Hour of reckoning for Fox’s `24′

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Opening-night jitters are usually confined to big-ticket motion picture premieres. But in the case of the highly touted “24” drama series, it’s Fox execs who are nervously awaiting the first “grosses”-ratings.
Although it’s already been lauded by TV critics and advertisers for its cinematic styling and unorthodox real-time serialized nature, “24” is nonetheless going to find itself fighting for audience sampling against a newly inserted crop of competitors in the 9 p.m. (ET) Tuesday hour-including ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and emerging freshman dramas “Smallville” (The WB) and “The Guardian” (CBS). And when you factor in NBC’s typical adults 18 to 49 time period winners “Frasier” and “Scrubs,” which similarly look to trip up “24’s” debut Nov. 6, the 9 p.m. hour is shaping up as the most combative time period on TV.
“We’re kind of feeling like David going up against Goliath just after he gets out of a Weight Watchers meeting,” joked Joel Surnow, who is executive producer and co-creator of “24” along with Bob Cochran. “[Fox] could have put us on Thursday at 10 [p.m.] against “ER” [on NBC]-so there are worse situations to start from.”
Compounding “24’s” scheduling challenges is the fact that Fox is finding that the anti-terrorism drama-already cited by TV critics and advertisers last spring as the best new pilot for a 2001-02 series-is under intense media glare stemming from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“First off, to compare our show to the horrible tragedy of Sept. 11 is ludicrous,” said lead actor Kiefer Sutherland, who in his role as intelligence chief Jack Bauer has to foil an assassination plot against a presidential candidate. “This is just a television show compared to one of the most devastating things to ever have happened to this country and in the modern world. There is just no sense in making any comparisons.”
Nevertheless, Fox and its 20th Century Fox Television production studio have a lot riding on whether critical and ratings expectations can be met by the avant-garde “24.” As David Nevins, Fox’s executive VP of programming, attested, “24” is a top “corporate priority,” with the broadcast network turning to News Corp.’s sister cable network FX to repurpose the show for subsequent double runs on Sunday (11 p.m. to midnight ET) and Monday nights (10 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
“[The show] will sort of rally the other channels [FX and the regional Fox Sports Networks] to promote it and drive awareness” of Fox’s first broadcast run on Tuesday nights, Mr. Nevins said. “We’re going to be riding the promotion heavily through the World Series [broadcasting on Fox], and we’re really rooting hard for it to go to a seventh game,” which, if necessary, would take place Nov. 4.
One of the things that caught Mr. Nevins and other Fox executives off guard, though, was ABC’s unexpected chessboard scheduling move of “NYPD Blue” into the 9 p.m. hour-in place of its floundering Jason Alexander-led “Bob Patterson” sitcom and “Spin City.” To thicken the plot, ABC is airing a two-hour season opener of “Blue,” which could prove even more formidable with the momentum of an 8 p.m. start.
“We would have preferred ABC’s old schedule, but there are never any easy passes, and it’s just one more obstacle for us to cross over,” Mr. Nevins acknowledged. “We have no illusions, because it is going to be a brutal time period to go into when you take into account the combined competition.”
However, Mr. Nevins and Mr. Sutherland feel the parental disconnect between Bauer and his teen-age daughter (played by Elisha Cuthbert), who is missing after an apparent night of joy riding with friends, could have multigenerational appeal with viewers. In particular, Mr. Nevins sees “24” playing out well with Fox’s core young-adult viewers (adults 18 to 34 and 18 to 49).
“To me, one of the most central components of the show is that Bauer and his wife [played by Leslie Hope] are separated, and he has to contend with trying to raise a daughter from somewhat of a distance,” said Mr. Sutherland, who makes frequent commuter trips to visit his daughter being raised in Canada. “All of that stuff I relate to on a very, very strong level, and it is one of the things I enjoy about dealing with the conflict of my character.”
In fact, Mr. Cochran and Mr. Surnow feel the father and daughter relationship is just as important to the show’s plot as Jack Bauer’s unraveling of the assassination plot against California presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). “She is not in any immediate danger in the pilot, but that may change as the show goes on,” hinted Mr. Cochran, who declined to further elaborate on the daughter’s apparent disappearance.
The ending of the pilot episode of “24” originally involved a key scene of a female terrorist blowing up a commercial airliner. In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that scene was subtly changed for the episode’s premiere next week. The producers and Fox decided to excise the plane explosion. Instead, Mr. Surnow explained, the second episode simply picks up from where the female terrorist parachutes into the desert, with the airliner seen streaking into the horizon.
“The explosion was just a four-second CGI [computer-generated image] effects shot that was cut, and its removal did not in any way prevent the progression of the story line,” Mr. Surnow said. “That was the only change to the pilot, and there was no other reshooting done on other episodes, contrary to rumors in the industry.”
“What we’re also saying is that `24′ is nothing like a terrorism-of-the-week show,” added Mr. Cochran, who collaborated with Mr. Surnow previously on USA Network’s “La Femme Nikita” (1996-2001) and “The Commish” (ABC, 1991-95). “There are so many other aspects to this show, whether it is the action, the family drama, the thriller components and pure soap opera aspects being played out weekly.”
By virtue of the serialized nature of “24,” the producers and Fox were concerned about viewers being able to follow the show further into its run. Mr. Cochran explained that weekly recaps were extended from an originally planned 30 seconds to 90 seconds to “provide stronger opportunities” for viewers to have a “jumping-in point” if they missed the previous week’s episode.
Gary Newman, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television, also suggested that the repurposed cable plays of “24” on FX will similarly allow viewers two other opportunities to catch the show if they miss the previous Tuesday’s broadcast run on Fox. Interestingly, Hollywood-watchers have attributed the staggered cable window to Twentieth’s attempt to make up for what is perceived as a limited off-network syndication market for serialized dramas.
While acknowledging that the staggered window does not “replace the back-end value” of a syndication run, Mr. Newman cited the success of a serialized drama such as “Twin Peaks” in finding an off-network berth on the Bravo cable network.
“Even though many viewers knew the resolution [of `Twin Peaks’], the unique nature of the story arcs was like rereading a book, and many viewers were interested in [watching] it again,” Mr. Newman said. “Each episode of `24′ has similar self-contained story arcs leading to some sort of resolution of conflict in each episode, so there is no reason why a cable network or TV station could not strip out an entire season where it again becomes appointment viewing in [off-network] syndication.”
Still, while Fox has ordered 13 episodes of “24” and has script orders for six more, the series’ producers acknowledged that the show’s early rating returns-particularly poor ones-could dictate whether it gets a full 24-episode order. Moreover, if the show is modestly successful in the ratings, there are industry watchers wondering whether the producers will shift to self-contained story arcs for each episode next season.
“We have plenty of time at the end of the season to sit down with Fox and re-evaluate things if they think there is a compelling reason and [audience] research suggesting we c
hange the format of the series,” Mr. Cochran said. “But I think we all feel [the serialized format] is the signature of the show, and I don’t want to do anything right now that violates the uniqueness of the show’s basic format this season.”
“The episodes are self-contained in a lot of ways, but it will all be funneling its way to a big climax at the end of the season,” Mr. Surnow added. “We are just looking at this like the World Series in baseball, where we’re taking it inning by inning and waiting for a huge winning homer in the bottom of the ninth.”#