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Deconstructing the TV Season From Hell

May 25, 2008  •  Post A Comment

It’s become an instant cliché: The 2007-08 TV season was broadcasting’s annus horribilis, a year from hell that brought only pain and misery to the business.
“There will always be an asterisk next to this season,” said Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. “It’s like Roger Maris and his 61 home runs.”
But behind all the chaos and catastrophes of the last nine months—the writers strike, the confusion over DVR data, “Viva Laughlin”—an actual TV season played out.
New shows struck out or succeeded. Networks improved some time slots and faded in others. Executives’ career fortunes rose or dimmed.
“It was an extraordinarily challenging season, but through it, the networks were still able to launch some successful shows,” said ABC Executive Vice President Jeff Bader. “There were no breakouts, but there were successes.”
In other words, while the season just ended was unlike any other in TV history, in some ways, it was just like any other. Here’s a look at the people and trends that popped during the 2007-08 campaign. (All ratings numbers cited are for the 18- to 49-year-old demographic unless otherwise noted.)
The New Deans of Drama: Greg Berlanti and Josh Schwartz
During the 1980s and ’90s, David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco were TV’s go-to writer-producers, each juggling multiple series at any given moment. This year, Mr. Berlanti and Mr. Schwartz began emerging as possible successors to that legacy.
Mr. Berlanti, who scored a hit during the 2006-07 season with “Brothers & Sisters,” added two more ABC dramas to his resume this season. “Dirty Sexy Money,” averaging a 3.0/8, was a solid, buzzworthy part of ABC’s new Wednesday lineup. In the spring, “Eli Stone”—despite earning a smallish 2.8/8 as it struggled to find an audience in the post-strike chaos—had critics raving by the end of its run and will return next season.
Mr. Schwartz, meanwhile, took on the Herculean task of launching two new hourlong dramas in September: NBC’s “Chuck” and The CW’s “Gossip Girl.” The former was just about the only bright spot on the Peacock network’s fall schedule, while the latter emerged as a certifiable pop-culture phenomenon that, thanks to its download dominance on iTunes, threatened to redefine the definition of “hit show.”
Save the Cheerleader, Save the Network
“Heroes,” the show that was supposed to be NBC’s ticket out of the ratings basement, suffered a massive sophomore slump. After launching its second season with nearly 17 million total viewers, it ended its run in December with barely 11 million geeks still following the show’s increasingly convoluted storylines.
While the strike had nothing to do with the show’s Nielsen collapse, the early halt in production meant producers didn’t get the chance to win back fans right away. On the positive side, the strike delay provided plenty of time for them to regroup.
It’s hard to imagine “Heroes” ever recapturing the buzz of its first season. But as ABC’s “Lost” has proven, viewers are willing to give shows they love a second chance.
The Comedy Queen: Wendy Trilling
NBC gets all the hype, but CBS quietly positioned itself this season as the sitcom’s savior.
“Two and a Half Men” continued its reign as TV’s No. 1 half-hour, while that show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, launched another success last fall with “The Big Bang Theory.” And while it doesn’t always get a lot of love from senior CBS Corp. executives, “How I Met Your Mother” has given the Eye network endless blogosphere buzz and reaches younger viewers who might otherwise not even know CBS exists.
“They might not be the critical darlings, but they’re certainly favorites among viewers,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior executive VP for program planning.
“Mother,” for example, averaged a 3.3/9, more than NBC’s vaunted “30 Rock” or “My Name Is Earl.”
Even rivals are willing to give CBS comedy props.
“They come out of the season having kept alive the tradition of a ‘Must-See TV’ comedy block with four-camera shows,” said Fox’s Mr. Beckman. “Their patience has paid off there.”
CBS looks to expand its comedy empire this fall by moving utility player “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to Wednesdays and pairing it with newcomer “Project Gary.” It plans to bolster its Monday block with the single-camera half-hour “Worst Week,” which played well in clip form when screened for advertisers in New York earlier this month.
All the comedy kudos can’t be claimed by CBS, however.
ABC, whose blockbuster track record in launching drama hits hasn’t been matched on the half-hour front, finally achieved a comedy breakthrough this season with “Samantha Who?” Slotted behind “Dancing With the Stars” on Mondays, the Christina Applegate vehicle clicked with ABC’s target audience, averaging a nice 3.9/9.
“It’s a comedy that was right in our wheelhouse, a strong female-centered show,” said ABC’s Mr. Bader.
Reality (Still) Rocks
The writers strike forced networks to rely on unscripted shows in a big way for much of the season. Some reality producers had worried the glut of unscripted would damage the genre, but if anything, the last season only proved how much of a cornerstone reality programming has become for the networks.
Not surprisingly, Fox—led by Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming—had the season’s splashiest unscripted hit with “Moment of Truth,” the train-wreck game show in which contestants reveal dark secrets in order to win cash. Its success proved reality’s Dark Prince still had his mojo, as did the successful “Hell’s Kitchen” spinoff “Kitchen Nightmares.”
But while Mr. Darnell once again stole the headlines, the folks at ABC’s reality division had reason to be happy, too.
“Dancing with the Stars,” despite some ratings declines, remains one of the Alphabet’s anchors, as does “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on Sundays. ABC also has a strong bench of quiet utility players, including “Wife Swap,” “Supernanny” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
“Reality is an incredibly important part of our mix,” Mr. Bader said. “Those shows were down much less than our big scripted shows. They’re very reliable.”
Not every network fared as well with the genre.
NBC thought it had a hit on its hands with “American Gladiators,” which premiered to nearly 12 million total viewers during its first late-winter run. But returning for a second season in the middle of the May sweeps turned out to be a big mistake: More than half the show’s audience has abandoned it.
A Bad Year for Freshmen
While ABC had a good fall, the other networks got a chilly reception for most of their new shows last season.
CBS had a tough time convincing viewers to check out its much-hyped class of dramas, which veered away from the network’s time-tested procedural formula. By May, the network had decided to pull the plug on all of them, even those such as “Moonlight,” which attracted a rabid (but tiny) fan base.
“We talked about trying some things and pushing the envelope,” Mr. Kahl said. “Maybe in retrospect we pushed a little too far.”
Fox, meanwhile, may have played it too safe. The once-rebellious network struck out with conventional fall fare such as the cop drama “K-Ville” and the why-is-this-not-on-CBS comedy “Back to You.” And while midseason hour “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” did well enough to merit a second season—a huge premiere gave it a 4.5/11 season average—courtroom drama “Canterbury’s Law” and cult-ish crime show “New Amsterdam” barely registered.
Over at NBC, “Chuck” did OK, but the very expensive “Bionic Woman” malfunctioned badly. Sci-fi romance “Journeyman” quickly fizzled. Procedural drama “Life” didn’t do all that well, either—its 3.0/8 landed it at No. 66 for the season—but NBC executives believed in the show enough to give it a second shot.
And Then There’s the CW
While “Gossip Girl” ended up fine, viewers might not even remember the network premiered shows called “Life Is Wild,” “CW Now” or “Online Nation.” All struck out in a big way.
“Reaper” had more of an impact, but not much. Nonetheless, CW executives decided to bring the show back for a midseason run next year.

88 Comments

  1. How can you say that Moonlight’s fan base is ‘tiny’… I wouldn’t call 8 million viewers tiny, especially with the Friday night timeslot!
    Another network WILL pickup Moonlight and the fan base will continue to grow!

  2. The Alphabet network’s “Pushing Daisies” would seem to merit a mention. It’s returning this Fall. “Daisies” is such a unique show, the way the filming is handled, not to mention the storyline and premise.
    Regarding “Moonlight” it would be great if another network picked it up, but invited Koslow back to write the series as it was originally intended to flow.
    ‘The Eye’ has an incredible way of completely screwing up shows such as this. With all the bouncing around this little vampire detective show endured, behind the scenes, it really is remarkable to have found a following at all.

  3. Check your info 8mil+ for Moonlight per week is not a tiny fan base.

  4. Moonlight sucked. 8 million viewers may seem like a lot, but it was the weak-link in CBS’ Friday night line-up and never grew from it’s lead in. Plus it had no competiton. So that 8 million is small by all means.

  5. I’m a little ticked the other two freshmen shows on ABC’s Wednesday night, the truly original quirky mystery comedy series Pushing Daisies and Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice, weren’t even mentioned at all, and I know they’ve done pretty well and held their own this season.
    House, MD is probably one of Fox’s biggest shows season-long. It wasn’t an event series ala American Idol, but it consistantly did well in the nights it aired, including Monday nights, probably one of the few scripted shows to hold its own against Two and a Half Men.
    The CW just needs to go away. Nobody would care. It’s devolved into a showcase for arrogant, conceited rich brats, especially with shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill. Anything that’s not like those shows are history at the network, which may explain why Girlfriends, WWE Smackdown (the highest-rated show on the network), and Kids’ WB! (the highest-rated timeslot on the channel) are gone and why they’re resurrecting 90210 for no reason whatsoever. The only reason Chris is coming back is so they could satisfy syndication numbers, and the only reason Reaper is returning is because Smallville is ending at midseason. That’s okay.
    The CW will be history by September 2009.

  6. Journeyman didn’t really fizzle out, it was promoted so poorly that its consistently superb writing, filming and acting were ignored by much of the public who’d have likely enjoyed it a great deal had it just shown up enough to make them notice.

  7. This roundup of the programming ups and downs of 2008 is reminiscent of a review of the vaudeville hits of 1928. By 1933, a few vaudeville acts had moved on to movies and radio. By 2013, lots of TV people will be doing interesting things in entertainment. But it won’t be in broadcast television.

  8. How anyone can say Journeyman was poorly promoted is beyond me, perhaps being the second most highly hyped premiere on NBC behind Bionic Woman.
    No, Journeyman’s failure can be attributed to the fact that even hard core sci-fi/fantasy fans could rarely make it more than ten minutes into an episode before exploring other options.
    Quite frankly, it was simply a mess.
    Though it didn’t often fare well, I was more surprised to see CBS pull the James Woods vehicle Shark, which delivered solid numbers despite CBS moving it around the schedule often and delaying its post-strike return despite its being one of the first shows CBS greenlit for post-strike episodes.
    Hint: Putting a legal drama up against Boston Legal and Law & Order: SVU, two older, more established shows vying for the same audience doesn’t help, nor did that Big Brother lead-in.
    As for Moonlight CBS’ issue was not its viewership numbers per se as much as the fact that approximately two million viewers would tune away after Ghost Whisperer and two million would return for Numb3rs. Having that kind of a ratings hole in your night is something no network wants, no matter how rabid the show’s fan base.

  9. RJ’s comment is dead-on about Moonlight. Believe me – no other network is going to pick it up.

  10. “Gossip Girls” a pop culture phenomonon? Sounds like you swallowed all that CW hype hook, line, and sinker. The network’s been paying out a fortune to promote this third-rate show–trying to convince 18-34 year old females that, if they’re not watching, they’re missing out on the biggest thing since lip gloss. Forget weather catastrophes, international political crises, the war in Iraq, or rising oil prices, the GG finale was actually promoted as something like, “the most important event of the year.” The CW will go to any lengths to publicize this show. Even members of our military forces were called into play, standing like props in the background while a CW spokesperson gushed over “Gossip Girls.” Had these uniformed men and women ever actually watched the show? Probably not. But why would they turn down a chance to be seen on TV by their anxious families?
    Meanwhile the network’s GENUINR pop culture phenomenon–a literary and beautifully crafted gem–continues to be all but ignored by the CW. Properly publicized, “Supernatural” could have put this network in the black and given it a reputation for excellence in drama. As it is, the CW is gambling its last sou on still another sleazy, superficial slutfest. Get out of the tenderloin district, “Supernatural,” and find yourself a better network–fast!

  11. If the new definition of “hit show” is “show nobody watches but 30,000 people download on itunes” than Gossip Girl is definitely redefining the term!

  12. OMG! Are you kidding me? You dont even mention one Supernatural? I just assumed you people were writing based on actually watching the shows but clearly not…what you got this blurb directly from the add execs at the CW ? Cause they certainly dont advertise this incredibly smartly written and brilliantly acted show…and yet it survives..its fan base solid and loyal…who will come to its defense? when will these actors and writers finally get some recognition?
    arent we tired of the reality crap and the “Hi I’m young, drunk, stupid and sleep with everyone” types of shows….
    *sighs*

  13. I am a huge sci-fi fan, and I really liked Journeyman. It was definitely the promotion that was lacking.

  14. Great article! Are there any predictions that you may be able to voice to justify the first section a small amount more? thanks

  15. In related news, Tiger Woods is now a Cheetah.

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