In one of the strangest twists of the annual "upfront" season -- in which the networks present their fall schedules to the advertisers -- The WB's critically acclaimed family drama "Everwood" did not make the cut for inclusion on the inaugural schedule of The CW, a new network born of the merger of The WB and UPN.
Instead, CW programming chief Dawn Ostroff did an abrupt left turn and ordered an 11th season of the seemingly canceled WB family drama "7th Heaven," which is not as critically acclaimed but drew about 7 million viewers for its "finale" episode on May 8 (the show normally draws a little over 5 million viewers).
Stephen Collins, who plays the Christian-minister patriarch of the show's large Camden clan, knows his gain is "Everwood's" loss.
"Don't blame me," he says. "I don't know what went on behind the scenes from our fans, but I know that some people did speak and write letters and make calls, but mostly fans speak through the ratings, and The CW heard. I'm so thrilled."
"Oh, God," Collins says. "I have a feeling they're going to find Barry's and my bodies tied up and thrown in a river somewhere."
Although "7th" seemed quite dead when its finale aired, by the end of the week reports surfaced that The CW had picked it up. With less than a week remaining before the schedule was to be announced on Thursday, May 18, new deals had to be quickly struck with the cast and creator Brenda Hampton ("Fat Actress").
A new financial structure also had to be worked out, but, as the show is produced by CBS Paramount Network Television, a corporate half-sibling of The CW, that was made a bit easier.
"My deal closed at two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon," Collins says. "At four, I got the call saying, 'Would you please go to New York tomorrow morning?' My wife had been visiting her parents. She got home at 10 o'clock, and I'm packing to get up in the morning at 5:30 to make the morning flight. We were ships in the night.
"So I was out of here early on Wednesday, make it there in time for the affiliates dinner and the upfront."
During the presentation, selected CW stars were brought out to address the crowd, with some of the high-heeled women -- including Kristen Bell ("Veronica Mars") and Tyra Banks ("America's Next Top Model") -- nearly taking a fall on a slippery floor inset bearing The CW logo.
But the "7th Heaven" stars weren't brought out to speak.
"We could have slipped like everybody else," Collins says. "They brought us out at the end. It may be that we were such a late fill-in that they had the program written without us."
Afterward, Collins posed for pictures and pressed the flesh with affiliates and advertising executives.
"I did a good hour of that," he says. "What I saw also was that the affiliates and the advertisers were really happy about us coming back. They were wonderfully straightforward about that."
Family dramas like "7th Heaven" are always rare on network television, and Collins has a theory about that.
"There are so few writers," he says, "who really, A, want, and B, have the chops, to write a family drama. It's very hard to make good people interesting. It takes a certain kind of talent, that Brenda has, I've always said this, that Frank Capra had, and that it's much easier said than done.
"People stop me all the time and say, 'Why aren't there more shows like "7th Heaven" on?' Writers tend to get more interested, particularly younger writers, in what's dysfunctional rather than functional.
"What Brenda's strength is, is that she writes functional people who have dysfunctional elements in our lives. People who don't watch '7th Heaven' don't know that. They think it's squeaky clean and everything's perfect all the time.
"But I love that Brenda makes us testy and neurotic, and problems don't always get solved."