This prime-time season, the uglies have it.
No one could ever have predicted that a Japanese geek (Masi Oka, a Brown University grad in math and computer sciences who wasn’t even in the initial script) and a homely Latina (America Ferrera, who’s actually a babe under all those fashion faux pas) would be the hotties of the new network schedule. While Oka has emerged as the hero of NBC’s Heroes, advertisers and critics thought cast member Milo Ventimiglia from Gilmore Girls and this fall’s Rocky Balboa (yes, that Rocky Balboa, coming back again, apparently from the crypt this time) looked to be the breakout star. Meanwhile, NBC rejected Ugly Betty as a half-hour comedy; it took bringing on Salma Hayek (who’s appearing in early episodes) as a producer and making it a half-hour dramedy before Mark Pedowitz, the president of Touchstone Television, saw the beauty in Ugly for ABC.
Usually, network TV is bad news 24/7, for which I’m continually thankful, since it’s no fun to write about network hits. Then folks would get the misconception that network suits know what they’re doing, which they don’t. Case in point: The turnaround at ABC had nothing to do with Disney CEO Bob Iger and little to do with ABC Entertainment prez Steve McPherson, but they’re given credit for it anyway. Not only is it well documented that Iger hated and McPherson didn’t support Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Lost — but Iger fired the team most responsible for his big hits, Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun, and put McPherson in place.
McPherson’s supposed to have the hot hand, but he couldn’t grow a new hit last season — worse, he okayed Heather Graham’s unfortunately titled sitcom, Emily’s Reasons Why Not, and pulled it after only a week on the air. This year, ABC’s Men in Trees is tanking, and J.J. Abrams’ much-hyped Six Degrees is barely holding 40 percent of the Grey’s Anatomy audience, so the series has to be moved. Saving McPherson’s ass is Ugly Betty, which has made ABC a player on Thursday nights by delivering the network’s best numbers in 13 years for a scripted program in the 8 p.m. slot. ABC quickly ordered a full year’s episodes. The Americanized telenovela could have easily crapped out because its name and premise are so offensive, but its Devil Wears Prada campiness attracted an average of 14.8 million viewers just three weeks out, making it the most watched rookie of the still-young new season.
At NBC, entertainment president Kevin Reilly, and not his nightmare of a boss, Jeff Zucker, deserves the credit for backing Heroes. Strangely, this innovative-for-TV show (unless you think it’s a knockoff of Marvel’s New Universe comics, or sci-fi anthology Wild Cards, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) came from Tim Kring, who created that snore Crossing Jordan. It was NBC Entertainment exec V.P. Katherine Pope who rah-rahed the show, which Reilly then worked hard to keep alive. As for those repeated rumors all last year that Reilly was getting canned, they were emanating mostly from Zucker’s office because, in the words of one high-placed TV agent, “Jeff’s been a total dick to him. All you can ask of a network entertainment president is a hit a year. Kevin got full credit for My Name Is Earl and fell on his sword to keep The Office. This year, he has Heroes.”
Though all the networks this year threw more money and better actors and higher concepts at their problematic time slots, none were quite as arrogant as CBS’s Les Moonves. While ABC outspent everyone in promo, and NBC looked to other multimedia platforms to get word out about its shows, CBS just stayed mute and dumb. As a result, CSI’s once-unchallenged Thursday-night numbers are now losing to Grey’s Anatomy, and CBS’s only new hit is the downer series Jericho.
Other prime-time trends are painfully obvious, and will prove to be pains in the networks’ butts. So far this fall, those 24-type clones — dark and expensive serialized dramas beloved by conspiracy theorists — aren’t working. NBC’s Kidnapped revolved around a snatched millionaire’s son and the web of politics, power plays and deceit behind the kidnapping, and had a great cast with Tim Hutton and Dana Delaney. But this mildly interesting show has already lost its time slot and moved to the dead-air position: Saturdays at 9 p.m.
Which brings us to another prime-time trend this season: Shows aren’t being immediately or completely canceled anymore. Instead, they’re finishing out their 13-episode orders, even winding up storyline loose ends, and then that’s it, barring some massive Nielsen miracle. And that rarely happens, no matter how many forums and fan boards and e-mails flood the networks to complain.
Fox’s Vanished was the fraternal twin of NBC’s Kidnapped, only this time it’s a disappeared U.S. senator’s wife and the web of politics, power plays and deceit behind the disappearance. Fox was so high on this taut drama that the network gave it a summer head start and heartthrob Gale Harold, who’d been paid to go gay in Queer as Folk as hot guy Brian. But no one watched it on oversaturated Monday nights. It’s since been banished to Fridays after the World Series. But not to worry: Fox is used to writing off the entire fall every year until the start-up of American Idol saves its TV season.
Completing the lame trifecta is CBS’s Smith, best known for its Oscar-nominated cast (Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen) and its überexpensive pilot. Not since the old Miami Vice days have these kinds of glossy production values been seen on the small screen: speedboats on waterways, helicopter shots, huge explosions and car chases (as opposed to the cheapo foot chases on the network’s better-viewed Numbers). But the show ultimately bored. Smith’s production was under way on the seventh episode when the series was yanked off the schedule, but it’ll finish out its full 13.
Which leads to another trend this season: Big stars bring publicity but not necessarily the pricey demos. CBS’s Shark stars Jimmy Woods chewing up the scenery as a high-priced defense attorney turned people’s prosecutor. But he can barely say his lines because he’s sucking in his gut. Already, CBS has cut Woods out of the ads for the show and replaced him with the eye candy ADAs who work for him. The show is in such a protected time slot, following CSI on Thursdays, a black screen would draw eyeballs. Even so, a time-slot rival, NBC’s ER, has better demos.
But that network has a much-publicized problem on its hands with the sinking ratings of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Aaron Sorkin’s smarty-pants scripts and high-priced/high-profile cast and truly awful scheduling aren’t gaining viewers. Granted, ABC last spring threw a monkey wrench into NBC’s plans to air Studio 60 on Thursday nights when Grey’s Anatomy was moved there. Studio 60 got stuck with Monday nights at 10 p.m. But I don’t understand why NBC didn’t wait to debut Studio 60 midseason after football ended. It’s a dilemma I can’t help but think “King O’ the Grids” scheduling guru Preston Beckman, who now works for Fox, would have never gotten NBC into.
Then again, Sorkin was fired from West Wing before he was brought back to “save” NBC. There’s a fitting motto here: Ugly is as ugly does.