Sunday, May 25, 2003

Television networks face reality check

Now that the season's officially over, will TV learn from its flops?

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] CBS cancelled My Big Fat Greek Life with star Nia Vardalos (left).
(CBS photo)
Another year down the tube.

The 2002-03 TV season, which officially ended Wednesday, will be remembered as the year of Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette, Are You Hot?, Married by America, Mr. Personality and I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!

That's too bad, because it should be noted as the season that gave us great new dramas: Everwood, American Dreams, Boomtown, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace.

Before the summer reality shows take over TV again, let's rewind the videotape and look at the year that was: Help, I'm a TV viewer - Get me out of here.

Skin deep

[IMAGE] Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter, of The Bachelorette, helped ABC beat NBC's The West Wing
(ABC photo)
With The Bachelor and The Bachelorette beating NBC's Emmy-winning drama The West Wing, ABC executives dreamed of winning the season with a landslide of reality shows: Are You Hot?, I'm A Celebrity, All American Girl.

ABC's extreme makeover didn't work. "We got greedy," admits Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment chairman.

Only six reality shows, most of them proven winners, fill the fall lineups: Survivor, The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire, Fear Factor, Extreme Makeover and American Juniors, the American Idol kiddie version to be replaced by Idol in January.

American Way

[IMAGE] American Idol finalists Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.
(Fox photo)
If a show becomes a big hit, then all the networks copy the concept. It's the American way. So Fox's American Idol, a Top 10 show since January, begat CBS' Star Search, NBC's America's Most Talented Kid, ABC's All American Girl, UPN's America's Next Top Model and USA's Nashville Star.

The real dog was Fox's Miss Dog Beauty Pageant, a canine competition for poise, beauty, congeniality and, yes, evening attire. Woof!

There's no end to this trend this summer with Fame (8 p.m. Wednesday), The Search for America's Most Talented Senior (8 p.m. next Sunday), American Juniors (8 p.m. June 3), and Last Comic Standing: The Search for the Funniest Person in America (9 p.m. June 9).

Last Call

The lobby bar for the Jimmy Kimmel Live audience lasted for one show.

"We were not comfortable with the systems in place for serving wine and beer," an ABC spokesman said.

ABC shut it down immediately after the Jan. 26 premiere, when guest George Clooney poured vodka for Kimmel, and an audience member vomited.

Without A Trace

Fox revived a tradition in '02-03: Canceling a fall show before it aired. Fox actually canceled two series without airing them: The Grubbs sitcom and the Septuplets drama.

Until last season, Fox had a streak of phantom series: Rewind (1997-98), Hollyweird (1998-99), Manchester Prep (1999-2000) and Schimmel (2000-01).

For the record, CBS never aired the second season of Baby Bob this year. But who's complaining?

Love Disconnection

Perhaps we should stop calling Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor and those mating shows "reality TV" and label them "romantic fantasies" instead.

A reality check: All three of the bachelors - Alex Michel, Aaron Buerge, Andrew Firestone - are still single. So is Evan Marriott, Fox's Joe Millionaire, the construction worker who didn't have $50 million, and didn't stay with Zora Andrich. Nobody was married by America on Fox's Married by America. (You're surprised?)

Here are the top 25 shows for the 2002-03 TV season, Sept. 23-May 21:
1. CSI, 26.2 million viewers.
2. Joe Millionaire, 22.8 million viewers.
3. American Idol (Wed.), 21.9 million viewers.
4. Friends, 21.8 million viewers.
5. American Idol (Tues.), 21.5 million viewers.
6. Survivor: Thailand, 21.2 million viewers.
7. ER, 20 million viewers.
8. Survivor: Amazon, 19.9 million viewers.
9. Everbody Loves Raymond, 18.5 million viewers.
10. Law & Order, 17.3 million viewers.
11. Monday Night Football, 16.9 million viewers.
12. Will & Grace, 16.79 million viewers.
13. The Bachelorette, 16.74 million viewers.
14. CSI: Miami, 16.5 million viewers.
15. Scrubs, 15.9 million viewers.
16. Without A Trace, 15 million viewers.
17. Law & Order: SVU, 14.7 million viewers.
18. The Bachelor, 14.5 million viewers.
19. Still Standing, 14.4 million viewers.
20. Law & Order: Criminal Intent (9 p.m. Sun.), 14.3 million viewers.
21. Law & Order: Criminal Intent (10 p.m. Sun.), 14.1 million viewers.
22. 60 Minutes, 13.9 million viewers.
23. The West Wing, 13.47 million viewers.
24. The Simpsons, 13.43 million viewers.
25. Yes, Dear, 13.2 million viewers.
Source: Nielsen Media Research
Only Trista Rehn from The Bachelorette is headed down the aisle with her made-for-TV beau. ABC plans to devote four hours - four hours! - to her made-for-TV wedding and plans next season.

Replay TV

When will networks realize that we want new TV, not recycled old shows that never live up to the original?

Remakes of Hunter, Family Affair and The Twilight Zone came and went this season. Only ABC's Dragnet survived, though it will be renamed L.A. Dragnet for fall.

Makes you wonder how long WB's new fall Tarzan and Jane (starring Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel) will last. Or if we'll ever see WB's Young MacGyver.

Greek Life

It wasn't a good year for movie spinoffs either. (Has there been one since M*A*S*H?)

Most disappointing was Nia Vardalos' TV version of the hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. CBS did the right thing by canceling My Big Fat Greek Life, despite ranking a respectable No. 34 (higher than My Wife and Kids, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and According to Jim).

Greek Life failed because of the 180 turn in Nia's husband. In Greek Wedding, Vardalos' husband (John Corbett) was curious and respectful of Greek customs. Greek Life bombed because the husband (Steven Eckholdt) treated his in-laws with disdain and distance, like every other sitcom. Obviously the film's charming nuances were Greek to CBS.

Big Flops

Some big names had some big flops in the 2002-03 TV year, but none bigger than Phil Donahue. Viewers had had their fill of Phil, whose weeknight MSNBC talk show was canceled in March after seven months.

Connie Chung also didn't last a year at 8 p.m. weeknights on CNN, before Larry King Live, ending the Chung-King lineup.

TV comebacks also were brief for Dana Delany (Presido Med), Jean Smart (In-Laws), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Watching Ellie), Fred Dryer (Hunter), Tim Conway (Over the Top), Gary Cole and Tim Curry (Family Affair).

Dramatic Death

More than 20 one-hour dramas were scrapped by the networks this season, ranging from out-of-gas favorites (Dawson's Creek, Providence) to rookies without a clue (MDs, Dinotopia, That Was Then, Firefly, Girls Club).

Also trashed were Miracles, Fastlane, John Doe, Haunted, Black Sash, Mr. Sterling, Queens Supreme, Veritas: The Quest and Push, Nevada.

Touched By An Angel fans also had to see this was the final season. Was the jump the shark moment when Tess (Della Reese) got Alzheimer's? Or when Monica (Roma Downey) met her evil twin?


The Practice fans breathed a sigh of relief earlier this month when ABC renewed the Emmy-winning drama after ratings had dipped because of the move to Monday from Sunday. They applauded ABC's decision to return the legal drama to 10 p.m. Sundays, where it had thrived for years.

Then ABC dropped the bomb: Half of the show's cast - including star Dylan McDermott, plus Laura Flynn Boyle, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Kelli Williams, Marla Sokoloff and Chyler Leigh - have been fired in an ABC budget cut.

Even with Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris and Michael Badalucco, the show won't be the same. Why bother?

Give 'Em Hail

TV's most stunning May cliffhanger happened off-camera - the resignation of Aaron Sorkin, the creative genius behind NBC's The West Wing drama.

Sorkin departed reportedly because of tension over production delays and budgets. Fellow executive producer John Wells (ER, Third Watch) takes over the show.

In his final scripts this season, Sorkin really painted his successor into a corner - the vice president (Tim Matheson) has resigned, and the president (Martin Sheen) has invoked the 25th Amendment and temporarily turned over power to the speaker of the House, a no-nonsense conservative Republican (guest star John Goodman).

The West Wing fans have to be wondering: Will there be four more years without Sorkin?

The Jackson 10

Let's not forget that the King of Pop was the King of February sweeps this year. Networks devoted 10 hours to Michael Jackson's lifestyle and cosmetic surgery, drawing millions of viewers.

But our fascination quickly waned. Fox opened May sweeps with the two-hour Michael Jackson's Private Home Movies, which tanked in the ratings.

Now when someone pitches another Jackson sweeps special, network programmers can say: Beat it.

Go Ahead, Shoot

TV's most aptly name sitcom finally got its wish: NBC canceled Just Shoot Me after it had fallen to No. 118 this season, down 40 places from a year ago.

NBC, once TV's undisputed laugh factory, also dumped In-Laws, Hidden Hills, A.U.S.A. and Watching Ellie. NBC has launched only two hit comedies in five years: Will & Grace and Scrubs.

It's no joking matter at NBC, which will lose Frasier and Friends next May - unless the Friends stars change their minds again and don't quit their $1-million-a-show jobs.

Will NBC offer them $1.8-million a show, to match Ray Romano's new weekly salary from CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond?


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