Herzog, you may recall, was the boy genius from Comedy Central who got South Park on the air, or at least took credit for it. He was hired by Fox to bring a basic-cable vibe to the staid, stagnating network airwaves.
And that he did, bringing the network's ratings to a level within spitting distance of Quincy reruns on A&E.
TeeVee, as you may know, is not a Web site that likes to kick network programming executives when they're down. Oh, no. We kick them when they're at the top of their game. When they go, all we do is piss on their graves.
And that said, let's tally up the great works of Doug Herzog, boy genius. The Fox empire stands in ruins, with stalwarts like 90210 and Party of Five (and maybe even The X-Files) staggering off into the sunset with no new hourlong series to replace them. Time of Your Life? We don't think so. Get Real? Get real. Ally McBeal? Mark my words: next season Ally viewers will finally realize what a bowl of crapulence their show has become in the past year. This time next year Calista Flockhart and company will be shuffling toward a quiet, unnoticed cancellation.
Speaking of Ally McBeal, let's not forget that among Doug Herzog's accomplishments was turning over half an hour of the Fox primetime lineup for edited-down reruns of that show -- essentially a kickback to producer David Kelley, funding his experiments in creating a more syndicatable half-hour sitcom out of an hourlong dramedy.
But Ally wasn't Herzog's ultimate programming faux pas. Nor was it crashing a jet into the desert floor during sweeps -- but only because the federal government refused to let him do it.
No, when we look back on Herzog's reign, we will remember Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger smooching creepily as the capper to two hours of majesty on "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" This ratings-grabber not only gave Fox a huge black eye, but it managed to generate better ratings for Fox's competition; networks such as ABC and NBC who seized the day by setting up interviews with Rockwell and Conger for their morning news shows and prime-time newsmagazine franchises.
You know, the kind of news shows Fox has never been able to create.
But to be fair, doesn't the final ledger of any network programming executive contain some boners? Even Brandon Tartikoff had his Misfits of Science.
No, Herzog's real crime is his complete mishandling of the Fox prime-time lineup, an act of malfeasance so great that Fox, once poised to slide past CBS into Big Three network status, is now gazing into the abyss of up-and-comers The WB and UPN.
Why? Because Herzog handled Fox's fall schedule like Bill Buckner fields a Mookie Wilson grounder.
Take the story of Harsh Realm, the hourlong sci-fi adventure from Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files. Herzog didn't like it. He didn't get it. Come to think of it, he didn't even like The X-Files. And so Harsh Realm was never promoted by Fox. The show got three weeks on the air before Fox yanked it.
Just as well. Sci-fi shows hardly ever build followings or have fervent fan clubs spring up around them, right?
In axing Harsh Realm, not only did Herzog show incredible impatience, but he destroyed what was probably the best show to air in The X-Files' old Friday night time slot since that series departed for Sunday nights. And, to pick up the hat trick, he irritated Chris Carter, not exactly the wisest act of diplomacy when your star producer is deciding whether or not to bring back his popular show for one last go-round.
Then there's Action, the Hollywood-themed comedy that was heavily promoted by Fox only to crash and burn. Herzog's mistake there? Action was promoted and scheduled incompetently, mostly because Fox executives didn't understand the show's appeal.
Action was never going to be a show with a broad following, given its hard-edged humor and its insider references. But Fox promoted it widely and scheduled it on Thursday nights, when everyone's watching NBC or sobbing quietly to themselves, or both. Then, disappointed that a show about an amoral movie executive and his whore didn't catch on with the folks who enjoy Frasier, Herzog sent Action off to the cornfield.
But speaking of the mishandling of new shows is a theoretical exercise. More practically, let's look at Herzog's mishandling of Fox's animated properties. King of the Hill is a wonderful show that's been moved around so many times, It's amazing it has an audience of any kind. Currently it resides at 7:30 on Sunday nights, trying to survive against 60 Minutes.
Worse still is the case of Futurama. Here's a pretty good show (which doesn't get enough credit simply because it's from Matt Groening and yet it's not The Simpsons) that disappeared from the radar screens for several months, only to reappear without any promotion in a deadly 7 p.m. Sunday night time slot where it butts up against the mighty Mike Wallace. And Jeffrey Wigand can tell you how much fun that can be.
The crude but funny Family Guy has suffered from random scheduling, too. But perhaps most mind-boggling is the treatment of The PJs. It's not exactly the best show on the air, but can you imagine ordering a season's worth of episodes of any show and then simply never airing them? That's what has become of The PJs. It's sitting on the shelf somewhere, collecting dust because Herzog had episodes of Totally Shocking Police Chases to air.
So where does that leave Fox? Clinging to a flotation device somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic and hoping the sharks are on a diet. The network ends the 1999-2000 TV season with just two hit shows, the venerable Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle (ordered by Herzog, true, but also kept off the schedule until January). That '70s Show is a modest hit, but, again, it's been moved so many times you'd need an FBI manhunt to find what night it's on (Mondays at 8, usually, Tuesdays sometimes, and, really, any other day of the week Fox has an open space). And after that? A bunch of departing shows, a lot of holes and Chuck Woolery.
Not pretty. Not pretty at all.
But for TV networks, what's happened to Fox could serve as an important lesson: Draw up a plan, think it through and stick with it, come hell, high water or bad ratings. If you have a quirky sci-fi show from a producer with a good track record, give it a chance to grow some legs. Got a pretty funny show that's having a hard time finding an audience? Wait a month or two before hitting the panic button.
And for God's sake, no more reality shows.
Tartikoff -- the guy who gave us Manimal -- understood that. He was willing to cut some slack to shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers. His reward? He was one of the few network programmers who left the job on his own terms, instead of being dragged out kicking and screaming.
Will networks learn the hard lesson of Doug Herzog? Not likely. That would be even more shocking than those police-chase videos that have become such a staple over at, uh...
What was the name of that has-been network again?
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