swooned over Ugly Betty.
Well, at least they were right about Betty.
Six weeks into the fall, few of the early hopefuls look like they have staying power, and none of the fall's strongest-performing rookies could reasonably be called a breakout hit. What happened?
It certainly isn't the first time critics got jazzed about programs that fell flat with audiences. But how could so many critics be so wrong about so many new shows?
Nearly half of the 60-plus critics and TV writers we surveyed in our fall-season poll (Sept. 4) said Studio 60 was the best new show overall—an opinion I shared (see Robins Report, Oct. 2). They voted ABC's The Nine as the best new drama. Both of those shows will be lucky to see a second season. Other favorites, like CBS' Shark and The Class and NBC's Friday Night Lights, have been Nielsen disappointments.
The critics did get it right with ABC's Ugly Betty, voting it best new comedy. But they virtually ignored NBC's Heroes and CBS' Jericho, two of only a handful of shows that seem to have legs.
If so much of this bumper crop of shows was truly that good, why has so little resonated with the audience? Some of the blame lies with overblown expectations—and not just those stirred by critics. The more these expensive pilots look like theatrical films, the more they're expected to open like blockbusters. Too often, the creators of these series can't sustain the quality displayed in those splashy premiere episodes (Studio 60 and The Nine are prime examples).
And with so much money, time and effort spent upfront, the more obvious it becomes when quality begins to tail off in later episodes.
It reminds me of the old joke about the dead network executive who's given a choice between eternity in Heaven or Hell. After reviewing taped presentations on each, he chooses Hell, only to find that the truly infernal place is not the hedonistic party that was advertised on the tape. "That was just the pilot," St. Peter explains.
But if networks are encouraging unrealistic expectations for their shows, they're also making unreasonable demands of their viewers. Already, more than 20 new shows have debuted on broadcast television. Network and studio executives have long complained about the insanity of launching so many shows at once. But although more shows are rolling out over the course of the year, there's still too much of a logjam every fall.
Moreover, at least a dozen of this season's new shows are serialized dramas with dense plots and richly drawn characters. No one—not even people who watch TV for a living—can commit to the level of attention required for all of these shows week in and week out.
And the truth is, critics and those of us who write about the business sometimes forget how most people watch TV. We watch under the best of circumstances: commercial-free on digital screeners at our leisure.
We can pick our hits from each year's rookies, but ultimately, the only critics that matter are the viewers, and the only true test is time.
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