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When High Ratings Not Enough : Television: Showing by the Dabney Coleman series would usually be labeled a hit, but NBC expected more in the slot between ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘ER.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Madman of the People” is the 11th highest rated series on television so far this season. Two weeks ago it finished among the Top 5. A big hit, right? Dabney Coleman, who stars in the NBC show, must be the toast of Burbank.

And the Brooklyn Bridge must be for sale too.

In one of those seemingly illogical quirks of the TV business, good ratings in this case are actually a disaster. Such a disaster that Thursday night could very well be the last time anyone ever sees “Madman of the People.” No further broadcasts are scheduled, and NBC shut down production after 16 of the 19 episodes it originally ordered.

In any other spot on the NBC schedule, “Madman’s” numbers would be cause for celebration. But “hammocked” in the Thursday 9:30 p.m. slot between two of TV’s hottest shows--"Seinfeld” and “ER"--"Madman” has quite simply “blown it,” according to Paul Schulman, an advertising executive in New York.

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“People have flat-out rejected it. The amazing thing is how long NBC has stuck with it.”

The problem is audience drop-off. While both “Seinfeld” and “ER” have averaged a fantastic 30% share of audience this season, “Madman” has managed a 23% share--meaning that, instead of at least tolerating it while killing time between two favorite shows, millions of people are going out of their way to miss it. That costs NBC tens of thousands of dollars in lost advertising revenue every week as well as the golden opportunity to create another blockbuster hit.

Last season, for example, NBC stuck “Frasier” in the slot behind “Seinfeld” and it turned into a smash, enabling the network to move “Frasier” to Tuesdays and establish another lucrative evening almost from scratch.

“The show’s been struggling,” conceded Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. “We’ve gone through several executive producers on the show (to try to make it work). We feel that 16 episodes is enough to have a sense of whether it can return for next year.”

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“Madman” centers on Coleman--star of the critically beloved but low-rated “Buffalo Bill” and “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story"--as a mudslinging magazine columnist who spars with his boss/wunderkind daughter at the office and with his wife and two other grown children at home.

NBC recognized early that “Madman” had problems and tried hard to fix them rather than dumping it quickly and putting on something else. The show added and subtracted some minor characters, changed executive producers, tinkered with the focus. But nothing much helped.

“It’s just a bad show,” Schulman said. In a recent poll of TV critics by the trade publication Electronic Media, “Madman” ranked No. 2 on the list of the season’s worst series, trailing only Fox’s “Models Inc.”

Asked what went wrong with the series, Littlefield said, “It’s not a science. Who knows?”

No one with “Madman of the People” wanted to speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing future work relationships. But several who spoke on condition of anonymity told basically the same story: The concept upon which the show was built--Coleman feuding with his daughter/boss, played by Cynthia Gibb--wasn’t enough to carry a whole series, yet all of the producers concentrated almost exclusively on trying to make it work.

“There was a lot of silliness in the home environment that could have been better exploited,” said one person with the show. “It was something different for Dabney to play off of. But they kept focusing on the original premise. I think they should have looked at it, realized the limitations and branched off. How long can you watch people stir their coffee over the coffee machine?”

After the pilot episode, the series added two young professional characters into the office mix in an effort to give Coleman’s grouchy but gentle-hearted character more targets at which to aim his barbs. Sources with the show said that NBC wanted a more realistic tone, with reality-based situations, but the program’s original executive producers and creators, Stuart Kreisman and Christopher Cluess, tended more toward the wacky. One episode revolved around whether Coleman had murdered a noisy neighborhood bird. Another featured a group of nerdy college students shutting down the Lincoln Tunnel.

“They had these really great actors (including Concetta Tomei as the wife and John Ales as the son) playing some pretty interesting characters, and none of them were doing anything,” said another person who worked on the series.

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Kreisman and Cluess left in November, replaced by Stu Wolpert, a producer with a reputation as a show-fixer. One of the office characters was canned, but the series didn’t improve, and Wolpert left after a month. NBC canceled production of the last three episodes, let four of the show’s writers oversee the final two installments, and that was that.

For the next few weeks, “Madman’s” spot will be occupied by other NBC comedies, such as an hourlong “Seinfeld” and “Wings.” Beginning Feb. 23, “Friends” moves into the time slot.

The network retains options on the “Madman” actors until its announcement of the fall 1995 schedule in May, and Littlefield left open the vague possibility that he might give the series a shot in another time period. But that seems unlikely.

“If they put ‘Madman’ anywhere else on the schedule, it would get murdered,” Schulman said. “I think that if NBC had their druthers, they would love to move it not to another night, but to another network.”


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