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Done In by Low Ratings

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Memo to Lex Luthor: Kryptonite isn’t the only thing in the universe that can slay Superman after all. Just like the mere mortals in TV land, he’s also susceptible to a wicked dose of bad ratings.

With absolutely none of the May sweeps hoopla devoted to the last hurrahs of other departing series like “Wings,” “Martin” and “Roseanne,” the final “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” will air at 8 tonight. Superman and Lois Lane won’t fly off into the sunset. They won’t lose their jobs in a terrorist takeover of the Daily Planet. They won’t even save the world from evil once and for all.

At the end of their fourth season on ABC, they will simply fade away.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

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A year ago, at the end of “Lois & Clark’s” third season, the prettiest couple on television was pretty super. The show had performed well in its critical 8 p.m. Sunday time period, usually besting everything the other networks threw at it, and ABC decided to renew it for two more years.

Then, this season, with no warning, “Lois & Clark’s” ratings plummeted faster than a speeding bullet. It wound up losing about half its audience, tumbling from an average of 18.4 million viewers each week the season before to a paltry 9.7 million this year.

ABC tried to salvage it, first moving it up an hour to 7 p.m. Sundays, then to Saturdays, but both tactics resulted only in further bleeding. So, despite having to pay Warner Bros., the studio that produced the show, a multimillion-dollar settlement for reneging on the second-year renewal, the network canceled the series.

“Actually, it’s amazingly freeing and kind of nice to have it over and done with,” said Dean Cain, who played Clark Kent/Superman, in an interview last week.

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Cain admitted that the show made some mistakes creatively that turned off millions of fans. Probably most critical, he said, was the buildup to the marriage of Lois and Clark in Season 3 that was ultimately called off at the last second. The duo did subsequently get married early in Season 4.

“We did a lot of that--building up to something and disappointing people’s expectations, then having to back over the same ground again to make up for it,” Cain said. “The show stopped taking chances. It became so frustrating for me and I’m sure for the viewers as well to see us doing the same things over and over, playing the same moments over and over.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that we moved in a different direction than what had been working. What made Superman so much fun is that it is fun to watch. When Superman is having fun and kicking ass, people love that--that excitement and escapism. When he’s not, when it’s too serious or too lovey-dovey or emotionally complicated, then it’s not the same show.”

Nor was the competition the same. In its strongest season, “Lois & Clark” was the only hourlong drama in the time period, facing nothing but sitcoms on CBS, NBC and Fox. Last fall, however, CBS moved “Touched by an Angel” into the Sunday night lineup and it sucked up viewers like a supercharged Hoover, leaping into the Top 10 of all programs on TV. NBC inserting its hit comedy “3rd Rock From the Sun” there didn’t help.

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But Ted Harbert, the former ABC Entertainment president who initially bought “Lois & Clark,” says the biggest problem the series encountered was of its own making: It fell into the trap that has plagued series from “Rhoda” to “Moonlighting.”

“The competition certainly was a drain, but I think many viewers reacted negatively to them getting married,” said Harbert, who left ABC early this year and is now a producer at DreamWorks. “In other shows, when the sexual tension is dissipated by marriage, a lot of viewers went away. If you read the stuff on the Internet, you have all these people who were dying for [Lois and Clark] to get married, but that course has been trouble for shows before and it was trouble for this one. People say they want to see wedded bliss, but it’s really the promise of that that keeps them coming back.”

He learned that lesson with “Dynasty,” he explained.

“It seems like the audience wants the couples to be together and happy. They tell you that and you make it happen--and the audience goes away,” Harbert said. “We got so many letters back then saying, ‘Don’t let Blake and Crystal,’ who were played by John Forsythe and Linda Evans, ‘break up. Don’t do it.’ But we did it anyway and got the highest ratings ever.”

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Warner Bros. executives declined to comment, although a studio spokesman said that after such a disappointing year, everyone concerned was happy to see the show disappear. Warner Bros. made ABC pay an undisclosed sum to get out of its deal and also received an early pickup of 13 episodes of a midseason replacement for ABC called “Hungry for Survival.”

The studio already has sold the series overseas and into syndication domestically. Repeats of “Lois & Clark” will air on TNT this fall.

As for the show’s two stars, neither is about to starve. Teri Hatcher is in London finishing up her work in the next James Bond film with Pierce Brosnan (the former star of TV’s “Remington Steele”). Cain, too, said he is poised to use his TV experience and fame as a steppingstone to feature films. He has already shot one feature with Drew Barrymore for MGM called “Best Men,” and he recently completed a movie for Showtime, “Dog Boys,” directed by Ken Russell, in which he plays an incarcerated ex-Marine boxer.

“I also just got offered a role as a hit man in a movie, but I’m not sure if I’ll do it,” Cain said. “I really do prefer to play the good guy.”

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Cain is disappointed that he and the rest of the show’s staff did not have an opportunity to send it off with a flourish.

“That’s the worst part, I think. That it just is gone--poof,” the actor said. “Had we known it was going to end, I think we would have tried earlier, harder to do some different things to make it popular again. We would have been more inventive and brash. I wish we would have at least tried to go out with a bang.”

* “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” airs at 8 tonight on ABC (Channel 7).


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