Article – Quality vs. Ratings

Thanks to Ang for sending this in!

When it’s quality vs. ratings, casualties abound
Thursday, August 31, 2000

Special from The Charlotte Observer

When one TV season ends, networks look ahead to their new fall programs. But many viewers are riled about what the networks try to leave quietly behind: canceled shows.

Before programmers start hyperventilating about the promise of “Bette” and “Dark Angel,” maybe they should explain what happened to “Freaks and Geeks,” “Now and Again,” and “Sports Night.”

When some viewers were asked what they would ask network executives during the recent summer TV critics’ press tour in California, most questions were about the fate of favorite shows. Why did CBS cancel “Early Edition?” asked one respondent. Simple answer: ratings.

For all shows, the final judgment is the Nielsen ratings, which measure how many people are watching and determine how much can be charged for commercials.

It’s easy to understand the bombs, such as CBS’ “Work With Me.” The sad fate that befalls better shows isn’t as clear-cut. Their ratings sag for a variety of reasons, including poor scheduling, lack of promotion, and ineffective marketing. Small, ardent fan bases usually can’t save them.

“You try to listen to what people are saying. You try to stay with shows that have a passionate following,” said Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group. “But in the final analysis, sadly and frustratingly, it’s a business. The bottom line, oftentimes, wins out.”

Fans shouldn’t give up fighting for their shows, however. The WB renewed “Roswell” after fans deluged the network with 6,000 bottles of Tabasco sauce — the condiment of choice on the teen alien drama. Their zeal helped save it.

To get an idea of why some good shows fail, let’s do an autopsy on recent prime-time corpses. Here are factors that contributed to their deaths:

Bad time slot.

NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” a wonderful high school coming-of-age story, was cursed with a horrible time slot, 8 p.m. on Saturday, the lowest-rated viewing night.

In addition, the program often wasn’t on. NBC pulled “Freaks and Geeks” for baseball playoffs, for “sweeps” months (because of low ratings), and for the game show “Twenty-One.” It got a second chance on Mondays, but ratings didn’t grow.

“I know a lot of people didn’t get to see it because of the erratic scheduling. I mean, we were always hearing people saying, ‘Oh, we turned on your show and it wasn’t on and ‘Twenty-One’ was on,'” show creator Paul Feig said.

In other cases, the lower expectations of a weak time slot can help. CBS’ “Touched By an Angel,” written off at the start by many in the business, had time to grow into a hit at 8 p.m. Saturdays, before moving to Sundays. CBS hoped its successor, “Early Edition,” would become another family-oriented Saturday success, network president Leslie Moonves said.

“It was given four years to run. It did OK. Then the ratings started to slip. We felt we could do better than that,” he said.

Good time slot.

For years, TV’s most protected time slot was 9:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC, where a fledgling show was “hammocked” between two hits, “Seinfeld” (later “Frasier”) and “ER.” Shows such as “Veronica’s Closet” had strong ratings in that spot, earning renewal, but audiences dropped substantially when they moved to other time periods.

After seeing that happen repeatedly, NBC began demanding better results from the show in that time slot. So, last year’s 9:30 occupant, “Stark Raving Mad,” was canceled, even though it had more viewers than many other shows.

One of TV’s best (and more unusual) comedies, ABC’s “Sports Night,” suffered a similar fate. In its 9:30 Tuesday time slot, “Sports Night” had OK ratings, but couldn’t hold on to enough of the audience passed on by “Dharma & Greg” and didn’t deliver enough viewers to the 10 p.m. shows, “Once and Again” and “NYPD Blue,” ABC executives said.

“We loved that series,” said Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television. In TV, however, love often means having to say you’re sorry.

“Sports Night” didn’t fit with ABC’s other shows, program creator Aaron Sorkin said. He said “Sports Night” and its 9 p.m. lead-in, “Dharma & Greg,” attracted different kinds of viewers, so that it’s no wonder that “Sports Night” didn’t hold on to “Dharma & Greg’s” audience.

Poor marketing.

Remember Fox’s “Get Real”? Probably not, and that’s the problem, Grushow said. The edgy family drama was launched before most other fall premieres, was preempted for baseball playoffs, and never got the audience “traction” it needed, he said.

Money, money, money.

“La Femme Nikita” had decent ratings for four years on USA Network, but fell victim to a dispute over the cost of a renewal deal.

“The freeze on ‘La Femme Nikita’ was purely a political thing between the network and the studio,” star Peta Wilson said.

Money also played a role in the demise of CBS’ critically praised “Now and Again,” whose so-so ratings couldn’t justify the expensive $2.4 million cost per episode.

“It would have been idiotic to pick up that show” when an episode’s expenses exceeded revenues by more than $1 million, Moonves said.

There is good news, however. Shows can get a second chance. Here are some reasons why:

Small safety “nets.”

Programs on the mini-networks, the WB and UPN, can survive with lower ratings. Since those networks target youthful niches rather than a broad audience, they can experiment with sluggish but promising shows. The extra time helps some shows find an audience.

“‘7th Heaven’ was the lowest-rated show on network television. Now it’s our highest-rated show,” said Jordan Levin, The WB’s executive vice president of programming.

The mini-networks can be a haven. ABC’s “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” is moving to the WB, and ABC’s “The Hughleys” is going to UPN. They were victims of ABC’s decision to end its family-friendly “TGIF” Friday lineup, but they could fit in on the youth-oriented networks.

Ya gotta have friends.

Fans helped save “Roswell”. “I had to change my e-mail address at work three times because it just kept getting full of thousands of e-mails,” WB Entertainment President Susanne Daniels said.