That Sinking Feeling


If you’re toiling away at a broadcast network these days, getting the Nielsen overnights every morning has to be a lousy way to start the day. If your gig is at NBC, it’s got to be a daily punch in the gut: The network is off 16% in its target 18-49 demo from a year ago.

Everybody else, except ABC, is off or at best basically flat season-to-date.

Strikingly, there wasn’t one breakout hit by the end of the November sweeps that compares with last year, when newbies Desperate Housewives and Lost already were both established watercooler series.

Yes, a handful of new series do show promise. Much-hyped, well-executed comedies, such as NBC’s My Name Is Earl and UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris, have found an audience. (NBC now hopes Earl fans will follow him to Thursdays.) CBS appears to have keepers with dramas Criminal Minds and Ghost Whisperer and the comedy How I Met Your Mother.

Still, none of the shows has generated that breakthrough buzz we’ve seen in seasons past, from the original run of The Apprentice to midyear runaway hit Grey’s Anatomy.

Instead, there’s a burgeoning list of failures in this year’s rookie class: ABC’s Hot Properties and Night Stalker, Fox’s Killer Instinct, and NBC’s Martha Stewart-fronted version of The Apprentice won’t be back for second editions. CBS’s Threshold is on the threshold of being officially killed.

But wait, there’s more. Those losers join such early casualties as Fox’s Head Cases and UPN’s Sex, Love and Secrets and The WB’s Just Legal. Meanwhile, ABC’s Alias and Fox’s Arrested Development are ending, too, leaving critics weeping and hardcore fans waiting for the complete works with extras in boxed DVD sets that no doubt will be out in time for Christmas 2006.

Lessons can be learned from what hasn’t worked so far. More often than not, it’s next to impossible to clone a hit if it’s not CSI or Law & Order. Spinoffs like Martha playing The Donald may sound good in a pitch meeting, but it’s a tough to pull off—especially when your Martha plays a numbed-out version of her former tough self.

As Martha has learned, remakes are incredibly hard to pull off, too. Night Stalker, based on failed cult hit from 1974, seemed doomed from the get-go. I’ve seen Lost, and Threshold was no Lost. Same goes for ABC’s Invasion and NBC’s Surface, which are surviving but are hardly big box office. It’s easy to imagine the pitch meetings for Reunion or Sex, Love and Secrets—each hyped, no doubt, as “younger, hipper Desperate Housewives.” But the execution just has to be there—and it wasn’t in either case.

It’s so important for a network to be in sync with its core viewers’ expectations. In an attempt to broaden its audience too much and too fast, The WB has tarnished what was once a crystal-clear brand. Did The WB really think the network of Gilmore Girls, Charmed and 7th Heaven would embrace Don Johnson as a rummy lawyer in Just Legal? The network went after older viewers and, season-to-date, is down 7% with the 18-49 crowd.

And then of course there’s NBC, which for years seems to have gone out of its way to avoid refreshing all the elements that made it dominant for so long. Where is the next generation of smart dramas that are such a part of the network’s legacy? West Wing launched seven years ago, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent debuted in 2001. Like ABC a couple years back, the network is in a creative quagmire that has been simmering for years and now is at full boil.

When a network does that poorly, it drags the whole business down. Inside NBC, they’re hoping that desperation is the mother of invention that will give birth to the next hit of Desperate Housewives proportions. But on their network. Hey, the holiday season can make anybody hopeful.

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