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In Search Of Accidental Hits

Some of TV’s Top Shows started out with more hope than hype. What will be this year’s breakout? 8/25/2006 08:01:00 PM Eastern

We see it every fall. New schedules are unveiled with major networks lavishing precious resources upon a privileged few shows, many of which boast marquee stars and creators with proven track records. Meanwhile, lesser-regarded series, with more hope than hype, are shuttled to the background.

The megawatt series claim the choice time periods, as well as the lion’s share of the networks’ promotional budgets—and, if history is any guide, often flame out before their first season is over. Cop Rock—Stephen Bochco’s spectacular 1990 failure on ABC—is simply one of countless instances of networks’ gambling and then losing big on shows with the shortest odds.

But many of the programs inevitably pushed to the margins—poorly scheduled, scarcely promoted, squeezed creatively by meddlesome executives or threatened with hasty cancellation—often defy expectations and emerge triumphant. After wildly successful runs, it’s then hard to recall that these series—one-time stepchildren like Seinfeld and Cheers, for instance—began as Cinderella stories.

This year, ABC’s Ugly Betty and Six Degrees, NBC’s star-laden Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and CBS’ Shark, starring James Woods, are among the shows enjoying the trappings of great expectations.

Yet networks would be wise to expect a continuation of this cautionary tale. There’s just as much reason to believe that ABC’s Men in Trees, Fox’s Standoff or NBC’s Heroes—all facing formidable odds—could rise from also-rans to all-stars.

It’s a formula that didn’t prevent three series from evolving into ratings—indeed, cultural—phenomena: Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI and 24. Like many of this season’s long-shot entries, each originally had a hard time generating nearly enough enthusiasm at their networks.

OLD AND UNHIP

In September 1996, CBS was on a mission. The network was busy luring big-name stars like Bill Cosby and Rhea Perlman into its tent. There was, therefore, less fervor for a comic “Everyman” at the center of a sitcom about a grown man who endures daily harassment from his elderly, acid-tongued parents. That’s why Everybody Loves Raymond was considered an afterthought. It wasn’t the Next Big Thing; it was the next thing to put on at 8:30 on Friday night, where it just sat there against ABC’s Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, the second half of Fox’s Sliders and NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries.

“I was too old with Raymond, which is why it barely made it on,” recalls creator/Executive Producer Phil Rosenthal. “Nobody was jumping up and down over the premise of a guy who lives across the street from his elderly parents.”

And yet the show had fans within the network who saw promise in its chemistry and star Ray Romano. The following March, CBS took the risk and moved the sitcom to the high-profile 8:30 p.m. Monday slot behind its big gun, Cosby. Raymond clicked and started building on its lead-in, surprisingly with younger viewers—an encouraging sign for the oldest-skewing network. By September 1998, the little comedy that could was the 9 p.m. anchor for CBS’ powerhouse Monday comedy block.

The show’s concept and style harked back to the days of I Love Lucy—which, given today’s youth-obsessed network culture, was not necessarily considered a plus. Other comedies began to embrace the single-camera approach of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and BBC’s The Office, yet Raymond proudly rode the traditional multi-camera–sitcom idea to the top of the ratings.

Rosenthal credits CBS with ultimately recognizing a good thing. Once Raymond hit, the network largely stayed out of his way, letting him stay true to the source of the show’s inspiration: his and Romano’s life experiences.

“What I did not know about his character, I wrote about my life, actual stories,” he says, invoking the adage “Write what you know.” “It’s not just a cliché,” he says. “For me, it was my ticket. It has to be relatable. Don’t just go for laughs for laughs’ sake.”

And yet Raymond didn’t guarantee that Rosenthal could necessarily keep writing his own ticket. CBS recently passed on Play Nice, a pilot he had supervised for the upcoming season.

Perhaps that’s one reason the wry producer often ironically recounts the story of a production executive who wondered if the basic premise for Raymond could be made a bit more “hip and edgy.” “You’ve got the right guy,” Rosenthal assured him. “I am Mr. Hip and Edgy.”

That line would have gotten a big laugh on Raymond.

OUT OF THE GRAVEYARD

CSI Executive Producer Carol Mendelsohn recalls the day six years ago when, in the midst of a writing session, she and producer Ann Donahue began receiving calls from sympathetic friends: “They were telling us how sorry they were that we got cancelled before we even got on the air.”

In fact, Disney’s Touchstone Television had pulled out of financing the co-production with CBS, claiming that the network’s $1.2 million-per-episode license fee was too low for the studio to recoup its investment, which industry executives have pegged at more than twice that. Looking back now, the show’s theme song, “Who Are You,” seems strangely appropriate.

Mendelsohn says Touchstone had little faith in the forensics drama, a last-minute addition to the schedule from a young, unknown creator, Anthony E. Zuiker, and a big-time movie producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, who had no TV track record. In addition, CBS President Leslie Moonves reportedly complained to anyone within earshot that the studio did not want to create a hit for a network that Disney did not own.

Paramount, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox each passed on the show, citing low network license fees and poor prospects for any significant revenue from international markets. Desperate, Moonves finally turned to Canadian producer/distributor Alliance Atlantis, which was looking to gain a substantial foothold in the U.S. TV market. Confident that it could secure strong deals from territories outside of the U.S. (which it quickly did), Alliance Atlantis jumped at the chance and allowed CSI to proceed.

The show was slotted to follow The Fugitive, a highly anticipated adaptation of the old TV series and popular Harrison Ford film. Mendelsohn recalls that the network didn’t even expect CSI to retain more than 80% of its lead-in audience.

But while The Fugitive fizzled after one season on a cliffhanger, CSI captured the public imagination with its graphic re-creations of often violent crimes and its scientific approach to solving mysteries. The writers immersed themselves in the possibilities of forensic inquiry—at one point, Zuiker dragged a colleague across the floor to determine whether a watch band would leave slivers—and filled the show with engrossing detail. And unlike open-ended series such as The X-Files, the show promised a tidy resolution at the end of each hour. The series was growing into a guilty pleasure.

In February 2001, CBS confidently moved CSI to the competitive 9 p.m. slot on Thursdays after it went from a top-30 network series to a top-20 by the end of 2000. Following the switch, CSI moved into the top five and, by the beginning of May, had landed at No. 1 for the first time.

It and reality juggernaut Survivor eventually put CBS into the driver’s seat, ending NBC’s decades-long dominance of Thursdays.

Today, CSI sits atop the ratings for all TV dramas, its fertile DNA having spawned two successful franchises and made fortunes for the profit participants. In 2002, domestic distributor King World cut a $1.6 million-per-episode off-network deal with what is now Spike TV, which later anted up a record $1.9 million per episode for spinoff CSI: New York.

A PERFECT STORM

Fox executives no doubt felt that 24, which went on to become a nine-figure franchise for the studio, had come to TV at a most inopportune moment.

When the show premiered in November 2001—less than two months after the 9/11 attacks—its future looked dim. Getting a still-traumatized nation to tune into an intense drama about counterterrorism set in real time was a tough proposition. And the show’s star, Keifer Sutherland, was not exactly a bankable TV commodity.

Creator/Executive Producer Joel Surnow says that, when he and partner Robert Cochran pitched the thriller to 20th Century Fox Television (which later took it to Fox) in 2000, the studio began to resist the show’s real-time format in a matter of seconds.

But the studio was willing to commit to a script, and the pilot that got made “blew everyone out of the water,” Surnow says. Still, hesitant executives were “very nervous about the serialized nature of the show,” since such series typically perform poorly in syndication, attracting small off-network license fees. “They kept harping about not wanting any cliffhangers” and having it “served up as a stand-alone,” he says. Plans were even made to produce close-ended episodes in the second season.

But the producers held their ground, and the post-9/11 timing proved auspicious. Folks watching at home apparently were more than ready to watch Agent Jack Bauer fight—and win—this fictional War on Terror an hour at a time, every week. Unlike The West Wing, which grappled with maintaining a level of relevance in a post-9/11 world, 24 fit neatly into the new Zeitgeist, capturing viewers yearning for decisive, retaliatory action.

Surnow knew that the show had turned a corner when Fox executives told him and Cochran to “make sure you have cliffhangers at the end of every episode.”

Looking for new revenue streams, Fox struck a goldmine internationally and changed the TV-to-DVD playbook by introducing the series on disk only a few months after the end of its first season. This year, the show finished its fifth season first in its Monday 9 p.m. time slot among adults 18-49 and 18-34 and among all male demos, posting the largest fifth-season increase (12% over last year among adults 18-49) for a drama since 1990.

The series’ success also proved that audiences were willing to commit to a weekly serial—which the networks hope to replicate this season with such entries as NBC’s Kidnapped, Fox’s Vanished and ABC’s The Nine.

Much as he always believed in his show’s worth, Surnow readily acknowledges that success on TV is often determined by the winds of fate. “For almost every show that is a hit,” he says, “the perfect storm of things has had to happen.”

WILL TREES BEAR FRUIT?

If Surnow is correct, ABC executives might well hope for a tornado of popularity to befall Men in Trees, their upcoming ensemble drama starring Anne Heche.

Granted, the series, with Heche as a dating guru who takes her act to a small Alaskan town populated by men, has been considered anything but an afterthought by the network—or so it seemed. Trees had been paired with another promising series, UglyBetty, as a two-pronged dramedy outpost on Friday night. But the network has since split the pair, handing Betty a much more vital Thursday time slot. The move has suddenly cast the promising 9 p.m. Friday series in a new and unwanted light: the neglected stepchild.

Instead of having Betty as a lead-in, Trees could be in for a deep Alaskan freeze this fall and winter if it remains behind America’s Funniest Home Videos, a completely different demographic fit. ABC had initially tried to make the Friday-night slot more palatable by pairing it with Betty to attract a young female audience.

The network recently threw Trees a lifeline of sorts, moving its debut up to Sept. 12, behind the season-three debut of highly rated reality series Dancing With the Stars. Three nights later, it will settle into its Friday-night slot in the hope that Dancing’s female audience follows it there.

So whither Trees? Will it bear fruit on Friday nights at 9 p.m., or will it fall in the TV forest with nobody around to hear it? It’s best to recall that, in October 2000, Las Vegas crime procedural CSI also occupied this seemingly underappreciated slot.

In other words, as history has proved, worse things could happen.

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