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’24’ is No. 1

Jan 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Fox’s “24” may face near-insurmountable time-period competition and a lack of mainstream viewer acceptance, but TV critics seem to think the show’s antiterrorism chief, Jack Bauer, is brave enough to take a bullet for President Josiah Bartlet of “The West Wing.”
The show was a preseason favorite among advertisers, and TV critics have joined the chorus of support by naming “24” the best TV series by a narrow margin over NBC’s “The West Wing” in Electronic Media’s Fall/Winter 2002 Critics Poll. (See chart, Page 26.) The Kiefer Sutherland-led drama became the first new series to take the top ranking in two years, since “The West Wing” took the honor in the fall/winter poll of 2000. During this span “West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” have swapped top honors in the past four polls. EM conducts its Critics Poll twice a year.
“Audiences may be afraid of committing to this new drama [`24′], but several episodes have been heart-poundingly exciting, and it only makes you want to see more,” said Jay Handelman, TV critic for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune.
Although he still cast his vote for “The West Wing” as the best series overall–“Even its weakest episodes are more involving than the best of everything else”–over his second-place nod for “24,” Mr. Handelman said the unorthodox real-time, serialized nature merits a complete 24-episode run through its season finale next May. “Thankfully, Fox has renewed [`24′] for the full season, so we’ll at least know how it ends,” he added.
Like Mr. Handelman and other TV critics, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News’ Charlie McCollum had “West Wing” holding the overall series crown but nonetheless gave “24” kudos as the best freshman series.
“The best new series–period,” Mr. McCollum simply noted.
In other results from the 42 critics in the United States and Canada who responded, The WB’s “Gilmore Girls” moved up one ranking from the spring 2001 poll, narrowly edging out UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”–an import from The WB–in the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. (ET) Tuesday night slot. Fox held the comedy high ground in critics’ minds, with “Malcolm in the Middle” taking the top ranking overall for the fourth time in just over two years, while 9:30 p.m. Wednesday newcomer “The Bernie Mac Show” earned best freshman comedy honors.
Falling into the comeback category was NBC’s “Friends,” which moved up 14 slots from being ranked 20th in the best TV series category in the spring 2001 poll, reflecting what critics see as a “creative renaissance” and the real possibility that this season could be the last for TV’s top-rated comedy.
Some other new faces crept into the poll, with NBC’s “Scrubs,” Fox’s “The Tick,” HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” The WB’s “Smallville” and ABC’s “Alias” getting first-time nods.
Overcoming challenges
Perhaps defying convention,“24” has clearly captured the hearts of critics while finding wider audience acceptance more elusive. Working against the Joel Surnow- and Robert Cochran-created anti-terrorism/assassination drama was a debut heading into the teeth of November sweeps and coming less than two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
“What has been challenging for this show, between the tragic events of 9/11 and the World Series [on Fox] being extended more than a week, was being forced to premiere during the November sweeps,” said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television. In particular, some industry watchers who had seen the original pilot for “24,” which climaxed with a short visual sequence of a commercial airliner exploding in midair, thought the subject matter may have been too edgy or topical for sensitive viewers.
“It is hard to say what was in people’s minds, but I am glad we took the plane shot out,” Mr. Cochran said. “We didn’t want to do anything that looked exploitive, but in the course of our doing our storytelling, which deals as much with family conflicts as its does with anti-terrorism, we wanted to deal honestly with our viewers, and they appreciated it.”
Brian Hartigan, a senior writer for TV Guide of Canada, appreciated the way Mr. Surnow and Mr. Cochran worked around the plane explosion and other anti-terrorism topics. “Bravo to the producers for not dumbing it down after Sept. 11,” he said.
In fact, as “24” is juggling multiple story lines–such as Mr. Bauer’s teen-age daughter Kimberly (played by Elisha Cuthbert) being kidnapped while Jack is trying to foil an unfolding assassination plot against African American presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert)–there are still concerns in media circles about whether viewers can keep up with the quickly evolving plot lines. Compounding those concerns is “24’s” 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Tuesday berth in what critics see as the most competitive, quality-filled time period in television (against ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” NBC’s “Frasier” and “Scrubs,” The WB’s “Smallville” and CBS’s “The Guardian”)–which appears to be eating away at “24’s” viewership.
Taking into account Fox’s above-average production budget for a freshman series (of up to $2 million on certain episodes) through series producers 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television, the network is offering a second broadcast run of “24” on Fridays at 9 p.m. and a pair of cable runs on its sister FX network. The multiplexing of “24,” a practice that is gaining popularity in media circles as “repurposing,” is intended to offer convenience to viewers, to aggregate ratings for advertisers in a fractionalized TV universe and to offset larger front-end production costs.
However, the results have been mixed for “24’s” multiplatform repurposing experiment. Its opening week (Nov. 6 to 12) play in four airings averaged a combined 9.3 rating in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic and 19.7 million total viewers. It was a robust start, but during the succeeding four-week period, “24” dropped 40 percent in adults 18 to 49 (to a 5.6 rating) and 39 percent in total viewers (to 12.1 million) for the week of Dec. 11 to 17.
Multiple runs
Fox Entertainment Group President Gail Berman claimed that roughly 89 percent of “24’s” second play on Friday nights (on Fox) is “unduplicated” viewership. “I do think we need to get more viewers on the train, but I do think the fact that there are new viewers sampling the show on Fridays and on FX will continue to drive awareness as the series builds up momentum heading into the second half of the season,” Ms. Berman said. “The fact that critics see [serialized drama] as a viable entertainment form and that repurposing adds other opportunities for viewers is very encouraging and gratifying.”
“When you cumulate the ratings from the two plays on Fox, most of the viewing is new and it is still being seen by a substantial audience,” added 20th Century Fox Television President Gary Newman, who estimated that “24” is averaging just above a 7 rating among adults 18 to 49 for its two broadcast runs.
On the subject of multiplexing, 73 percent of the 30 critics responding to EM’s query on whether repurposing has hurt the “uniqueness” of broadcast network series such as “24,” ABC’s “Once and Again” and The WB’s “Charmed” felt it had little negative impact on early ratings performance.
“For shows that are truly serials, I think it works, allowing busy people more than one crack at each episode,” said Ellen Gray of The Philadelphia Daily News. “With so much competition in some time slots, repurposing might be the only answer.”
Tom Walter of The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal said he finds it “amusing” that some TV critics hold on to the taboo about broadcast networks losing their “uniqueness” by repurposing first-run series on cable. “I find it amusing that we love when the cable nets air their stuff a zillion times … but think it’s analogous to spitting in the pope’s eye when broadcast networks do it with their own shows,” Mr. Walter said.
Still, some critics point to “24’s” slight downward trend in the ratings as being a possible
result of repurposing. “By diluting its ratings, it’s more likely a show like `24′ will be written off as a flop or disappointment,” said Ted Cox of the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
“The show needs to be seen once, so it’s special,” added Hal Boedeker of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. “If you can see it any time, it loses that special quality. The average viewer doesn’t care about repurposing.”
That “special quality” has critics still heaping praise on NBC’s “West Wing”–the winner of the outstanding drama Emmy Award for the past two seasons. Yet in deciding to tackle the subject of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a quickly assembled season-opening episode, the series divided critics over what they characterized as long-winded soliloquies and lofty, overarching subject matter for the Aaron Sorkin-penned episode.
“It’s gotten a bit preachy and a bit pedantic, but it’s still better-written and better-acted than anything else on the networks,” said the San Jose Mercury News’ Mr. McCollum, who named “West Wing” the best drama in first-run–since HBO’s “The Sopranos” is airing repeat episodes during the fall 2001 season.
`Herculean effort’
“Aaron had to sit down and write the episode quickly, and it was one of those Herculean efforts in getting the episode produced and in the can within three weeks, so there was not a lot of time to think about critical and viewer reaction,” said Thomas Schlamme, executive producer of “The West Wing.” “At that moment–no matter if we hadn’t done something or done it–people would have asked, `Here is something very relevant to the show, and shouldn’t they do something with it?’ We knew it was something we would not overexploit and do it through the kind of organic narrative of the show” for the special season opener.
In fact, the critics have marveled at how “West Wing’s” creative team has deftly weaved overarching story lines, such as President Bartlet’s re-election campaign along with his personal battle with multiple sclerosis, which most critics felt outweighs any flaws in the special anti-terrorism episode.
“It towers over the competition for its intelligence, pace and depth,” said The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee’s Rick Kushman, who voted “West Wing” best series. “`The West Wing’ has been saying something with power and grace for three seasons that we now all understand: Public service matters.”
Two other dramas that often blur into the area of comedy, The WB’s “Gilmore Girls” and UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” took third- and fourth-best ranks–marking what has become an interesting battle between the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Tuesday shows. In fact, critics voted the scheduling of “Gilmore Girls” opposite “Buffy” as the best programming move this season–signaling what some industry watchers felt was The WB’s attempt at one-upmanship against UPN for losing “Buffy” in a controversial $2.3 million-per-episode winning bid last May for the cultish vampire hit.
Flipping “Gilmore Girls” from Thursday to Tuesday airings has proved to be a prescient move, since it has helped The WB win the opening hour by more than 20 percent margins over “Buffy” in the key female 12 to 34 and 18 to 49 demographics this season. “`Gilmore Girls’ is finally being given the chance to shine with [the] move to Tuesday,” said Neal Justin of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“`Gilmore Girls’ is widening the margin each week as the season progresses, and it has been exceeding our expectations for growth in all of the key female and male demos,” said Gavin Polone, who is an executive producer of the sophomore drama. “I think The WB is quite satisfied … given that `Buffy’ would have cost twice as much to run in the time period and delivered only three-quarters of the ratings we’re delivering currently.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator and executive producer of “Gilmore Girls,” had a somewhat more subdued attitude to the battle with UPN, suggesting that there was “no set mandate” from The WB, “although they threatened to take the time period back if we started doffing off with lame chicken jokes,” she added with a laugh.
“I don’t want it to look like we were going to get Tonya Harding to bring her hammer and take out `Buffy’ at the kneecaps,” Ms. Sherman-Palladino joked.
Of the two options, Mr. Kushman of The Sacramento Bee said “Gilmore Girls” is still “a gem of rhythm and wit. This has become the most enjoyable hour on TV. It makes you think, and it makes you happy. Nice trick.”
`Buffy’ and `Bernie’
Reflective of “Buffy’s” close fourth-place vote on the best-series list, critics were still lauding the show’s return to life with its season-opening cliffhanger on UPN as well as the much-heralded all-musical episode last October. “Not slipping a bit [creatively],” said Billy Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic. “The musical episode was outstanding, not that anyone who votes for the Emmy Awards will care,” he added, referring to Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters failing to recognize “Buffy” in the outstanding drama and acting categories for the past five years.
“All I can say is it is extremely gratifying and most important that the critics continue to validate and support our work, be it either the cliffhanger, musical episode or anything else we’ve done this season,” said Joss Whedon, creator and executive producer of “Buffy.”
“We knew the move would be difficult at first, but UPN has done everything it can to support and promote the show, even though it is in year six–they have treated us like we’re a cornerstone of the network. … `Buffy’ has given UPN an important springboard on Tuesday as `Enterprise’ [has done] on Wednesday. The key is that both shows built two new, strong evenings for the network.”
In the comedy genre, Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” repeated as best sitcom overall, and the network’s breakout 9:30 p.m. Wednesday hit “The Bernie Mac Show” came out the highest-ranked freshman comedy in the voting.
“We are just very excited about `Bernie Mac’ and it being in keeping with the tradition of strong point-of-view Fox comedies,” said Fox’s Ms. Berman. “Certainly it is a single-camera show without a laugh track, which, like `Malcolm,’ `Titus’ and `Undeclared,’ all clearly have their own strong point of view. Bernie is just one of those strong voices and characters that has connected with parents and children alike.”
That broad-based viewership, judging from “Bernie Mac’s” rating returns since November, indicates that it also indexed well across racial and generational lines.
“I did not want to make a show about race but rather just about child rearing and Bernie’s own experience supporting an extended family of kids,” said “Bernie Mac’s” creator, Larry Wilmore, an executive producer who was previously best known for helming The WB’s and Fox’s “The PJs” claymation sitcom. “The fact [that Bernie Mac] is not afraid to say what he is thinking and has this kind of tough-love, gruffy exterior but a real sort of Teddy Bearlike love for his kids, is what appears to really connect with parents and kids.”
Among the other notable comedies making the top 20 best series list, NBC’s “Friends” made a surprising comeback to a sixth ranking overall, while the Peacock Network’s new medical spoof, “Scrubs,” came in 10th overall and the second-ranked freshman comedy on the critics’ favorites list.
“I think the two biggest stories of this year ha[ve] been the tremendous success of `Friends’ and `Scrubs,’ the latter of which is [the] single-biggest breakout comedy hit of the new season,” said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. “To say the dominance and growth of `Friends’ is because of what has happened to the country post-9/11 somewhat diminishes what works about the show. It is just about story lines and the characters that America loves and is enamored with, and they just keep [reaching] new creative heights.”
“We have really locked into some compelling story arcs, such as Rachel’s pregnancy and whether Joey will finally wear his heart on his sleeve
, so it is something that has always connected with viewers and is not unlike other seasons,” said David Crane, executive producer of “Friends.”
All eyes on `Friends’
As “Friends” has indeed reaffirmed its status as the top-rated comedy on TV and held off CBS’s strong challenges with “Survivor: Africa” in the key adults 18 to 49 demo, the TV industry is carefully watching for a decision on whether–and when–the cast and series producer Warner Bros. Television will renew for at least one more season.
Though the network and studio have expressed interest in renewing “Friends” for a ninth season, Mr. Crane said emphatically that in addition to the six main cast members re-signing, it has to be a deal that makes it “economically viable” for another season. Reading between the lines, it could mean that NBC is going to offer something more than “Friends”’ current $5 million-per-episode license fee to keep the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. anchor of the Peacock’s “Must-See TV” lineup.
“That is an area [renewal negotiations] I try to avoid,” Mr. Crane said. “Although the show remains at the top of its game, if the cast says it doesn’t want to do it anymore, we’re done. We have only made it clear that we need to know soon, because after a certain point it has to be done in order to prep for next season.” He did not offer a specific timetable, but industry watchers think NBC has to sew up a renewal shortly before the end of the first quarter–in time to finish program development and announce its fall 2002 lineup at upfront presentations in New York next May.
Meanwhile, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” made a big leap back into the list as HBO’s top comedy–as “Sex and the City,” a first-time cable winner of an outstanding comedy Emmy, dropped out due to repeat episodes airing during the fall. (The show returns with original episodes this month.) Despite its ascendancy on the critics’ list, Mr. Polone, who also serves as executive producer of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” thinks its late-night scheduling may make it harder for the Larry David-led sitcom to be recognized come Emmy time.
“There are not lead characters like Larry in other shows, because he has this very self-deprecating, improv style of humor that kind of makes him the anti-leading-man type,” Mr. Polone said of Mr. David, who served as co-creator and executive producer of NBC’s “Seinfeld.”
Speaking of “Seinfeld,” the Jason Alexander-led “Bob Patterson” sitcom made the top of the critics’ worst series list and was voted the No. 1 overall stinker of the fall season. Mr. Alexander joined another “Seinfeld” alumnus, Michael Richards, whose NBC sitcom was similarly voted the worst show in the Fall 2000 Critics Poll. It was a close race in the worst-series category this season, with NBC’s de facto reject “Emeril” comedy running neck and neck with “Bob Patterson.” Three other sitcoms top the worst list–NBC’s much reviled “Friends” lead-out “Inside Schwartz” and The WB’s Friday comedies “Off Centre” and “Men, Women & Dogs.”
On the flip side, there appeared to be an upper echelon of dramas voted among the top 20 series–most notably CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” The WB’s “Smallville” and ABC’s “Alias”–that have gained broad early acceptance from critics and viewers.
The emergence of the newcomer “Smallville,” teamed as a lead-out from “Gilmore Girls,” has also been credited by critics for solidifying The WB’s Tuesday lineup. “There are a combination of things going on, where our core [persons 12 to 34] audience is discovering the Superman legend for the first time, while our older viewers are finding it a fun reinterpretation of that mythology,” said Carolyn Bernstein, The WB’s senior VP of drama development.
ABC’s “Alias” is another new show that is building on the growing mythology around strong female action heroes. In particular, critics and viewers seem to be taken with lead actress Jennifer Garner, who plays a butt-kicking special unit CIA agent who must deal with an estranged relationship with her secret agent father. J.J. Abrams, creator and executive producer of “Alias,” said he is thankful to ABC for taking on the series and putting it in its highly visible 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Sunday time slot, before “The Practice.”
“I find it interesting that ABC took a chance on making `Alias,’ the first female action-adventure series to be placed on one of the Big 3 networks. I’m gratified to see a strong female action character finally getting mainstream treatment on the broadcast networks,” he said.
Critics are gravitating toward new, unconventional series concepts and abandoning more traditional drama series. Noticeably absent from the top 20 best series are NBC’s “ER,” the David Kelley-inspired dramas “The Practice” (ABC), “Ally McBeal” (Fox) and “Boston Public” (Fox) and Steven Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” (ABC). The only other big-name, veteran show runners to remain in the top 20 are Dick Wolf (for NBC’s “Law & Order”) and the producing team of Marshall Hershkovitz and Ed Zwick (for ABC’s “Once and Again).
One other interesting addition to the top 20 was the inclusion of CBS’s “Late Night With David Letterman,” which received a new lease on life and rejuvenation among the young-adult demographics after the tragic events of Sept. 11.