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Smart TV shows don't always succeed

Cost, characters , change , time. They all factor into whether a new show flops or flourishes.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published October 16, 2006


[ABC]
TV critic Eric Deggans calls ABC's Ugly Betty "awkwardly predictable."

It's a little like being the guy who always gets in the wrong line at the supermarket.

Or maybe it's like being the schlemiel who never picks the right horse at the track.

However you slice it, this critic's picks for the best new shows of fall 2006 haven't fared so well.

CBS's Smith? First series canceled. NBC's Kidnapped? Moved to Saturdays which is network-speak for "canceled three weeks from now". NBC's Saturday Night Live-style drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Threatened by steadily declining ratings.

My fave fall comedy, ABC's Knights of Prosperity, got pushed back, probably to January. And even the rah-rah football drama Friday Night Lights, a rare gem of a production filled with great sports re-enactments and quality acting, can't get arrested on Tuesday nights opposite Dancing With the Stars.

Two weeks into the new TV season's official start, and it's the mediocre stuff that has found the strongest legs: ABC's Ugly Betty, the English-language telenovela that I called "awkwardly predictable," Heroes, the regular-folks-with-superpowers drama that I accused of being too mopey (NBC rewarded it with a full-season order) and CBS's Jericho, a post-nuclear blast drama set to make a TV star of Skeet Ulrich.

What's going on here? Is the lesson, at a time when TV networks threw more quality at the screen than they have in years, that it might not pay to be too good?

Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming for the ad agency Carat USA Inc., shrugged off my "too smart" theory - blaming the season's high casualty rate on too many serialized dramas that demand close attention.

"You cannot expect viewers to make time for a whole palette of new shows they have to pay attention to," said Brill, who credits Fox's whiz-bang serial drama 24 with inspiring the current glut.

"People only have a certain amount of viewing hours they can give to TV. There are already established serialized dramas out there; it's not realistic to expect audiences to come to 10 different new dramas that also are serialized."

Perhaps. But I've got a few more explanations for why the smartest shows seem to be pushing up daisies.

Reason 1

Characters matter

Smith had cool stars like Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen slumming in TV, a slick premise based around a family man with a secret life as a high-powered thief and big-budget production values. What it didn't have - as a show packed by sociopathic criminals - was characters anybody could love, or even care much about.

It's a lesson I'm learning as a former ER fan who just can't stop watching that show, no matter how bad the stories get (Desperate Housewives viewers, you know my pain). Characters you care about can keep you engaged. Without them, does it really matter how cool a series is?

Reason 2

Costs matter

Smith, Kidnapped, Friday Night Lights and Studio 60 have something else in common besides my kiss-of-death critical approval. They cost a lot to make - which makes it tougher to keep them around when ratings aren't blowing the barn doors open.

Without big ratings, these series can survive only by snaring upscale audiences, the way Studio 60 creator Aaron Sorkin's West Wing once did (it's too early to know if his latest brainchild is performing similarly). And big-budget pilots have made it tough to judge whether the resulting series, which get less cash for each episode, are really going to shine.

In an environment like this, cheapo reality and game shows such as Deal or No Deal and Supernanny start to look really attractive.

Reason 3

Viewers can only take so much change

The serial abduction drama Kidnapped took over a time slot that had been held for many years by Law & Order, a show where every crime got solved in an hour. ABC's hit medical soap opera, Grey's Anatomy, leads into a new show, Six Degrees, about a half-dozen mysteriously connected New Yorkers with little romance.

And the king of all serials, ABC's Lost, leads into yet another serialized drama about a solved hostage crisis, The Nine.

"Having another serial drama coming out of Lost is just too much to take," said Marc Berman, a TV ratings and programming analyst for Mediaweek.com. "And with Kidnapped - when you have a show like Law & Order that sits in a time period for years and suddenly it's not there, suddenly people say, 'Well, I won't be there either.' Something like that needs time to overcome."

But time is exactly what TV shows don't have these days, as the networks yank underperforming shows within a couple of airings. Already, the fledgling CW network has switched its Monday and Sunday night lineups, placing an evening of black-centered TV series back on Mondays where they did well for now-dissolved network UPN.

Berman expects more carnage: Anne Heche's dramedy Men in Trees, Ted Danson's underperforming comedy Help Me, Help You and Donnie Wahlberg's family-on-the-run drama Runaway are all on his list. Brill predicts Fox's kidnapping drama Vanished will die after its move to Fridays.

How did a predictable dramedy about a supposedly homely Latina, Ugly Betty, wind up the best-rated new fall show?

"It's so obvious, you know where this is going, but I knew viewers would like it," said Brill, a Betty fan. "It was (adapted from) one of the top-rated Colombian telenovelas, and (star) America Ferrera is wonderful. There's a comfort zone there people responded to."

In other words, smart is cool, but likable and predictable is even better. Especially on network television.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

[Last modified October 16, 2006, 09:29:14]


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