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May 1, 2001
For TV’s Vulnerable Shows, It’s Fear-and-Lobbying Season
By BERNARD WEINRAUB
HOLLYWOOD, April 30 — This is the time of year in television when writers like Paul Attanasio grow nervous.
“The network says they like our show, they support our show, but it’s meaningless if they don’t support us for another year,” said Mr. Attanasio, who created ABC’s “Gideon’s Crossing,” a medical drama that has struggled to find an audience. “I’m really trying to fight for our show.”
It’s also the time of year when television executives like Jordan Levin, co-president for entertainment at the WB network, are not only watching new series pilots that may be ordered for next season but also receiving phone calls, e-mail and even gift baskets from talent agents and producers imploring them to keep series on the air that may be vulnerable.
“The pressure gets turned up, and everyone tries to leverage their relationship with you,” Mr. Levin said. “And there’s so much misinformation being passed around town that people here could give lessons to the C.I.A.”
The new schedules, marked by more uncertainty than usual this year because of possible strikes by writers and actors, will be announced for potential advertisers in two weeks in New York. Television executives are now screening possible new shows and listening to the plans and pleas of writers of current series as they decide about the new schedules.
Perhaps as many as a dozen series are “on the bubble,” or vulnerable to cancellation. The shows are often first- or second-year series that have floundered in the ratings or proved disappointing to the networks. But the size of an audience watching a series is only one factor in the decision making.
Television executives say, for example, that NBC may have a hard time canceling the potentially vulnerable series “Third Watch,” about firefighters and emergency rescue workers, because its creator, John Wells, has an entrenched relationship with the network as an executive producer of hits like “E.R.” and “The West Wing.”
Similarly, ABC executives are weighing the cancellation of “Once and Again,” the critically acclaimed series starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell about two divorced people trying to forge a relationship.
That show’s ratings have been modest. But working to its advantage is ABC’s interest in maintaining a strong tie to the show’s creators, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who also developed “Thirtysomething” and are top television writer-producers. The show is produced by Touchstone Television, a unit of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC and would benefit financially if “Once and Again” generates enough episodes to make it viable for syndication, where profits mushroom.
“I love the show,” said Stuart Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Television Group. “And I would get such grief in my house if this show weren’t on ABC, I can’t imagine it going anywhere else.” Yet Mr. Bloomberg said no decision had been made on “Once and Again.” “You can’t look at any show in a vacuum,” he said.
The shows on the bubble this year include CBS offerings with heavily female audiences like “Family Law” and “Kate Brasher” as well as “Nash Bridges,” “That’s Life” and “The Fugitive”; NBC’s “Fighting Fitzgeralds,” “Three Sisters” and “Weber Show”; the ABC shows “The Job,” “Two Guys and a Girl,” “Norm,” “The Geena Davis Show” and “What About Joan”; and Fox’s “Lone Gunmen.” On the smaller WB, “Angel,” “Jack and Jill,” “Popular” and “Roswell” are among the shows that may not be renewed.
Internal politics have always stamped renewal decisions. CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” one of television’s most successful comedies, floundered in its first season, 1996-97, and was saved from cancellation not only because network executives found it appealing but also because David Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants, was one of the producers. By all accounts, CBS executives did not want to offend the network’s late-night star if possible.
Similarly, in 1997 NBC struggled mightily to placate the creators of the hugely successful sitcom “Friends” by placing their new show, “Veronica’s Closet,” in the choice time slot at 9:30 on Thursday nights. “Veronica’s Closet,” with Kirstie Alley as a successful businesswoman, failed to stir audiences but lingered until 1999 largely because of the clout of its creators.
Jeff Zucker, the recently appointed president of NBC West Coast, said: “Ratings are only one factor in making these decisions. There’s also the question of whether the show has potential, where you think the show can go and how it stacks up to what we have.”
Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox TV Entertainment Group, said the phone calls often come from executives at studios who are producing multiple shows on a network.
“They can certainly make life more painful,” he said. Studios sometime use their contracted writers as bargaining chips and say, essentially, “This is what we’re prepared to do for you with these writers,” he said.
The network decision making is often intense. As many as two dozen executives view each new pilot and discuss the bubble shows.
“You look at the competition, you look at the lead-in, you ask yourself if this show is going in the right direction,” said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television. He said he had been listening to executives who work for him before making up his mind on the current shows.
“I keep my mouth shut, I do,” he said. “The worst thing you can do as a network president is to speak first.”
Especially active in applying pressure are top talent agencies, which, like studios, can use potent leverage: their strong client lists.
For the creators of the vulnerable series, the waiting is often marked by quiet desperation. Mr. Attanasio, who has written films like “Donnie Brasco” and was one of the creators of NBC’s “Homicide — Life on the Street,” said that although ABC had been supportive of “Gideon’s Crossing,” the experience on the show had been frustrating. The show has an average of 8.7 million viewers, which leaves it trailing CBS’s “Family Law” and NBC’s “Third Watch.” (None of those three shows have performed well.)
By contrast, a top-rated dramatic series like NBC’s “Law and Order” has an audience of nearly 18 million each week.
Mr. Attanasio said his show was initially pitted against “Law and Order” on Wednesday nights at 10, which proved extremely difficult, and then was moved to Monday at 10. But that also turned sour because, he said, movies like “These Old Broads” were often placed on the schedule right before his series, offerings that appealed to a comedy crowd not interested in staying on to watch the serious, often dour “Gideon’s Crossing.”
But Mr. Attanasio acknowledged that his show had inherent problems, too. Some critics have found the star, André Braugher, a bit humorless and self-righteous. Mr. Attanasio has told ABC that if the show is retained, the Braugher character, who is a doctor, will evolve into a slightly different personality. He will become a widower recovering from a heart attack who will be dating women and will, Mr. Attanasio hopes, generally be more accessible to audiences.
But Mr. Attanasio is not sure the show will survive. He said that over the years hits as varied as “Seinfeld,” “Law and Order” and “Hill Street Blues” had begun modestly, but their networks had allowed them to grow.
“Because of shows now like `Millionaire’ and `Survivor,’ the networks realize they can make so much money quickly, they can catch lightning in a bottle, and they don’t have to be patient and nurturing of shows,” he said.
In their offices in Santa Monica, the writing-directing team of Mr. Zwick and Mr. Herskovitz are in a similar state of uneasy limbo. They are waiting to see if the network will cancel “Once and Again” as it completes its second season. The hourlong show, with about 8.4 million viewers, has earned its strongest ratings in recent weeks, especially among adults 18 to 49, but has hardly reached the hit category.
“We feel vulnerable, and in our case it’s not a particularly happy experience, and neither is it a new one,” said Mr. Zwick, whose shows with Mr. Herskovitz, including “Thirtysomething” and “My So- Called Life,” were perennially on the bubble. Mr. Zwick said with a laugh, “We’ve grown accustomed to the state of constant anxiety and dread.”