Nov 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Fox’s “Skin” got rave reviews, and yet Fox viewers rejected it. “Madly entertaining at every burning turn,” one goof gushed. Other critics turned cartwheels and jumped through fiery hoops, and that’s not easy for people who are so notoriously out of shape. Still, the audience stayed away in those proverbial and distressing droves.
What happened? Here’s a theory for you: Maybe Fox viewers rejected it because it got such good reviews.
At Fox, which made its name airing upstart programming that was blatantly, even proudly, hollow and shrill, anything that smacks of being “good for you,” of being somehow aesthetically superior to ordinary TV programs (or merely worthwhile), may rub loyal Fox viewers the wrong way. It perhaps has to do with “branding,” that very very popular word now along Madison Avenue and heard a lot (like “repurposing,” or is that out already?) in television’s corridors of power.
The conventional wisdom that viewers don’t know one television station or network from another, or even a pay-cabler like HBO from a broadcaster like ABC or CBS, may be just so much hooey. NBC’s imported sex flop “Coupling” might have made it big on HBO, where people expect to find imported sex romps, but it didn’t seem the right fit for NBC, even though that network’s “Friends” can be smutty as all get-out. It isn’t pitched that way, though; it’s pitched as a warm-hearted, extended-family comedy, albeit an extended family where extended incest is practiced with religious zeal.
“Coupling,” despite high hopes and a British pedigree and conspicuously advantageous placement on the Thursday night lineup, turned out to be almost nobody’s cup of must-see tea vee.
Over at Fox, “Skin” may have suffered from the same too-blunt syndrome when it came to the subject of sex. Viewers feel no guilt about watching bare-naked people hippity-hop into and out of one another’s beds on the witty “Sex and the City,” but will they feel the same when presented with the opportunity to watch it in syndication on whatever station in their market shelled out a trillion dollars and bought the show?
This will be a case of guilt-without-sex. The episodes are going to be pared down to turn what had been explicit into innuendo. Happy bouncing bare breasts will be banned. Miranda may go from lecherous pouncer to lonely little lady. Whatever became of HBO’s once successful “Dream On,” which essentially promised viewers at least two “T’s” and an “A” in every episode? Did a bowdlerized version go into syndication? If so, it didn’t make a big loud noise, did it?
HBO is having a dry spell right now, partly perhaps because this dusty “Carnivale” thing is awfully low on explicit sex, at least compared with HBO hits of the past. HBO has had great success with prestigious, highly decorated programming, of course, but the weekly series on HBO tend to be on the randy side.
Looking back in time-and not very far-it’s easy to find examples of quality shows that inspired orgiastic paeans of praise from the critics but drew yawns from Fox viewers. Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared” was an inventive, shewd and seemingly youth-appealing weekly series, a sequel of sorts to Apatow’s quixotic “Freaks and Geeks,” which had struggled heroically to find an audience at NBC. But “Undeclared” was perhaps too sophisticated and had too many subtleties for the Fox folk. It didn’t hit viewers right between the eyes with a rubber-tipped dart.
Meanwhile “That ’70s Show,” from the eagerly groveling team that gave us NBC’s primitive “Third Rock From the Sun,” is doing as well on Fox as “Undeclared” did badly. `”70s Show” is so much more comfortingly obvious, so simple, so uncomplicated in its relationships. Basically, it’s “Happy Days” is here again.
Even sadder than the poor showing of “Skin” are the so-so early numbers on Fox for “Arrested Development,” the wackiest and (on purpose) tackiest of the new fall shows. It’s the one sitcom to show flashes of inspiration and impudence, the way “Scrubs” did when it started on NBC. But “Arrested Development” has had abortive ratings on Fox so far. Maybe if it were showing Thursday nights on NBC, it would be a hit, because it would be in comfortable surroundings where people expect to find it. But it doesn’t seem like a Fox show, so it isn’t thriving on Fox.
Obviously, not all Fox shows are dumb and junky. There’s “The Simpsons,” after all, the wicked old grandpa of TV animation, a show still capable of eye-widening surprises in its umpteenth season-a marvel of satirical engineering. Perhaps the beauty of “The Simpsons” is that for smart people it’s a smart show and for dumb people it’s a dumb show. The twain meet and find common ground and laugh their fannies off.
We call it the exception to the rule only because we think this theory of programming compatibility may have something to it (it may also be, for all I know, one of the oldest theories in TV exhibition). The news is that if anything, networks (perhaps inspired by one-note cable channels) are becoming more single-mindedly branded than ever-even the big, something-for-everybody networks that ABC, CBS and NBC used to be. “The Ed Sullivan Show” would never work now, of course, because opera fans wouldn’t sit still for a country-western tune, and jazz buffs would barf if some heavy-metal group came growling out from the wings.
Branding is commercially advantageous polarizing and pigeonholing. It’s easy to imagine a beer-bellied boob in his underwear scowling, “That show’s not Spike TV enough for me” or a regular Lifetime viewer running in horror from the room when Spike’s “Stripperella” slunk onto the screen. The more this happens and the more the trend accelerates, the harder it will be for television to bring us together for the big national moments and the matters of great importance for which TV can rally the biggest crowds.
It’s basically the Tower of Babble approach. Television is becoming more and more like radio, and what a horrible thing for it to be.