What Happened?


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

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

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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