In Depth

Adalian Column: 'Black Thursday' Hits ABC Dramas Hard

For anyone who loves television, Nov. 20 may go down in the industry history books as Black Thursday.

On that date, ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson was forced to call the producers of three outstanding young drama series and tell them that the network was giving up. He may have never said the words “You’re canceled,” but all parties involved knew what was happening: “Pushing Daisies,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Eli Stone” were dead.

It was a stunning single-day slaughter, a mass murder of some of the medium’s most promising newcomers. Good shows die prematurely on an alarmingly regular basis in TV, but somehow this felt different.

Perhaps it was because all the shows were on ABC.

After all, viewers have grown used to Fox and CBS short-circuiting series with passionate core audiences (R.I.P., “Swingtown” and “Arrested Development”). And while NBC sometimes shows the love to quality fare, there’s so much talk from its executives about product integration and managing for margins that it’s impossible to get all warm and fuzzy about anything the network does.

But under Mr. McPherson, ABC has seemed to operate under a set of governing principles different from those that exist elsewhere in the business. The long list of successful shows launched on his watch—from “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Brothers & Sisters” and “Lost”—stood as evidence that broadcast networks could still soar with ambition, rather than simply survive with well-executed comfort food. Critical raves and popular acceptance weren’t mutually exclusive propositions in Mr. McPherson’s kingdom.

Black Thursday seemed to change all that. Suddenly, ABC was like every other network, breaking the hearts of passionate fans all over America. I don’t think Mr. McPherson delivered the ax lightly; just the opposite, in fact. Based on how long it took for the network to confirm decisions that had seemed unavoidable for weeks, ABC’s chief programmer seemed to be grasping for any excuse not to pull the plug.

What caused Mr. McPherson’s winning streak to come screeching to a halt? For one thing, bad timing. Really bad timing.

Hard to believe now, but just a year ago, Mr. McPherson’s quality-first formula was paying off, at least for “Daisies” and “Dirty.” Both got off to fast starts when they premiered on ABC’s completely revamped Wednesday lineup. Both seemed headed toward long lives.

Then came the writers strike.

There’s no way of knowing if “Daisies” and “Dirty” would have lasted had the Writers Guild of America not walked off the job last year. But there can be little doubt that the strike made their untimely passings inevitable. The momentum both shows demonstrated early on during the fall of 2007 melted away as viewers were forced to wait nearly a year for another batch of fresh episodes. Instead of spending last winter falling more deeply in love with “Daisies” and “Dirty,” viewers moved on.

Events conspired against ABC again this fall. Despite doing its usual bang-up job promoting the return of “Daisies” and “Dirty,” the network’s relaunch came at the height of a hugely compelling presidential campaign, and just as the economy was imploding.

ABC often makes a big deal out of how upscale and urban its audience is. It’s a great asset when trying to set advertising prices, but not when your viewers are more interested in watching their portfolios wither away on CNBC than in checking out escapist dramas.

I’d feel a lot less gloomy about the events of Nov. 20 if unfortunate timing were the only factor behind ABC’s awful autumn. Unfortunately, there’s evidence to suggest something else might be at play.

Call it the Tim Kring theory.

Mr. Kring, creator of NBC’s “Heroes,” recently told a writers expo that serialized dramas such as his are “a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming.”

“The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired],” he said. “Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on-air. So [watching it] on-air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.”

Mr. Kring has been taking a lot of flack on the Web for his comments, since they come off as both an insult to viewers and as the delusional ramblings of a producer who can’t admit his show has fallen off a creative cliff.

He may be guilty on both counts, but Mr. Kring hit upon a larger problem facing networks that aspire to airing complicated series. These days it seems the cooler, more intricate the show, the less likely it is that Nielsen will be able to accurately—and quickly—measure its audience.

Sure, Nielsen generates numbers showing how many viewers watch a show via DVR—as long as they watch within seven days. But those of us who decide to watch a dozen episodes of “Chuck” in a Hanukkah-week Hulu marathon? Or who figure “Dirty Sexy Money” is a dish best enjoyed via a summertime DVD box-set splurge? We don’t count.

Indeed, since advertisers really only care about those folks who watch commercials within three days of a show’s airing, anyone smart or busy or young enough to figure out how to avoid watching a series in real time doesn’t really count, either. Touting a 79% increase in a show’s viewership after DVR data is factored in makes for a nice press release, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

It’s not hard to see where this is all going. Until Nielsen or the networks figure out how to more accurately measure viewing across multiple platforms—and how to monetize it—network suits like Mr. McPherson are going to be under increasing pressure to develop shows geared toward the saps and dipshits who still watch TV the old-fashioned way.

Don’t think that’s such a bad thing? Consider this: One of the least DVR’d shows on television is “Deal or No Deal.”

Case closed.