Friday, December 28, 2007

On The Third Day Of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my true love (Television) gave to me....three cancelled series (before the strike).

How bad does a show have to be in order to be cancelled in a year in which the normal laws of supply and demand in the Television industry have been overturned? Usually supply of new shows far outstrips demand. There are always new pilots and people with ideas for new series so that if a show underperforms it is out the door. This trend reached an absurd height in recent years with a number of shows getting axed after four or five episodes. In in some cases that was a long run; 3 Lbs was pulled after two episodes while the late (and not overly lamented) game show The Rich List got one episode on FOX to fail to prove itself.

The WGA strike has changed the Hollywood dynamic considerably though. The supply of new scripted programming is finite, so demand for any series is outstripping supply. The net result is that virtually every show ordered by the five networks either have run or will run all of the episodes that were produced before the strike regardless of ratings. This is the sort of thing that viewers say they want – to see shows get a fair chance to build an audience and develop storylines. This was not a season when you could say that you weren't going to watch a new show out of fear that it would be cancelled just as you were getting cancelled. Now what happened after they shown their final pre-strike episodes is a different story. The networks did order "back nines" for a number of series, but the value of these "back nines" is questionable at best if the networks and studios maintain their current attitude toward the Writers Guild. Still, a lot of shows that would have been pulled for bad ratings after three or four episodes (I'm thinking Big Shots and probably Cavemen here) actually got a chance to show their stuff, such as it was.

Ah but the three series I mentioned, shows so awesome in the fullness of their awfulness that not even a writers strike could save them. They were Nashville the FOX "docu-soap" about aspiring musicians in the Country Music industry, Online Nation a series that ran videos from Internet sources like YouTube on network TV, and Viva Laughlin which was CBS's "musical dramedy" based on the BBC series Blackpool. Let's look at these shows briefly (as briefly as possible) and try to figure out why they were so bad that even in a year where content was in such short supply they weren't considered worth keeping.

Nashville was a reality TV/soap opera, presumably from the same mould as a show like Laguna Beach or The Hills. The show featured a variety of unknowns in various stages of trying to break into the music industry (the most recognizable name was a last name, Bradshaw – Rachel Bradshaw is the daughter of former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and FOX football commentator Terry Bradshaw), but was full of the usual sort of soap opera nonsense that made you wonder just how "real" this "reality" was. Or as Matt Roush of TV Guide put it, "As on the MTV shows, just about everything in Nashville looks about as genuine as a feminine-hygiene commercial." Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald added, "The show's dialogue feels scripted, its frequent hookups and breakups abrupt and phony, and its scenes from the music business out and out fraudulent." In my book, there's something to be said for the concept of following young people trying to break into Country Music, but it's something that could be done far better in a real night time soap – in other words a scripted drama. The series had the worst ratings for any FOX series airing in its Friday time slot in the 2006-07 season, including repeats: 2.72 million viewers for the first episode (1.31 million in the 18-49 demographic), and that dropped for the second episode (2.14 million viewers total).

Online Nation also died from excruciatingly bad ratings, which on The CW is saying a lot. It was the lowest rated CW show ever (and I have to suspect that includes ratings for shows on UPN and The WB as well) with the final episode drawing a 0.4/1 rating, meaning that only about 500,000 people saw it. I think it was inevitable. The show drew its material from Internet sources like YouTube, and I suppose was intended to be something like America's Funniest Home Videos for the Internet Generation. There's just one flaw in this logic of course: those who want to see this sort of stuff are going to find it online all by themselves, while those who have no interest in finding it online aren't going to have any interest in watching it just because it's on the big screen in the living room. No critic even bothered to review it.

The only scripted series to be cancelled before the strike was CBS's Viva Laughlin and it is less a surprise that it was cancelled than that it was ever approved in the first place. It seems that nobody at CBS remembered Cop Rock (and for all its numerous faults Cop Rock at least featured original musical numbers). The "musical" part of this "musical dramedy" came across more like badly done karaoke, with the voices of the actors on the show often being drowned out by the original artists. But that's wasn't the worst part of the show. As Tricia Olszewski of Pop Matters put it, "The biggest surprise about Viva Laughlin, CBS's new "mystery drama with music," is that the singing and dancing isn't the worst thing about it." She was right too. The plot was muddled, the actors took the material far too seriously and worst of all Melanie Griffith was in it. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times wrote, "Viva Laughlin on CBS may well be the worst new show of the season, but is it the worst show in the history of television? It certainly comes close in a category that includes Beverly Hills Buntz in 1987 (Dennis Franz in a short-lived spinoff of Hill Street Blues), the self-explanatory Manimal in 1983 or last year's one-episode wonder, Emily's Reasons Why Not. Viva Laughlin is not even in the same league as Cop Rock, a 1990 experimental series created by Steven Bochco that leavened a gritty police drama with Broadway musical moments: cops and criminals breaking into song and dance. Viva Laughlin also features musical outbursts and is far worse." The fact is though, that if there was even the slightest hint of an audience actually watching this thing it would probably still be on TV. The debut on a Thursday pulled an adequate 8.83 million viewers with a 2.4/7 rating in the 18-49 demographic; adequate until you remember that the show lost almost half the viewers who had tuned in an hour earlier to watch CSI. When the show debuted in its regular time slot – Sunday night following 60 Minutes – it lost 40% of the audience of its lead-in (60 Minutes: 11.14 million; Viva Laughlin: 6.77 million), and dropped 20% of its own audience between the first and second half hours (and almost 30% in the 18-49 demographic). And this was the show that was replacing the supposedly weak Amazing Race (which the year before had drawn an audience of 10.89 million in the same time slot).

It undoubtedly takes a lot of bad to get a show cancelled with haste in the year of the Writers Guild Strike, but unlike previous years it seems obvious that none of these shows were cancelled in undue haste. In fact, with the possible exception of Nashville it was the approval of these series rather than the cancellation that was done with undue haste.

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