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As networks stumble, fall seems an apt name

TiVo this: Of 28 new shows begun in the fall, just eight are winners.

By Eric Deggans
Published May 14, 2007


It started with such promise.

As the 2006-07 TV season kicked off last fall, the only problem viewers faced was how to take in all the bounty: series with big-name stars such as Ray Liotta, James Woods and Sally Field; complex, well-written showcases like Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the serialized drama Kidnapped; a pioneering new face in network news with former Today show anchor Katie Couric taking over the CBS Evening News.

Yet, as the season winds down its last two weeks, the results are anything but positive. Viewership is down for the four big broadcast networks by 2.5-million people compared with last year. Couric's newscast fired its executive producer just after its six-month anniversary and notched its lowest ratings in at least 20 years during the first week of May's "sweeps" ratings period.

And all those revolutionary new TV shows may have proven a bit too progressive. Of the 28 new shows that debuted, 20 have either been canceled or face cancellation when the networks' new schedules are released this week. In all, nearly 30 series have been deep-sixed on network TV this season, including longtime favorites such as 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, The O.C. and The King of Queens.

What's going on here?

"I think people just watch television differently than they have in past, " said Sarah Bunting, a contributor to MSNBC and New York magazine who co-founded the TV-centered Web site Television Without Pity. "Because of the ability to download TV shows and use the digital video recorder TiVo, people feel perfectly free to go out to dinner and catch their favorite show later. You're not necessarily seeing the appointments in appointment television kept."

And though it's true the TV industry hasn't yet learned how to deal with time-shifted viewing, Mediaweek.com ratings guru Marc Berman has another pointed lesson from this season for TV executives.

"You can't fool the TV viewer, " said Berman, who criticized quick cancellation of shows, the long break series such as Lost and Heroes took in December and January and the CW's attempt to make a network from underperforming shows on UPN and the WB.

"You can't tell the viewer we have this brand new network, and then present this slate with all these mediocre shows, " he said. "If you frustrate a viewer, they're not going to come back."

Today marks the beginning of the end, as TV networks this week announce their fall programming slates to advertisers and industry types in New York. This means all the series hanging by their fingernails get a final answer (Law & Order, this means you).

But I'm going to risk a little egg on my face by handing out an early report card. Here's my list of winners and losers from the 2006-07 TV season; with any luck, a few executives and producers will be taking notes.

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

WINNERS

COMPELLING CHARACTERS - What does comic book-fed superhero drama Heroes have in common with the ugly duckling dramedy Ugly Betty? Both are stocked with well-drawn characters who won viewers' hearts quickly. Indeed, the dip in ratings for ABC's Lost this season can probably be traced to the producers' decision to focus on a bunch of new characters that viewers didn't enjoy early on.

AMERICAN IDOL - Let the critics complain about a lackluster field of contestants and that guy with the funny name and crazy hair. When it finishes the season this month, Fox's blockbuster talent show will make history as the only show to score as the most-watched series on TV in its sixth season. I'm sure most TV producers would love to fail like that. 

ROSIE O'DONNELL - She has snarked off hairline-challenged tycoon Donald Trump, pushed Barbara Walters to the backseat on her own show and walked away from a $10-million deal for The View to forge her own TV destiny. If there's anyone on TV with more chutzpah, I haven't seen them lately.

THE RICHES - For an ambitious TV network that hasn't had a new hit in years, this Minnie Driver/Eddie Izzard series about a family of con artists living the good life has become a delicious success for FX.

 

LOSERS

BAIT-AND-SWITCH SCHEDULING - The CW promoted a Sunday schedule of black-centered comedies for months, only to switch it to Mondays after two weeks of bad ratings. And promising series such as Lost (left), Heroes (right) and Jericho saw huge viewer losses after taking two-month breaks from new episodes in the middle of the season. "I've always got people coming up to me asking where to find their favorite show, " said Mediaweek's Berman, who thinks network ratings would improve if schedulers showed more patience. "Confused viewers stop watching."

AMERICAN IDOL - Those critics who complained about a lackluster field of contestants and the success of undertalented teenybopper favorite Sanjaya Malakar? They were right. 

STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP - Highly promoted by NBC with a crackling pilot by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, this series is Exhibit A for a bitter lesson: A good pilot episode doesn't necessarily translate into a great series.

KATIE COURIC - Bet those days of trading quips with Martha Stewart and Richard Simmons don't look so bad now.

DONALD TRUMP - Even picking senseless fights with the brassiest woman on daytime TV couldn't save his lackluster Apprentice reality show, which passed its sell-by date a few seasons ago.