The Ratings Teach Some New Rules
By BILL CARTER
Mitch Haddad/NBC Universal
In 2004, shows that had been expected to fail became some of the biggest hits and shows that had been expected to succeed provided some of the biggest disappointments. Who says television isn't educational? The networks now have a revised list of rules to live by.
1. Too much reality is not a good thing. After five years of dominating prime time, reality programming - particularly rip-off reality shows that were more than slightly like others already on - generated mostly flopping noises this fall. Best example: ABC's "The Benefactor" and Fox's "Rebel Billionaire," two shows remarkably like NBC's "The Apprentice," suffered near instant rejection. So did almost the entire Fox network, which devoted 60 percent of its schedule to the reality genre.
2. Scripted serial drama was dormant, not dead. In the age of megahit reality shows and procedural dramas, serial drama had been written off as passť. Then ABC introduced "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives." The shock wave from their enormous ratings is still being felt throughout Hollywood.
3. In spinoffs, punctuation may be destiny. If you want a spinoff to replicate the success of the original, you'd better include a colon, as in "CSI: NY." And stick to drama. The NBC comedy "Joey" began with much fanfare and good will as the descendant of "Friends" but is now headed for the fate of "After M*A*S*H," "Archie Bunker's Place" and "Mayberry R.F.D." In recent history, only "Frasier," spawn of "Cheers," has proved a hit akin to its comedy parent.
4. Sports audiences are rented, never owned. Two networks used heavily viewed sports events to carpet-bomb viewers with promotions for new program lineups. NBC used the Olympics to promote not only "Joey," but also "Father of the Pride" and "Hawaii," neither one of which is still being broadcast. Meanwhile at Fox, a gambit to divide its season into compartments, arranged around coverage of postseason baseball, tanked. Fox had mostly abysmal ratings before the World Series, during which it saturated viewers with promotions for the likes of "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss" and "The Rebel Billionaire." And it has had mostly abysmal ratings since. Once the games ended, viewers had no interest in either show nor much of anything else on Fox.
5. Television goes in cycles, just not always at the same speed. ABC seemed to be challenging the maxim that every network is only one hit away from success. But apparently, it was two hits away: "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." With its old-fogy programming, CBS once seemed an entire generation away. But after slowly adding younger-skewing programs, brick by brick, it has become the undisputed leader among those 18-to49-year-olds that television executives are always talking about. BILL CARTER