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‘Til death -- or the network -- do us part

JOSH GOLDSMITH, like so many others, is waiting for The Call.

“Every time the phone rings, you think, ‘Is this it?’ ” he said. “It’s a nerve-wracking time.”

As creator and executive producer of the Fox sitcom “ ‘Til Death,” Goldsmith is sweating through a springtime ritual of the TV business, trying to distract himself with happy thoughts while network bosses decide whether to bring his show back for another year. The only note of grace is that the date of execution or reprieve cannot be postponed; the networks trot out their fall schedules next month in lavish New York ceremonies.

You know “ ‘Til Death” -- or maybe you don’t, which explains why it’s fighting to keep its spot on the schedule. Critics have mostly rolled their eyes at the series, which mines for humor and sexual innuendo in the travails of a long-bickering Philadelphia couple (Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher). The ratings haven’t been great, but Fox has shown patience, and the show did perk up a bit this spring when it was put behind “American Idol.” Then again, unedited videotape of your last family trip could probably rack up a decent number behind “Idol.”

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So, “ ‘Til Death” joins a dozen or so other network series that are, in one of those endearing industry metaphors, “on the bubble.” Other high-profile shows in this group include the NBC dramas “Law & Order” (now in its 17th season), “Friday Night Lights” and “Crossing Jordan”; CBS’ “Jericho” and “The Class”; and ABC’s drama “What About Brian” and the sitcom “According to Jim.” The CW’s “Veronica Mars” and “Gilmore Girls” should be added to the list as well. (Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive roster, and it doesn’t include many shows that are definitely saying sayonara, such as the CW’s “7th Heaven,” as well as those that have already been picked up for next year, such as NBC’s “30 Rock” or ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and “Men in Trees.”)

Whether due to marginal ratings or tangled financial considerations -- or, typically, a combination of both -- the fate of these unfortunates is so precarious that even Hollywood’s biggest touts, cynics and bull artists don’t feel confident predicting whether they’ll survive for another season. The network execs themselves don’t know, because they haven’t started screening finished pilots for new shows, and thus have no idea whether it’s time to toast development plans that succeeded wildly or time to pull the kids out of private school.

“How you make these decisions is messy,” said Vince Manze, NBC’s newly installed president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, sounding almost apologetic.

The process is getting even messier as the networks continue to battle audience erosion. For example, is it possible that the pilloried “ ‘Til Death” might come back in the fall, while NBC’s critically beloved but little-watched youth soap “Friday Nights Lights” is allowed to expire alone in a dark corner? Well, sure. Television is brutal.

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Asked what looks at-risk at his network, ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader replied instantly, “Our comedies.” It’s true -- belly laughs seldom erupted at ABC’s Burbank headquarters this season, as its half-hour offerings such as “Big Day,” “In Case of Emergency,” “Help Me Help You” and “The Knights of Prosperity” flopped. Most observers don’t expect those shows to return; the ax could likewise fall on aging veterans such as “According to Jim” and “George Lopez.” ABC needs an extreme comedy makeover for next season. (One possibility: The network could import NBC’s comedy “Scrubs,” which happens to be made by ABC’s sister company, ABC Television Studio, and has had a semi-permanent residence on NBC’s bubble for a while now.)

“They’re hurting in a lot of hours,” remarked Shari Anne Brill of New York-based ad firm Carat USA.

The picture doesn’t look much brighter for “What About Brian,” although the low-rated drama “does have a fairly vocal fan base” among its target audience of young women, Bader noted.

Meanwhile, over at CBS, which is generally in strong shape, one of the biggest surprises of this season has been the sharp reversal of fortune for “Jericho,” the thriller about the residents of a small Kansas town in the wake of a nuclear calamity. The show started the season as a modest hit -- last fall, your humble columnist even lumped it in with “Betty” and NBC’s hit “Heroes” -- but ratings tumbled when it was brought back in February after a two-month hiatus. Now, its prospects for a sophomore season are no better than 50-50.

Did the split season hurt the show? Possibly, but CBS execs, like their counterparts at other networks, have found it challenging to schedule serialized dramas without relying on repeats or layoffs, either of which can turn off hard-core fans.

In any event, “Jericho” “didn’t captivate viewers after it came back from hiatus,” Brill said, adding: “I couldn’t see how something so gruesome would have audience appeal.”

One important clue regarding “Jericho”: It’s axiomatic in the TV business that networks frequently make renewal decisions based on whether a series performs better or worse than the network’s overall prime-time average. CBS is averaging a 3.8/10 rating among viewers ages 18 to 49 this season, including the high-rated Super Bowl telecast, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. “Jericho” is averaging a 2.9/8.

Given that NBC again finds itself in fourth place, executives there will find themselves making plenty of farewell calls to producers next month. Yep, that includes Aaron Sorkin, whose ultra-pricey “Studio 60" is considered an all-but-certain casualty. Another big name on the list may be “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf, who’s reportedly hacking away at the show’s budget to try to persuade executives to order an 18th season.

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But the most agonizing internal debate will likely come over “Friday Night Lights,” a series that’s loved by critics, executives and a ferociously devoted fan base yet can’t seem to make a dent in the ratings.

“Certainly, I’ll never be able to check my e-mail again if we don’t schedule it,” Manze joked, referring to viewers’ passionate feelings about the show. If it’s renewed, he added, “the most difficult thing is, where do you put it?” The show fizzled on Tuesdays and hasn’t done much better in a new Wednesday slot.

“Friday Night Lights” on ... Fridays? Maybe too obvious.

At the still-evolving CW, it’s always dangerous to make bets on what executives might do. The family drama “7th Heaven” was officially targeted for cancellation in 2005, but last May -- days after the airing of what everyone assumed was the series finale -- the show was suddenly and unexpectedly revived for an 11th season.

There probably won’t be such a happy outcome for the youth-oriented crime drama “Veronica Mars,” though. The show seems to have lost momentum in its third season and failed to capitalize on a comparatively strong lead-in from “Gilmore Girls.”

“Forget about it,” said one person close to the show, who declined to speak on the record.

Meanwhile, “Gilmore” itself could be in trouble. The network hasn’t been able to finish negotiating new contracts with lead actors Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, and many fans have rebelled since the departure last year of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.

Granted, this might all sound rather grim. But TV people grow adept at finding silver linings at this time of year. Being bubbly means a show hasn’t been canceled yet, and in an era of diminished expectations, that counts as an achievement in itself.

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As Goldsmith put it, “Having a show on the bubble feels like a victory; it’s so hard just to get people to watch.”

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com


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