Let’s play Devil’s Advocate today, why don’t we? I realize it’s batshitballsretarded to even contemplate defending the moves of megalomaniac conglomerate heads of programming over at the Big Four networks, but for a few moments, I’d like to consider five examples of their magnanimity. Was that magnanimity self-serving? Oh, without a doubt. But sometimes — rarely, very rarely — the networks, through generosity of spirit or, more likely, their own stupidity, manage to somehow accidentally do the right or honorable thing with their programming choices, which often even butts up against their own bottom line. In other words, they give shows chances, even when the ratings evidence suggests they should not.
Here are five recent examples of that we should perhaps applaud, even if it does make us feel dirty.
5. Dollhouse: Yes, the dumbass executives over at Fox not only cancelled the beloved “Firefly” before even airing out all 14 episodes (and aired several out of order), but with “Dollhouse,” I felt like they actually tried to make up for that mistake, though — for ratings reasons — this show had no business airing after the sixth episode. Look: A lot of us criticized Fox for moving “Dollhouse” to Friday nights before it had even aired, but those of us who sat through the first six episodes quickly realized why. It wasn’t a very good show. And though several of the die-hard Whedonities (which was the only audience that “Dollhouse” had by the end) insisted that the show had markedly improved later in the first season and significantly in the second, the ratings continued to worsen. In its first season, “Dollhouse” averaged a paltry 4.6 million viewers, or basically slightly less than what “The Jay Leno Show” averaged in prime time. Fox shouldn’t have renewed “Dollhouse” for a second season. But they did, out of respect for Joss Whedon’s brilliance, and out of respect to his fans. Their reward? A 13-episode season that averaged around 2.2 million viewers , which is less than what most first-run cable shows rate. And yet: They were kind enough to air out all 13 episodes and leave viewers with some finality. That was generosity to a business fault.
Self-Serving Reason: “Dollhouse” did OK on DVD, and Fox really wants to keep Whedon happy so that they can acquire his next show, which they will probably cancel.
4. Arrested Development: Next to “Firefly” and maybe “Freaks and Geeks,” “Arrested Development” is probably the cancellation that hurt us collectively the most. This was a show that ranked third on our Best Shows of the Aughts list. It was much beloved, and deservedly so. But you know what? It stunk it up in the ratings. The first season didn’t do well and yet, Fox decided to bring it back for a second season. How well did it do then? Six million viewers an episode (compare that to 25 to 30 million for a show like “American Idol,” or even the 10 million a show like “Castle” gets, and its ratings are middling). Still, they brought it back for a third season, which only rated about 4 million viewers an episode. Granted, near the end, they started screwing around with the scheduling of the show, but if there really was a big enough audience to support “Arrested Development,” the audience would have followed the show. Instead, the finale got a paltry 3.3 million viewers. Some support, huh. Besides: Think of it this way — if “AD” had been allowed to continue its run, it probably wouldn’t have met expectations in subsequent seasons, and its cult status would’ve been irreparably tarnished by creative drought.
Self-Serving reason: Tons of Emmy nominations and awards and critical respect for a Fox network that received very little otherwise until “House” came along.
3. Scrubs: First over on NBC and then, on ABC, I think most of us were granted a little more “Scrubs” than we hoped to get. People like us who bitched and bellyached because the godawful Jim Belushi show (“Married to a Fat Ass”?) ran for eight years ought to wonder, from a ratings-standpoint, why “Scrubs” is still on, too. Although the first three seasons were moderately successful, ratings-wise, the show began to falter in its fourth season (dropping from 10 million viewers to 6 million viewers) and by its fifth season, it began to falter creatively, too. By its 7th and 8th seasons, it had fallen to 115th and 123rd, respectively, in the ratings. But those of us die-hard “Scrubs” fans stuck with it (and too many of us continue to do so in its horrible 9th season, which is generating an awful 3.8 million viewers per episode). But ABC has stuck with it, out of respect for Bill Lawrence (who is show-running the better-rated “Cougar Town” now) and because they could at least count on a small, but rabid fan base (less rabid now). “Scrubs” is what could’ve happened to “Arrested Development” if Fox had decided to keep it on the air. But thanks to ABC’s unwanted generosity, we were stuck with at least one more season after the perfect 8th season finale (which ABC was nice enough to give us, unlike NBC, though NBC stuck with the show three years after its ratings supported it).
Self-Serving Reason: The audience is small, but advertiser friendly, plus ABC is making a killing on syndication.
2. Chuck: Three years ago, in its first season, “Chuck” managed a decent 8 million viewers an episode, good for 65th overall in the ratings. That might have been serviceable, particularly given the competition (“Monday Night Football” and “Dancing with the Stars”), except that “Chuck” is an expensive show. Remember a few years back, when HBO cancelled “Deadwood” (I know — it still stings, doesn’t it)? it wasn’t because “Deadwood” got terrible ratings, it was because the ratings didn’t support the expense. The same could be said for “Chuck,” and yet, NBC brought it back for a second season, blaming the Writer’s Strike on the struggling ratings of “Chuck.” Their reward: “Chuck” fell to 71st in the ratings in its second season. And yet, with “Chuck” all but cancelled after the second season finale (justifiable, for a business reasons), NBC decided to bring it back for another after a huge groundswell of support from fans. They struck some deals with some advertisers, decided to cut expenses, and they made it happen. And to their credit, I haven’t noticed any drop-off due to lower production costs (on the contrary, scoring Kristen Kreuk and Brandon Routh must have been expensive) nor have I been particularly bothered by the product placement advertising they promised we’d get (I haven’t even noticed it). What’s more is that, leading up to its debut, NBC promoted “Chuck” more than any show I’ve seen promoted in quite some time. And yet, still the ratings haven’t improved. NBC listened to us, brought the show back, and yet we haven’t been able to collectively muster the ratings success that this show needs to survive.
Self-Serving Reason: It’s NBC. What the hell else are they going to run? Two simultaneous seasons of “The Biggest Loser”?
1. Friday Night Lights: I really don’t get this one. “FNL” is probably my favorite show on network television right now, and as bad as NBC is, as bad as they screwed up the late-night situation, and as barren as their primetime lineup is outside of Thursday nights, I really and honestly appreciate their efforts to bring back “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really understand why. It’s never had good ratings — at its first-season peak, it dropped from a debut of around 7 million viewers to 5 million viewers or so by the end of the season. Solid critical reception got it a second season, where ratings struggled even more. It’s not even a big prestige show for the network — it’s been nominated for a criminally low four Emmys, winning only one for Best Casting. And yet, after a dismal second season, NBC struck a deal with DirecTV to share the costs of the show, and in return, NBC essentially got to air reruns of “Friday Night Lights,” months after the originals aired on DirectTV. Naturally, ratings suffered, falling to around four million viewers in its third season. Did NBC cancel it? No. In fact, they re-upped the deal with DirectTV to get Peter Berg and the “FNL” team back for another two seasons, allowing them to complete their vision for the narrative. Why? I don’t know, but I’m not going to punch a gift horse in its hindquarters.
Self-Serving Reason: Beats me. Is it possible that there’s some soulless executive at NBC who simply likes this show so much that he’s willing to eat the costs to see how it ends?
The point of all of this is, maybe we shouldn’t be blaming the TV executives all the time. They got some of our favorite shows on the air in the first place, and in many cases (like the ones above), they kept them on the air past the point that they were profitable. The real culprit here are television audiences, who would prefer to watch obese people try to hook up instead of an intelligent comedy or a quality drama. TV Execs care about one thing only: Money. If you find a show on television that you respect, that you love, and that you appreciate, watch it live. Buy the DVD. Tell your friends about it. Don’t just suck the free teat and then complain about it when it doesn’t go your way.