Want to see a television executive cringe in fear? Just mention the S-word. No, not the one that gets the FCC or the Parents Television Council all hot and bothered. I’m talking about serialized.
At last week’s upfronts - the New York meetings where the networks unveil their fall schedules - you would have thought serialized had become the eighth word on George Carlin’s list of things you can’t say on television. It did not appear in any network press releases; it did not pass the lips of any network executive.
The only man to speak it aloud all week was producer Jonathan Prince, who in an imprudent moment described “Cane,” his new show about Miami Cuban Americans, as “a serialized family drama” in an interview with the Miami Herald. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since, and it’s rumored that CBS publicists spirited him away to a Swedish hospital for a tongue-ectomy.
Some of the shows announced last week are bound to contain serialized elements, with storylines that continue week-to-week and make frequent use of mini-cliffhangers. The warring vampires of CBS’ “Moonlight,” the cutthroat teens of The CW’s “Gossip Girl,” and the overcaffeineated doctors of “Private Practice,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff, and the wife-swappers of CBS’ “Swingtown” all cry out for a “to be continued ...” tagline.
But after the disastrous performance of a bumper crop of serialized shows last fall, the networks are wary of making it sound like watching one of their shows requires viewers to sign a long-term contract.
“We looked at shows like `The Nine,’ which I thought was a brilliantly produced and written show, but maybe just too much of a commitment for people to make,” said ABC programming chief Stephen McPherson. “They have a lot of great shows out there. It’s really a golden age of drama out there.”
“The Nine,” a critically acclaimed ABC drama about the survivors of a hostage situation, was one of the early casualties last fall. The networks introduced more than a dozen serialized shows, and by Christmas you could barely set foot in Hollywood without tripping over one of their corpses.
CBS’ “Smith,” ABC’s “Day Break,” “Six Degrees” and “The Knights Of Prosperity,” Fox’s “Vanished,” NBC’s “Kidnapped” and The CW’s “Runaway” all were canceled long before they reached their season finales. The most abject and startling failure of all was NBC’s “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.”
Produced by Aaron Sorkin, widely considered the most literate screenwriter in all of television, and featuring a high-powered (and very expensive) cast led by Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet, “Studio 60” was such a Nielsen drag that NBC, even facing a spring with some of the lowest ratings in the network’s history, wasn’t willing to air the final four episodes during May sweeps.
NBC seemed seriously soured by the experience. When the network’s programming boss Kevin Reilly last week announced the cancellation of both “Studio 60” and the veteran crime drama “Crossing Jordan,” he was full of praise for “Jordan.” Of “Studio 60,” he said only this: “Aaron was doing the show he wanted to do. There was no retooling or course alterations to be done ... He did his show, he had no regrets about it, and we’re moving on.”
Not every serial has been a flop. Last year’s mass migration into the form was triggered by the high ratings of ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” and Fox’s “24,” all of which continue to be successful. And the biggest hit of ABC’s new fall schedule was the telenovela satire “Ugly Betty.”
“There’s a big difference between serialized drama and a comedic serialization - an `Ugly Betty,’ a `Desperate Housewives’ - where you can just come in and enjoy the show and laugh a little bit,” said McPherson. “If you’re a devoted fan, you know everything that is tracking, and if you’re not, it’s just a great episode.”
And even dramas can work as long as they’re good, insisted Fox programmer Peter Liguori.
“The serialized shows that hit the air just simply weren’t good enough,” said Liguori said. “I don’t think `Vanished’ was unsuccessful because it was serialized. I think `Vanished’ was unsuccessful because of the creative.”
And, in case you wondering, no, Liguori didn’t tell us last fall that “Vanished” was a crummy show and we could skip it. Must have slipped his mind while he was nuking Los Angeles on “24.”