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‘Jericho’ can thank the peanut gallery

Times Staff Writer

IN two days, we will know the answer to the 8-month-old question: Was CBS nuts to cancel “Jericho” or nuts to bring it back?

No matter which decision proves nuttier, the critically acclaimed drama about a Kansas town that survives a national nuclear attack will go down in history as the first TV show saved by a grass-roots Internet movement that involved thousands of fans from around the world -- and more than 20 tons of peanuts.

“Jericho” returns on Tuesday with an action-packed seven-episode run that picks up the story from last season’s civil war cliffhanger. The series then fast-forwards, paving the way for a new central theme. With survival no longer the main concern, the focus turns to a new form of (shady?) government based in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a new leader, Maj. Beck (Esai Morales), who operates in a new country, the Allied States of America.

Will it be enough to save “Jericho” once more from the humiliating TV demise known as cancellation? If ABC’s “Lost” is any indication, TV fans are clamoring for new episodes of their favorite shows in these writers-strike-filled days, which means “Jericho” -- airing on a new night and time slot (10 p.m. Tuesdays), and protected from the “American Idol” juggernaut -- might actually have a shot.

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“Jericho” producers also are in the enviable position of offering a complete new season to fans because all of the episodes had been completed when the strike was called.

“I think the angel that has been on the shoulder of ‘Jericho’ all this time continues to work out for us,” said executive producer Carol Barbee, who runs the show. “Of all the consequences of this strike, this is an amazing timing for ‘Jericho.’ There’s very little new content out there, and had we been given even one more episode, our finale would be somewhere in pieces.”

When “Jericho” premiered in fall 2006, it was well on its way to becoming one of the hits of that TV season. But an 11-week post-holiday hiatus, which was supposed to help the show by preventing further interruptions in the schedule, instead took a bite out of its audience. The series landed in 53rd place among 201 shows with an average of 9.5 million viewers.

As the fan uprising revealed, though, the Nielsen ratings didn’t tell the whole story. Last season, “Jericho” ranked second (behind “Survivor”) among shows viewed online on CBS.com. One million more viewers watched episodes later on DVRs, and the first season’s DVD ranked in the top 10 in 2007 for CBS Home Entertainment.

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The fans say, ‘Nuts!’

“IT’S a very ironic situation to be in when the writers are on strike partly because of payments for the Internet and the campaign to win ‘Jericho’ back was fought on the Internet by people who were watching our show via the Internet, and they weren’t being counted because they weren’t watching our show on TV,” said actor Lennie James. “ ‘Jericho’ seems to be in the zeitgeist. It’s the perfect example of why the networks need to examine how they count the number of people who are actually watching a show.”

Fan power is what it all came down to. Sure, disappointed viewers have expressed their feelings about the cancellation of shows in the past. Remember the fly-over planes “Everwood” fans sent to the CW’s headquarters? But “Jericho” fans found inspiration from a line in the season finale. In one scene, Jake Green, played by star Skeet Ulrich, replies “Nuts!” to the enemy just as Gen. Anthony McAuliffe did when he was asked to surrender in World War II.

“We already knew the show was on the bubble and I got the idea, ‘Hey, why don’t we do what Jake did? Why don’t we send nuts?’ ” said Shaun O’Mac, a Las Vegas-based Internet radio host for BlogTalkRadio.com, who was the first to call fans to action. “I meant the small packages of nuts like the ones they sell on the airlines. But by the time the show got canceled, the campaign picked up steam. It was like a rocket.”

Tons of peanuts began arriving at CBS headquarters in New York and Los Angeles. E-mails and faxed letters jammed in-boxes and fax machines, forcing CBS to change some of its phone numbers and e-mail accounts.

Just one week after the show was canceled on May 15, CBS executives tried to persuade producers to develop online content or a mini-series for TV to offer fans closure.

The producers and the fans balked at these attempts.

“I’ve seen these kinds of fan campaigns before and they didn’t work,” said executive producer and director Jon Turteltaub. “But we knew it was getting traction when CBS executives called us to ask for help in quelling the riot. To which our response was to pretend the phone wasn’t working. To me, that was like your ex-girlfriend asking you to help her with her new relationship. You broke up with us -- good luck with your new boyfriend.”

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The revolt intensified. In 22 days, nearly 5,000 fans from around the world spent $54,968 to send 40,377 pounds of nuts -- about 8 million peanuts -- to CBS offices through an online bulk nuts company, www.nutsonline.com. They also sent flowers to CBS assistants and CBS president of entertainment Nina Tassler.

“What was staggering about what happened is that the fans would not give up,” James said. “There was a lot of focus on the nuts part of the campaign, but there was so much more. It was so well organized and so classy, and people were spending their own money for this show. That says something.”

‘It was really humbling’

Realizing that the network hadn’t had a handle on the size and passion of the show’s total audience, CBS decided on June 6 to give it another test run with a shortened season. Instead of developing the epic story they had planned, producers focused all seven episodes on one story, working with a reduced budget and less production time.

No cast member thought twice about returning.

“It’s hard when you’re making those 22 episodes -- I’d never done it before -- and you get into this little microcosm of making ‘Jericho’ every day and the work and you kinda forget that people watch it,” Ulrich said. “And then to actually see how many people did. I think Lennie said it best: ‘It was really humbling.’ ”

Network executives felt the same way. Tassler had certainly been touched by the nuts, letters and flowers. But she admitted recently that something else had moved her, even before a single nut arrived in her office.

“Before we canceled the show, Skeet and Lennie came together into my office in L.A. and they sat side by side, and I have to tell you, they spoke with such intimate detail about how they felt about the show, how they felt about their characters and how the cast members felt about each other,” Tassler said. “The fact that these two actors had taken it upon themselves to come in and represent the personal and human drama behind the show spoke volumes about their commitment. At the network, we can be very removed from what makes a show special, and when they came in together, that’s what I saw. And it really stayed with me.”

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To safeguard against another fan rebellion, the producers filmed two endings -- a second season finale and a finale for the series, to be used if the ratings don’t improve.

“We were trying to work in ‘cash’ as the rally cry for the seventh episode, but they might have cut it out,” Ulrich joked. “The great thing is that the fans get this, and we hope they’re happy with it because they’re the ones who brought it back.”

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com


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