TV cancellations come quick as a click of a remote

What Luanne Phillips wants to watch on TV tonight is history. Not as in Webster, ("a narrative of events") but as in "no longer around," "kaputski," "on permanent respite to Aloha Acres."

"I can't believe it. I was just warming up to this show, and now it's gone," says Ms. Phillips, a mother of two who recently remade her Monday night schedule around a date with "Deadline," an NBC drama launched just five weeks ago. "How do they expect to build an audience when they cancel a TV show after five episodes?"

The announcement that the Peacock network was canceling one of the season's most-anticipated series has reignited debate over a long-term trend that has accelerated in recent years: commercial pressure to draw an instant audience or be given the proverbial hook.

The fragmentation of television into more networks, cable, satellite TV - with additional competition from VCRs and the Internet - was supposed to result in an explosion of options for viewers, say industry watchers.

Instead, industry watchers say, it has often led to a stultifying sameness, with widespread dependence on tired retreads and straitjacketed formulas.

"We have become a society so hyper-dominated by instant profit, that we are losing the ability - or now, luxury - to experiment creatively, try new themes, or even refine new twists on old themes," says Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston.

"Ironically, by insisting that new shows be instant hits by grabbing audiences by the lapels, we are contributing to their inability to do so - by [making them] try too hard up front and not giving the creators enough time to find their stride," Mr. Jowett says.

The quick demise of "Deadline" sent shock waves through television's creative community. Producer Dick Wolf has one of the leading resumes in television, going back 25 years with credits that include "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice," and "New York Undercover. Mr. Wolf is also the creator of the longest-running drama currently on television, the Emmy-winning "Law & Order," and its spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

The wonder was reflected in the leading entertainment trade publication, Variety, which said, "the quick hook for "Deadline" was something of a surprise, given the combined firepower of [producer] Wolf and [Oliver] Platt, as well as an all-star cast of regulars such as Lili Taylor, Bebe Neuwirth, Hope Davis, and Tom Conti."

While some critics say the show was simply poorly conceived and executed, others love to point out what would have happened to some of the leading shows of years past if they had been forced to launch in today's competitive environment.

The leading show for much of the 1990s, "Seinfeld," was receiving both widespread critical disdain and poor viewership well into its first season before turning into a nine-year rating's winner for NBC.

Before that, "Hill St. Blues," "St. Elsewhere," and "Cheers," were all late bloomers that would have been killed off early if their initial ratings were translated into today's environment.

Reaching back to the 1970s, one of the greatest hits in television history, "All in the Family," was a ratings bomb for its first 13 weeks.

"I thought that my experience at NBC taught the networks at least one lesson," says Grant Tinker, the only person ever to manage both a TV production studio (MTM Productions) and a major network (NBC). "And that was to leave good shows on and let them find their audiences."

But the number of airings a show gets to find its audience has continued to shrink. In the 1950s, networks typically ordered 39 episodes of a show. In the 1960s it dropped to 26, then in the 1970s to 13. By the late 80s, and early 90s, eight was standard. Today, networks order six shows at a time, and sometimes only three.

The problem is the economics behind those placing the orders. A one-hour drama such as "Deadline," "NYPD Blue," or "ER" costs between $1 million and $2 million. But networks now have less than two-thirds of the audience they had in the 1970s - which affects the rates they can charge advertisers, the price they pay for programs, and the money they can pay out while a show is still "finding its audience" - if it ever does.

"Competition has changed dramatically from the days of the three-network universe, and the economics have followed suit," says Sharon Powell, spokeswoman for NBC, who says "Deadline" was cancelled "solely for the simple fact of ratings numbers. It is absolutely far more demanding and challenging to launch a show in these circumstances."

Even more important than attracting an audience is attracting the right audience, at least according to advertisers, who are more willing to plunk down money for shows popular among 18-to-49 year olds.

"In television, there is no doubt that, since it is harder and harder to capture a large target audience, we aim for one whenever we can," says Jeremy Miller, spokesman for Chiat/Day Advertising in New York. "We need to tell advertisers we are bringing in that [18-to-49] demographic."

Despite its solid premiere just a month ago, only 6.8 million people watched "Deadline" last week, and the episode finished a distant fourth in the key demographic of 18-to-49- year-old viewers.

Some critics say the reason "Deadline" failed to attract those viewers was simple: bad concept (a journalist solves crimes with help from his graduate students), bad writing, bad acting.

"The death of "Deadline" simply shows that no one is immune to a flop, no matter what their track record," says Brian Lowry, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times.

But others said the show suffered from just the kind of growing pains a new show - especially a one-hour drama - needs time to iron out: introducing characters, establishing relationships, finding tone, pacing, alchemy.

"In a half-hour sitcom, you have only 22 minutes to tell a story, and the stereotypes are necessarily much stronger," says Jowett. "In a one-hour drama, there are all kinds of subtle shadings and character development that take a longer period of time to hone."

Although they concede the environment to start a show today is harder than ever, other industry observers say there are hosts of reasons executives may choose to keep or remove a show that go beyond just ratings: what demographics the network as a whole is trying to attract, how "old" or "young" its current hits are, what shows it has in development, the possibilities of syndication after a network run, and the sheer vagaries of scheduling.

"They had nowhere else to put us but in that time slot on Monday," laments "Deadline," co-producer Neil Schubert. The show was up against longer-established shows on other channels ("Everybody Loves Raymond," "Ally McBeal," and "Monday Night Football). "When we didn't do well there, they looked around and didn't have a lot of other holes to fill."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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