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Profiles In Banality

Houston Foppiano -- an alert TeeVee reader and not, as you might imagine, the name of the newest Tex-Mex dish down at Chevy's -- sends us word that Ally Walker is out and Jamie Luner is in next season on NBC's Profiler. We're grateful to Houston for the heads up because, as highly-dedicated TV watching professionals, we had absolutely no earthly clue that Profiler was still on the air. And besides, wasn't Lance Henriksen the star of the show?

But no. As it turns out, Profiler is the other low-rated drama about a crime-busting bug-eyed person who's so in tune with the criminal mind that she can actually "visualize" the crimes. And Profiler, unlike the recently shit-canned Millennium, is very much alive, no matter how inexplicably so.

However, Profiler will have to soldier on without the services of Ms. Walker, the cross-eyed ingenue whose stutter-step line readings and lifeless facial expressions have tugged at the heartstrings of many a smitten sociopath. For three years, Ally Walker was the brilliant FBI forensic psychologist Dr. Samantha Waters. Her performance was so convincing that no less an authority than John Douglas -- the FBI agent credited with creating the whole science of criminal profiling his own bad self -- was moved to observe:

"If I watch The Profiler, it drives me crazy when she gets this look on her face, and she has these flashbacks and starts seeing blood and gore. If I had to go through that every time I did a profile, I'd be wearing a blue chiffon dress, smoking a cigar."

Well. Everyone's a critic.

Walker will be back for the first two episodes, alongside fellow cast members Robert Davi, Julian McMahon, Roma Maffia and Peter Frechette -- all of whom will apparently stay. But after episode two this fall, Walker rides off into the profilin' sunset, ready to pursue her white lava hot movie career.

Ms. Walker, you will recall, starred in "Universal Soldier."

Devoted fans of Profiler can take comfort in the fact that Walker will not pull a Wayne Rogers and disappear from the show with nary a goodbye. Instead, those first two episodes of the new season will be used to tie up loose ends and answer those haunting questions left over from last spring's cliffhanger. Questions like, "Are you sure this isn't the show with Lance Henriksen?" and "Where'd I put that remote?"

Replacing Ally Walker -- in the same way that Buddy Biancalana once replaced Onix Concepcion as the Kansas City Royals shortstop -- is Jamie Luner. You might best remember her for joining the cast of Melrose Place right before the show was canceled. And before that, you might remember Luner's work from Savannah... provided you caught a glimpse of that show before it, too, was canceled.

And if Jamie Luner should work her magic and pull off the cancellation hat trick with Profiler? Step right up, Ted McGinley -- we'd like you to meet your female equivalent in the acting kiss-of-death department.

The purpose here, though, isn't to cast stones at poor Jamie Luner before she even dips her toe in the Profiler water or to kick sand in the face of Ally Walker one last time before she starts work on "Universal Soldier II: Dolph Lungren's Revenge." No... we have a more fundamental purpose here, a responsibility to consider a question that may well determine the future of network television.

And that question is: Just why, exactly, is NBC making such an effort to keep Profiler from flatlining?

I mean, after all, this is not exactly appointment television we're talking about here. In terms of Nielsen ratings, Profiler ranked 92nd out of something in the neighborhood of 178 shows last season. That means if you were to stop reading this article right now, stand on top of your desk and treat your co-workers to a boisterous rendition of "Born Free," there's a good chance you'd have a larger audience than Profiler has enjoyed in its three-year run.

On a more anecdotal level, we get all kinds of angry letters here at TeeVee, taking us to task for casting aspersions on some low-rated, creatively adrift effluvium. We've gotten e-mail defending the honor of Charmed, Over the Top, The Secret Lives of Men, even Dellaventura, for Christ's sake. And in all the time we've been doing this lame-o little Web thing -- taking cruel, untoward shots at Profiler and poor, blameless Ally Walker at regular intervals -- we've received a grand total of zero letters rushing to the aid of Profiler, demanding satisfaction for the slights against Ally Walker, pointing out the exquisite subtleties of Robert Davi's performance.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is simple. Hardly anyone watches Profiler. And those who do just don't care.

So why is NBC programming chief Garth Ancier frantically pounding on the chest of Profiler, all the while screaming, "Live, damn you, live?" The answer says much about the direction that all of the broadcast networks are heading in. And -- surprise -- it bodes ill for you and me.

Profiler continues to air on NBC because it's a creation of the Peacock Network's production arm. That means the big, fat licensing fees NBC would normally have to pay the studio that produces the show instead go right back to NBC. And the profits those studios would otherwise enjoy? Same destination.

That's important for two reasons. First, the cost of keeping the few highly-rated, well-regarded shows on the air is rising. NBC, for example, shells out around $700 trillion dollars per episode of ER. The network doesn't turn a profit on that arrangement. There's no possible way it could that doesn't involve enough accounting tricks to bring down two dozen mafiosos. So NBC forks over the dough to Warner Brothers, chalks ER up as a loss leader and uses the show's high ratings to promote the rest of its dreary schedule.

It also tightens its belt. And a good way to keep costs down is to litter your schedule with a bunch of shows like Profiler, produced in-house and on the cheap.

That also happens to give networks more than just a sporting interest in which shows stick on the schedule and which go... well, the way of Lance Henriksen's show about the bug-eyed profiler. Say you're NBC. You've just sunk three years into a show, doing everything you can to keep it alive. Guest appearances by A. Martinez. Cross-over episodes with The Pretender. Everything. And yet, despite your best efforts, this monkey just ain't flying. So, with just a season or so to go before you have enough episodes to strike a lucrative syndication deal and recoup all of your costs, what do you do short of pulling the plug on this stiff?

Exactly. Out with Ally Walker. In with Jamie Luner. Hello, six-figure deal with the Sci-Fi Channel.

Sometimes, this works out to the home viewer's benefit. Homicide would have been shelved shortly after its debut episode, so poor were its ratings. But NBC produced that show, too, so Homicide managed to sneak its way on the schedule every year... until, of course, this season, when the ratings became too low and the returns from the syndication deal with Court TV too small. Still, when this sort of arrangement works, low-rated, high-quality shows get a little extra time to find their audience. And when the arrangement doesn't work? Well, I've pretty much been yammering on about that for the last several hundred words now, haven't I?

So how does this increasingly cozy relationship between the networks and the shows they broadcast spell doom for you and me? Because whatever motivation network programmers felt to take a flier on a creatively daring program that may not necessarily become a ratings monster -- and we're not talking about a real strong motivation to begin with -- just got cut in half. The emphasis now is on low-cost, low-risk, nondescript programming that stands a chance of generating some cash when the syndication boys come a-calling. And because of that, these shows are going to stay on the air, no matter how bland, no matter how lowly rated, no matter the overall indifference of the general public.

NBC is just the whipping boy du jour. All the networks will be doing this to some extent this year. Disney, in fact, just announced it's grafting its TV production unit on to ABC, more or less assuring that a significant chunk of the Mouse-Ear's schedule is going to be home-grown. And you know what that means: tepid family programming stripped bare of anything remotely objectionable to Middle America, lest we offend more Baptists.

Tony Danza, call your agent.

What we're seeing, then, is the last gaudy end-zone celebratory dance of commerce over creativity. Any last pretense that networks were at least trying to fill their schedules with the best shows possible should be almost completely withered away. It's all about the dollars. Not partially about the dollars, or mostly or even 90 percent. All.

And that could well be the death of network television.

Maybe they can even do a special episode of Profiler about it, even bring back Ally Walker. She can stumble upon the moldering bodies of NBC, ABC, et. al. Then, all of a sudden, she goes into one of those head-tilting, eye-bulging trances of hers.

"Cause of death," Ally Walker will say in her distinctively, halting style. "Self-immolation. Brought on by stupidity. Short-sightedness. An amazing inability to see the larger picture."

Probably would be the highest rated Profiler ever.


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