When "Close to Home" premiered in fall 2005, the CBS show centered on a happily married suburban woman returning to her career as a prosecuting attorney after the birth of her first child. Whether it was its Tuesday time slot, a whisper-quiet marketing campaign or its working woman-centric focus, the program's ratings didn't exactly pop. It moved to Fridays and did better there, but "Close to Home" ended its freshman season on the renewal bubble.
The show hung on, but by its sophomore premiere much had changed. Behind the scenes, "Close to Home" had a new executive producer and its story lines dealt more and more with career and crime and less and less with home and child. But that can happen when you kill off the main character's husband and introduce a new hunk, played by former "JAG" star David James Elliott.
"He's a leading-man type that tests very well with the ladies," said Eric Overmeyer, the show's new executive producer. "We're doing our best to get his shirt off as much as we can this season, though this is difficult because he's a district attorney."
But "Close to Home's" most notable makeover has come in its ratings, which have gone from wobbly to fairly sure-footed. The show has picked up an additional 2 million weekly viewers this season, upping its audience to the 11 million-plus range, good enough on some weeks to finish among the top 30 most-watched programs.
Television isn't fantasyland, and if your numbers don't add up, you're gone. Just ask CBS about its high-profile, high-cost crime drama "Smith," or NBC about its oldster sitcom "Twenty Good Years," or Fox about its aptly named drama "Vanished." They're all washed-out members of this year's freshman class that couldn't get past its first semester.
Between sidelining low-rated shows and cheering the obvious winners such as NBC's "Heroes" lies one of network executives' hardest tasks: demonstrating patience with new programs that haven't found an audience yet. While the last season generated some clear winners, such as CBS' "Criminal Minds" and Fox's "Prison Break," the class of 2005-06 produced more shows with smaller constituencies that are still looking to break away from the pack.
Sophomore shows such as "Close to Home," the CW's horror-thriller "Supernatural," Fox's crime investigative drama "Bones" and CBS' sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" have shored up some of their initial ratings doldrums. But they haven't completely outrun the scheduling ax just yet. For now, the networks will wait and see, hoping to build the promising shows into prime-time stalwarts.
"Out-of-the-box hits are a true rarity," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Studios, which produces "Supernatural" and "Close to Home." "Most shows invade a new time period and then we need to habituate an audience to watching it."
Traditional pressures on network television have only been magnified in recent years with audience fragmentation caused by computer games, iPods and a smorgasbord of cable channels. However, networks and studios that stand behind shows can be richly rewarded. The most famous examples are "Seinfeld" and "The X-Files," neither of which burned up the ratings initially.
"Network executives may have 10 failing shows and all 10 of their executive producers are all saying they can turn their ship around," said Tim Brooks, a noted television historian and also an executive vice president of research at Lifetime Networks. "That's what the suits get paid the big bucks for -- to evaluate which of the failing 10 will find an audience."
Like most second-year shows that didn't blow up the Nielsen ratings, "Supernatural" has undergone a creative back-and-forth with both the network and the studio in a bid to draw the largest possible audience. Eric Kripke, the show's creator and an executive producer, described the process last season with the now-defunct WB as "fairly amicable" but admits it was not without its tensions.
"The network wanted a more rollicking, red-blooded tone that was more evident in the pilot," said Kripke, whose episodes carry titles like "Bloody Mary," "Hell House" and "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things." "But every so often we wanted to try and stretch our legs and tell a story that had a more philosophical bent or was more somber in tone."
The show's creative team and the network clashed over scripts and story lines. Sometimes the creative team backed down, and other times they found even more "creative" ways around the impasse.
"The huge advantage any TV producer has on their side is the breakneck schedule, and I'll fully own up to taking great advantage of that a time or two," Kripke said. "If we pulled the script for the [network's] story suggestions, that means shutting down production. There's not any time for that, so we'd have to move forward."
Last season, the show was given a sound lead-in with "Gilmore Girls," but the gap in tone between the two genres hurt "Supernatural's" numbers. Then in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario, Kripke successfully lobbied to have the show moved to Thursday nights at 9 p.m., following the popular and well-regarded "Smallville." He reasoned that "Smallville" seemed a better fit with sci-fi thriller themes. His request was greenlighted by the WB, and the two shows did indeed mesh well together.
But then this season, ABC announced that "Grey's Anatomy" was moving to that same time slot to compete with CBS' "CSI," which meant that "Supernatural" would face two of the most popular shows on television.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride for us," Kripke said. "We're fighting out hearts out to hold on to an audience. It's like we're the Japanese businessmen beneath Godzilla and Mothra."
On television's most competitive night, the show's ratings didn't improve, even dropping slightly on occasion. But the good news was that it retained more of its lead-in audience -- a critical consideration for executives.
"They're really doing yeoman's work," said Kelly Kahl, programming chief for the CW. "I don't know if there's another CW show we could put there that would do any better."
Meanwhile, Fox's "Bones," a dark-humored drama inspired by a real-life forensic anthropologist and novelist, also bounced around the schedule and was retooled before putting up better numbers as well. The show moved from Tuesdays to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and in the second season introduced a new character, a beautiful pathologist played by Tamara Taylor.
"A show on the bubble is a bit like a high school romance," said Hart Hanson, one of the show's executive producers. "We're the girl going out with the quarterback, and he's always looking for the next cheerleader. We have to wonder how long he's going to go out with us. If we do everything he says, he won't respect us, and if we do nothing he says, he won't respect us either."
Apparently, the quarterback still respects the cheerleader.
"Ultimately, we like the show, and that counts for a lot," said Craig Erwich, executive vice president of programming at Fox. "You stick with it as long as you can within the context of what's going on with the rest of our schedule. We stuck with 'Arrested Development' for three years."
The show's impressive outing Wednesday, which drew 12.5 million viewers, its second-highest audience ever, validated the patience it has been shown.
"Pretty early on, we saw enough examples of lightning in the bottle that we felt a deep obligation to roll up our sleeves and keep that show on the air," said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "Bones" and "How I Met Your Mother." "Creatively, they've really hit their stride, and the audience is finding the show."
It certainly didn't hurt "Close to Home" that the name of one of Hollywood's most successful and prolific producers -- Jerry Bruckheimer -- was associated with the show. But beyond that, executives felt the show could rise if it toned down the working mother story lines and pumped up its suburban crime themes.
"We're still looking to improve our storytelling," Overmeyer said. "We're interested in crimes that, say, your next-door neighbor could be up to. Something awful, almost in a David Lynch 'Blue Velvet' fashion."
Few first-year shows that survived to a second season felt more pressure than CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," a sitcom with the clever hook of a romance narrated through flashbacks from the future. Sitcoms, once the dominant force in prime-time television, have largely been killed off by reality programming and both serialized and procedural dramas. In fact, NBC's hit game show "Deal or No Deal" nearly sent "Mother" to the graveyard.
"You can pinpoint where our show dipped, and that was when Howie [Mandel] and his stripper chicks came on and started kicking our ass," said Craig Thomas, the show's co-creator. "It's just made it harder than ever to get people's attention. We want to tell people, 'Sitcoms still exist! We're still here!' "
One way the show found to attract attention came via the Internet. The show's writers developed a plot in which one of their characters was a former teen pop star in Canada who had a hit song called "Let's Go to the Mall."
As that was revealed on the show, the music video of that same song went live on YouTube.com. More than 400,000 viewers caught the Web clip.
The stunt sparked positive chatter, something that matters to network executives reviewing renewals for next season.
"We're looking for breadcrumbs long the way, signs of improvement," said Kahl, who is also in charge of the CBS schedule. "Good buzz helps. Letters help. Taken together, do we feel the show is moving forward or is it stalled dead in the water?
"Well," continued Kahl, "I don't think there's anybody at CBS that doesn't want to see that show come back."