The New TV SEASON : Preparing for Failure : Programming is a guessing game and the team with the strongest replacement shows often wins
Although the fall TV season is still two weeks away, an ABC drama called “Equal Justice” already is being touted as one of the best new shows of the year. Set in the district attorney’s office of a brawny metropolis, it has a mostly thirtysomething ensemble cast, a highly stylized look and a Wunderkind producer who made his name turning TV pilots into critically acclaimed series.
What “Equal Justice” doesn’t have is a place on ABC’s schedule. Instead, it has been picked up by the network as a replacement series and will sit out the crush of new programs this fall while waiting for the right time slot to open. It is one of nearly two dozen unscheduled programs already sent into production by the networks for eventual airing. All are products of the schizophrenic way TV seasons are hatched: Network executives must simultaneously find ways to promote their nascent programs while diligently planning for their demise.
“It’s a fact of life,” says Ted Harbert, executive vice president of prime-time programs at ABC. “The majority of new shows will fail. The hardest thing I have to do after setting the fall schedule is to come in the next week and think, ‘Which of these shows are going to die? Which will I have to replace first?’ It’s agonizing.”
If network television programming were an exact science, all the new programs would be hits--adored by viewers, praised by critics, sought after by advertisers. But it’s a guessing game, for the most part, not a science--a business in which success is rare. And so while the networks are creating a promotional frenzy to trumpet the new season, they are also readying a second wave of programs to replace the inevitable casualties.
Ordering backup shows is hardly a new development for the networks. But changes in the television industry--particularly the dwindling number of viewers watching network programs--have caused the Big Three to place added emphasis on their replacement strategies. The average ratings of new shows are so low and the probability of cancellation is so great that programmers are increasingly finding it worthwhile to nurture a promising series rather than rush it into the fray.
That was the case with another ABC backup series called “Elvis: Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which focuses on the early years of Elvis Presley. ABC executives knew they had a hot concept on their hands--a weekly program about the King is virtually guaranteed extensive news media coverage and heavy viewer sampling. Realizing this, the network toyed with the idea of scheduling it on Thursday nights opposite NBC’s powerful, but aging, “Cosby Show.” But in the end, ABC decided to save Elvis for later.
“This is such a special project,” says Harbert. “It’s too good an opportunity to rush it.”
ABC executives felt they needed a stronger sense of the show’s direction, says a source, and decided to order it as a backup, thereby giving the producers at New World longer to develop the half-hour series. Already, “Elvis” probably has received as much news coverage as any show on the fall schedule, even without an air date.
At NBC, the network is taking its time developing an Alan Alda drama. “We may have that show available for the spring,” says Warren Littlefield, executive vice president of prime-time shows for NBC, “and we may not. We’re not going to be in a position where we rush it.”
There are other examples of replacement shows expected to rival the starters for attention. “There are three programs on the networks’ backup lists that are as strong as anything they have on the schedule,” says adman Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co. and one of the leading TV handicappers on Madison Avenue. He calls “Equal Justice” “brilliantly done” and also gives high marks to another ABC backup drama called “Capital News,” which is set in a Washington, D.C., newspaper, and NBC’s “Truck One,” a police drama--"I hate the title but the show really holds your attention,” says Schulman.
Also expected to have strong hit potential is a NBC midseason sitcom about small-town families called “Grand, Pa.” from the Carsey-Werner Co., which currently produces TV’s top two shows--"Roseanne” and “Cosby.”
Other replacement shows ordered by ABC are “Twin Peaks,” a drama from “Blue Velvet” director David Lynch; “New Attitude,” a sitcom about the owner-operators of a neighborhood beauty salon, and the “Marshall Chronicles,” an inner-city teen comedy. NBC is developing a comedy starring Carol Burnett, “The Ann Jillian Show,” about a mother-daughter relationship, and “Working Girl,” which is based on the movie. The network has ordered additional scripts (but so far no additional episodes) of the drama “Shannon’s Deal” that writer/film director John Sayles (“Eight Men Out”) created. According to Littlefield, the network may also pick up a replacement comedy from the former head writers of “The Golden Girls,” who left the show and formed their own company at the end of last season.
CBS’ backup shows include the return of “Beauty and the Beast”; “Bagdad Gas & Oil,” which stars Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton in a comedy based on the cult film “Bagdad Cafe”; “Normal Life,” a sitcom starring the Zappa kids Dweezil and Moon; “His and Hers,” starring Martin Mull and Stephanie Faracy in a comedy about marriage counselors who are married, and “Loose Cannon,” a police drama starring Shadoe Stevens as an unconventional cop. Fox has ordered episodes of an animated series “The Simpsons”; a TV version of “The Outsiders” from Francis Ford Coppola and a sitcom called “Malloy,” about an outspoken teen-ager.
Some shows wind up as backup programming because they were developed outside the normal time frame of TV development season--that is, pilot shot in the winter, show picked up or rejected in the spring. NBC wasn’t pitched the Carol Burnett show until just before the end of pilot season, says NBC’s Littlefield. Matt Williams, who created the “Roseanne” show only to be bounced by Roseanne Barr, had just been signed to a lucrative deal at Disney and was teamed there with Burnett, who already had a contract at the studio. “There’s no way that show could have been ready for the fall,” Littlefield says.
But in most cases, replacement show choices are the result of strategic planning. At NBC, says Littlefield, programmers try to identify those pilots that could have been good but just didn’t work for some reason. With “Working Girl,” says the NBC exec, “we felt the pilot was pretty good, but we thought it could be a lot better.” The network’s programmers decided the comedy focused too much on life inside the office. Now, the show is being revamped to include more home life.
After fine-tuning promising pilots, says Littlefield, “We play the ‘What If?’ game. You look at the fall schedule and you think, ‘What if? What if ‘227' gets taken out by the competition? What are you going to do?’ You go through the schedule in a worst-case scenario. ‘Have I protected all my time periods? Have I covered 8 o’clock?’ ”
The art of picking backup series requires programmers to be skillful matchmakers, ordering shows that are designed to fill the time slots where they are most likely to be needed. A detective series heavy on violence and lust could air at 10 p.m., but not at 8 p.m., when children are more likely to be watching. Ideally, the replacement programs will also be compatible with the shows that air before and after them.
If NBC needs a replacement program early in the new season, it will probably be on Friday night. “We’ve got three new shows on that night,” notes Littlefield, who says the network would be crazy not to have an action-adventure backup ready to plug into its Friday lineup of rough-and-tumble programs. If NBC does develop problems on that night, expect to see “Truck One” rushed to the scene.
At ABC, the reasoning behind putting “Equal Justice” on the backup list provides insight to the network’s entire programming strategy. The show always was viewed as a top contender for a fall slot. The executive producer of the drama is Thomas Carter, who has reached near-legendary status in Hollywood for his innovative work directing pilots. All eight of the pilots Carter directed before this one--including such critical successes as “Miami Vice,” “St. Elsewhere” and “A Year in the Life"--were picked by the networks to become series. “Equal Justice,” which he also directed, makes it nine for nine.
But although ABC ordered several strong dramas aimed at 10 p.m. time slots, none were scheduled. “Our understanding from the network,” says Gary Randall, president of production at Orion Television, which is producing “Equal Justice,” “was that since they were adding so many new comedies (earlier in the evening), they didn’t want to make wholesale changes from 9:30 to 11.” Programmers believe that massive scheduling changes tend to confuse and alienate viewers.
ABC has added comedies on five nights, the theory being that the half-hour shows will have a better chance of finding an audience during the early, frenetic weeks of the new season. The hour-long dramas will be added once viewers have adjusted to the first wave of new programs. “We made a very calculated move in picking up several dramas to put on later,” says Harbert.
“Equal Justice” will most likely end up on Wednesday or Tuesday or possibly Monday nights, Randall says. “China Beach,” which received so-so ratings last season, could lose its Wednesday 10 p.m. slot if it doesn’t add viewers this time around. There also have been discussions within ABC about moving “thirtysomething” out of its Tuesday 10 p.m. slot. There also is a possibility that ABC may break with its tradition of replacing “Monday Night Football” with a movie at the end of the NFL season. The network may add series programming instead. “That’s a decision we’ll make later,” says Harbert, who is loathe to reveal his plans.
For now, the ABC executive is waiting to find out if his programming decisions will bring the network closer to the top spot now held by NBC. Did he pick some hits? Did he avoid absolute disasters? Harbert feels confident that he’s played the scheduling board wisely, yet there’s that one TV truism that haunts all network executives.
“No one,” says Harbert, “knows what works in television.”