As a member of the rock group the Eagles, Glenn Frey had five Billboard No. 1 hits, making the band 13th on the list of all-time hitmakers. His group's run on the charts lasted a full decade.
But two weeks ago, Frey got to be part of a less enviable record. The show in which he had his first starring role, "South of Sunset," became one of only four shows in network television history to be canceled after its first episode. CBS dumped "South of Sunset" after it got what is thought to be the lowest rating ever for a network prime-time series premiere, attracting only 9% of the available viewers.
"You struggle so hard to get on a network's schedule," said "South of Sunset" executive producer Stan Rogow, who created the series with John Byrum. "So you've got to take this as a good news, bad news sort of thing. I just don't think anybody figured on how bad the news was going to be."
What made "South of Sunset's" demise even more unusual was the extremely heavy promotion CBS gave the show during its World Series coverage. Frey and his co-star, Aries Spears, had so much air time on the promotional spots that they seemed as much a part of the Series as John Kruk's paunch.
"South of Sunset" starred Frey as Cody McMahon, described in CBS publicity material as "a once-successful studio security chief (who) now works out of an office at a questionable Beverly Hills address." Newcomer Spears played his sidekick, Ziggy Duane, a hip young guy from South-Central Los Angeles. The show was designed to get CBS some of the male audience at 9 p.m. Wednesdays that has been so dominated by the ABC sitcom "Home Improvement."
"There were other shows that tested better, but ("South of Sunset") provided a certain balance. CBS' weakness is with young males; we acknowledge that," said David Poltrack, CBS senior vice president for planning and research. "We hadn't added much this season that was going to address that weakness. That's what put this show on the schedule."
But, as is so often apparent in hindsight, "South of Sunset" had a huge set of hurdles to overcome from the beginning. Despite the seemingly endless amount of promotion during the World Series, it suffered from having a late start in the fall TV season. Then CBS decided it wanted changes in the pilot, so the first show was not available for advertisers or critics to review.
Few critics even acknowledged the premiere on Oct. 27. Some who did took the extraordinary measure of bypassing CBS and going directly to executive producer Rogow to get review tapes. Rogow has been a favorite of critics; his two previous creations, "Shannon's Deal" and "Middle Ages," were well-reviewed for their quirkiness, sharp writing and high-brow mix of comedy and drama. Unfortunately, neither were Nielsen successes. "Shannon's Deal," with Jamey Sheridan as a down-and-out lawyer fighting a gambling addiction, got bounced around the NBC schedule for a year before being killed off in May, 1991. "Middle Ages," a dark piece concentrating on the lives of 40ish folks in midlife crisis, was swept away by CBS after six episodes in the summer of 1992.
Rogow seemed perturbed by the CBS decision not to send critics review tapes, especially knowing that critics believe that generally means the network thinks the show is not very good.
"There was a perception we had something to hide, but we just didn't have the pilot ready," he said. "Forgive me, people in publicity, but how about trying the truth? Why not send the critics two other episodes we had finished and tell them the pilot was still being worked on? At least we would have been reviewed."
But all the positive criticism in the world would not have overcome the biggest problem "South of Sunset" had: a time period against one blockbuster "Home Improvement" and two relative successes, "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric" on NBC and "Melrose Place" on Fox.
"There was already (60% of the audience) spoken for," Rogow lamented. "The show was geared to a male audience that essentially said, 'We already have a show to watch at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.' "
Of the thousands of network prime-time series aired, only three before "South of Sunset" were canceled after only one outing: "You're in the Picture," a 1961 game show hosted by Jackie Gleason; "Turn On," a 1969 comedy show from "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter, and "Melba," a 1986 sitcom starring Melba Moore.
CBS' decision to get rid of "South of Sunset" so quickly has drawn criticism in the production community, which already was unhappy with the network for its policy this season of only ordering six episodes of most new shows instead of the usual eight, 13 or, in some cases, an entire season's 22, as the other networks do. But CBS' Poltrack said the quick hook for "South of Sunset" was unrelated to the short-order practice.
"What happened is that the show opened with such a low base that we didn't see any significant potential to build on," he explained. "We were up against the November sweeps, which are a critical and very competitive part of the year. This show would have been a significant hole in the schedule and it had negatively impacted '48 Hours' (the show that followed it), which is normally a time-slot winner."
As to why "South of Sunset" failed to get an audience despite the great amount of promotion, Poltrack could only hazard a guess.
"This type of 'buddy' show is basically associated with theatrical movies," he said. "In the movies, this type of program is characterized by a lot of special effects, very explicit language, some sexuality and a very high level of violence, none of which could be translated to network TV. It's possible that the people who like this kind of program were saying, 'Oh, well, this is just a network TV version of (the movie) "48 HRS."--a pale version, no doubt.'
"In that case, it was not a fault of the execution or actors," he said, noting that action-adventure shows have seen a steady decline in audience since the mid-1980s. "Perhaps it's a case that this kind of light action-adventure program won't succeed on network television."
It is clear that executive producer Rogow won't be returning that way real soon. His next project is a movie for ABC titled "State of Terror," starring Rosanna Arquette and Scott Bakula. He hopes to return to series television with a "more personal" show, one like "Shannon's Deal," which was based on his time as a lawyer in Boston. (Frey, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment.)
"There wasn't anyone at CBS who had it in for me," Rogow said. "The finger is always on the trigger in this business. I was in some sense indulged in 'Shannon's Deal' because Brandon Tartikoff (then head of NBC Entertainment) loved the show.
"This was intended to be a bit more commercial than work I have done before," Rogow said with a chuckle.