Why your favorite TV shows get zapped

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

As you sit down to watch the new shows this fall, no doubt you will find yourself wondering about some of your old favorites. Some will have moved, some will be gone altogether, and most aggravating of all to loyal fans, some will be pitted against one another.

"Why?" you might ask, as you mutter: "The old schedules worked just fine for me."

To help you in your bafflement, here are a few of the most common scenarios that occur each season as the networks fight for their favorite eyeballs.

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Death by demographics: This fate has been suffered by many shows, beginning with the venerable "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres."

When the Nielsen system was first instituted in the 1970s, and network executives discovered that those extremely popular shows had large audiences over the age of 50, they cancelled the programs. A few decades later, the highly touted "Murder, She Wrote" suffered the same fate.

"They had very strong audiences," says Alan Johnson, director of media services at ad agency Mullen in Wenham, Mass. "But they happened to be in that 55-plus category. And advertisers, by and large, don't want to go after those people." Since then, the network's obsession with ratings and demographics has only gotten more ferocious.

Aging shows, aging audiences: The "death by demos" can work in different ways. Take "Ally McBeal" and "The X-Files," both recently cancelled, popular shows with big, loyal audiences.

Both shows had suffered a certain viewer slippage as favorite stars departed and story lines wobbled creatively. But the overall aging of the audience base, combined with the spiraling costs of a mature show, are what sealed their fate. When shows themselves get long in the tooth, the costs all creep up. All the talent want bigger salaries, the shows get ambitious and go on the road – all of which costs money. "There is an economic benefit in retiring shows like 'X-Files' and 'Ally McBeal,' " says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't be doing it. We'd love nothing more than for those two shows to continue to be among the leaders in the 18-to-49 demographic on all of television. That was no longer the case. It was time to move on. And certainly there are significant savings in moving on."

Relocated out of existence: Sometimes networks try to use a popular show to pull the desired eyeballs to new slots, or give critical darlings another chance to build an audience. But the tactic can backfire. Both "Dark Angel" (Fox) and "Once and Again" (ABC), the first with good ratings, the second with respectable, were moved to Friday night, which typically has one of TV's highest casualty rates. They promptly nosedived in the ratings. Neither survived the move to a weekend night in which the regular audiences skew much older than the desired demographic. Despite the presence of Hollywood heavyweights such as film director James Cameron as executive producer on "Dark Angel," and top show runners, Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick on "Once and Again," the shows were axed.

The Man Show: Next, you might ask, "How did that loud-mouthed mess of macho masculinity get on the air?" Take a look at a new program on Fox, "Fastlane," which fits that description quite well. The show features a team of youthful, buff, undercover police officers, under the direction of an equally youthful, scantily clad female chief of detectives. The cars and weapons are hyper-tricked out, the chase scenes could double for an M-rated video game (the usual home of trashily dressed women), and the fight scenes look like choreography from extreme martial arts competitions.

"We asked the creators [of 'Fastlane'] to put together for us a new 21st-century, young-adult, police drama," says Gail Berman, president of Entertainment, Fox Television. "These are two undercover cops who are dealing with all kinds of real-life situations, or real-life crimes, in a stylized way," Berman says. "We want to make sure it feels vital to the young-adult audience that it's being scheduled for."

In the face of shows like this, a question that pops up in the minds of loyal viewers of such classy hits as "West Wing," may be this: Why do the networks mess around with so many mediocre shows on the air when really great shows like this are a big hit with all ages? Here's where another industry assumption about who you really are when you watch TV comes into play.

Keeping it simple: It may (or may not) surprise you to hear that groundbreaking TV is not necessarily what programmers are trying to put on the air. "For the vast majority of the television audience, TV is what they do after they get home after a long day at work or after being with their kids all day," says Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment. "It may be something they do with multiple interruptions.... Something that is overly complex and overly demanding may not be what most of our audience is dying to watch."

Killing off the competition: How about the issue of putting your favorite shows smack up against each other? Why do that? The urge to pit hits against each other to duke it out for the prime-time slot may seem like an obvious business move, but this season, the issue of race gives this tactic an additional bite as well.

ABC and Fox have come under fire for a move that some predict could kill the only two prime-time black shows on the major networks, "Bernie Mac" and "My Wife and Kids." Both are now set to air Wednesday at 8 p.m. Fox executives say they moved "Bernie" because it was a solid hit and they hoped to help their lagging eight o'clock hour.

"These two shows are actually broad-based hits," says Mr. Grushow. He says they looked closely at the audiences for each and calculated that there's only 25 percent duplication among African-American audiences, so the shows should survive the face-off. That being said, Grushow adds, "we really don't feel like we're under any obligation to ensure the success of any of our competitors' shows."

So, why does any of this matter? Isn't TV just something we turn on for fun or, occasionally, news? A recently published study suggests that people who see only negative images of themselves – or no images at all – develop a negative self-image which can, in turn, affect their health.

Given how widespread TV is, experts say people need to pay attention to the reasons some images get on the air – and others don't.

"Demographically based marketing has so positioned each of us in a stereotypical fashion that even though we don't accept it personally, it cannot help but shape us personally," says Robert Snyder, senior partner at the Mature Market Group, a division of J. Walter Thompson Worldwide. The influence is even more powerful with young people, the very ones most prized by networks.

"They are more impressionable and haven't developed their values or finalized how they're going to guide their lives."

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