As Deborah Starr Seibel notes in our farewell tribute to Everybody Loves Raymond (see page 20), when the show debuted nine years ago, its creators Ray Romano and Phil Rosenthal thought they were lucky to make it on the CBS schedule. The network thought that, at best, it had a nice little show. The conventional wisdom that year: CBS' best bet for a sitcom hit lay with two star-driven vehicles—a Bill Cosby comeback effort and a series starring Cheers' Rhea Pearlman. Neither one exactly flourished.
There is a lesson here for all of us this week as the broadcast networks set up camp at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other posh New York venues to unveil next season's fall lineups: Keep a clear head, despite nonstop booze and hors d'oeuvres, and remember that seldom does anyone really know what will work and what won't. But then again, sometimes they do have a pretty good hunch.
A close look at what dominates prime time now hints at where the breakout successes might be found in next season's freshman crop.
We're not talking monster hits here; those rarely emerge from fall debuts anymore. Survivor, American Idol and Apprentice all surfaced in the summertime. It is simply easier to stand out when you're one of a precious few and not trying to fight your way out of a mob of 40 or more shows.
Usually when hits do emerge from the autumn scrum, they're rarely the ones Madison Avenue and TV critics predicted. Nowadays, it sometimes seems that NBC and CBS are the Law & Order and CSI networks, respectively. But in 2000, when the original CSI launched on CBS, it was a series ABC had already passed on. Virtually no one, including the brass at CBS, thought it would go Top 10 (instead, betting millions on an expensive remake of The Fugitive, which flopped), let alone spawn CSI franchises in Miami and New York.
The launch of what became the Law & Order empire was just as auspicious. L&O creator Dick Wolf relishes talking about the original series' first season, when one episode struggled to attract a single advertiser. How many millions has the L&O factory made for NBC since then?
Wolf is quick to credit late NBC programming wizard Brandon Tartikoff for sticking with the show in the lean, low-rated days. Tartikoff believed in its quality and nurtured the show, confident that an audience would find it.
Indeed, when predicting hits, you need to take into account who's in charge at the network, not just who's running the show itself. As Tartikoff did in his time, CBS Chairman Les Moonves and his lieutenants will exercise patience when they think the quality is there. That sort of nurturing not only worked for Raymond but has paid off over the past several seasons with Amazing Race and Without a Trace. At The WB, they believe in the slow build, too. It has been part of the network's DNA since its inception and has worked for series from 7th Heaven to Gilmore Girls. Let's hope NBC keeps the Tartikoff legacy in mind and gives The Office some time.
Occasionally, of course, a TV critic or a seasoned media buyer will gaze into the crystal ball and actually pick a surprise hit. Last year at this time, a couple of my colleagues here at B&C and elsewhere singled out two seemingly unlikely shows as having a good shot: Lost and Desperate Housewives. Nobody was forecasting breakout success, but these shows attracted attention for a simple reason: They managed to truly entertain.
Maybe that's the key.