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‘Nine’s’ strange, swift decline

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins' television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at channelisland @latimes.com

HANK Steinberg is trying to keep the faith. But it’s tough to wage war against doubt when the show you’ve poured the last 18 months of your life into has just disappeared from the TV schedule, and no one knows when it’s coming back.

Steinberg is executive producer of “The Nine,” ABC’s drama that was supposed to have been one of the big hits of the fall season. It was the sort of project that was seemingly blessed from the get-go. Critics loved the pilot, a tense thriller about hostages rescued from a 52-hour bank heist who emerge as a close-knit but emotionally battered group. Steinberg, moreover, clearly knew how to make a hit show; his missing-persons drama “Without a Trace” is in its fifth season on CBS. The large ensemble was headed by veteran TV actor Tim Daly (“Wings”), who played a heroic cop with a troubled past. And to help ensure that viewers at least checked out “The Nine,” the network bestowed a golden 10 p.m. Wednesday slot after the hit drama “Lost.”

You don’t need to toil on a soundstage to guess what happened next. “The Nine” tanked. This wasn’t a case of a show starting out strong, as is common, and then having the ratings slowly waft downward. The relatively low numbers for the “Nine” pilot -- 11.9 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research -- sent jaws dropping all over town. Once “Lost” was over, the audience fled as if watching ABC at that hour had been deemed harmful by the surgeon general. And it just got worse from there. The network glumly took note as the show steadily sunk in the ratings, week after week, and finally yanked it late last month. The last episode, on Nov. 22, was watched by a mere 4.1 million.

Some outlets have reported -- erroneously -- that the series is officially canceled. And Steinberg can understand why skeptics may assume the worst.

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“This may be hard for people to believe, but I believe they’ll bring it back for another shake,” he said last week. “They’ve been very supportive all the way through.”

The network says it has every intention of a return for “The Nine.” ABC executives are looking at running the remaining six unaired episodes starting in March or April, which would give the show’s small regiment of loyal fans a chance to tie up some loose plot strands. But the network didn’t order any new episodes from Warner Bros. Television, which means that crew members are out looking for new jobs. And some observers say it’s iffy whether ABC will even bother burning off the episodes, given the series’ dismal performance.

“I don’t know if they can bring it back,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president at Chicago ad firm Starcom.

Of course, TV history is filled with examples of acclaimed shows that struggled to find an audience, such as NBC’s crime drama “Boomtown” and ABC’s family show “Once and Again.” But “The Nine” fell further, and faster, than most.

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The most vexing question remains: What the heck happened? How did such a promising show whiff?

“If we knew,” ABC Executive Vice President Jeffrey D. Bader said wryly, “it would never happen.” He added that network executives remain happy with the creative side of “The Nine.”

That opinion is widely shared. Caraccioli-Davis dubbed the pilot “the most riveting piece of TV I’d seen in a long time.” But in retrospect, she added, that first episode may have proven too self-contained for many viewers who like episodic dramas. “It seemed almost too good for television, almost like a movie,” she said.

She also wonders whether viewers were looking for sheer escapism this fall, as evidenced by the strong numbers for NBC’s “Heroes.” “Maybe ‘The Nine’ was a little too real,” she said. It’s also possible that viewers mistook the show for a heist thriller rather than what the producers intended, a twisty character drama about a group of friends getting a second whack at life after a near-death experience.

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Steinberg, for his part, was initially pleased to have his show follow “Lost,” but now wonders whether it would work better paired with a “softer” character drama like “Grey’s Anatomy” (like all TV producers, he dreams big when it comes to scheduling).

But ultimately, theories that presume to explain failure are often no more satisfying than those aimed at illuminating success. “I’m sure there are 20 factors” behind “The Nine’s” ratings fizzle, Steinberg said.

One of the assumptions of the TV business is that if a show delivers the goods creatively, today’s TiVo-armed, tech-savvy viewers will find it, even if it airs at 2 a.m. and has a marketing budget of zero. That’s what many executives like to think, anyway, but it’s simply not true.

Who says that the audience always makes aesthetic quality the driving force behind its viewing habits? If that were the case, one would assume that NBC’s game show “Deal or No Deal” would die from lack of attention (it’s doing just fine, thanks). NBC Universal, in fact, even runs a website, www.brilliantbutcancelled.com, dedicated to acclaimed shows that couldn’t cut the mustard with viewers. And who decides what’s “good,” anyway?

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TV execs, media buyers and critics and columnists, like yours truly, are hardly a representative sample of Americans.

Not that any of that helps Steinberg, of course, who’s struggling to stay positive about one of the most frustrating episodes of his career.

“I always say the show is about second chances,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get ours.”


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