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ABC: The Law of Unintended Consequences

Q. What do you get when a network runs its breakout hit game show into the ground, cancels all its good shows, incites a media frenzy with an ill-timed attempt at poaching late-night talent, and somehow makes football a ratings liability?


It's no secret that ABC's in trouble; for months, the most riveting thing about the network has been reading about its assorted vagaries in the business section: the hit the network took after it belatedly realized that nobody wanted to be a millionare badly enough to watch four nights a week; the firings of Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, and Steve Bornstein, president of ABC Television; the embarrassing attempt to woo David Letterman away from CBS -- much to Ted Koppel's very public surprise; the recent revelation that ABC has somehow managed to lose nearly every desirable demographic to another network. Watching ABC screw up is more entertaining than watching any of the network's shows.

Of course, that's not hard, given ABC's habit of pulling the plug on its best material. Remember, this is the network that yanked Gideon's Crossing, Cupid and Relativity after one measly season. This year, they sacrificed the sleek, tongue-in-cheek Thieves and the brutally funny The Job -- easily two of the three most watchable shows on the network. (The third show, of course, was Alias, which seemed to be less a reflection of any ABC programming savvy and more a lucky fluke.)

I have no explanation for this persistent cancellation pattern: perhaps those annoying anti-TV blowhards have somehow infiltrated ABC's inner offices and are deploying an insidious scheme to destroy television from the inside out. Perhaps ABC kills the good shows early so we don't have time to notice how bad the rest of the network's programming is. The point is, if you're working on a good show that's been picked up by ABC, you can go ahead and make reservations for a winter vacation because you'll surely have the free time.

ABC's explanation for killing the cream of the crop is, inevitably, "low ratings" -- this was the reason the Zwick-Herskovitz vehicle Once and Again got killed this year despite a near-fanatical following and universal kudos from the critics -- which seems suggest that the network is actually run by five-year-olds hopped up on Pixie Stix; there is no patience for cultivating a show and, by extension, a new demographic, nor is there any evidence of human reasoning beyond the capacity for faulty syllogism: the show isn't getting ratings, ratings mean a show is good, therefore the show isn't good.

And ABC wonders why its ratings are in the toilet. Most of the show on its schedule were unwatchable (I still have half a Philly review on my hard drive, because it took me three separate tries to sit through an episode, and I haven't been able to piece together anything cogent from notes that read "GAH! Brain hurts!"), there was better material on elsewhere much of the time, and a segment of the audience is probably wondering why they should bother tuning into the Already Been Cancelled network.

It doesn't help that ABC has no idea who's watching them anyway. While other networks have aggressively profiled and sought certain demographics -- NBC is targeting affluent, urbane professionals; Fox goes for the 18-45 male and UPN goes for the leftovers; the WB is hoping to capture the 18-45 female audience; and CBS just sits back and chortles because sooner or later, all those other audiences will fit into its core audience -- ABC just mewls that it's the "family" network. Unless they're targeting families composed entirely of individuals not in any of the other demographic segments listed above, it's going to be an uphill battle for the network.

Naturally, the Alphabet is not making it any easier on itself in 2002-2003. Let's look at what the Alarmingly Bad Crap network is showing the American public this fall.

Mercifully, they will not be showing us Philly, Spin City or Dharma and Greg, as all three shows have been cancelled. Unfortunately, neither Drew Carey nor NYPD Blue met the same fate, so we're still not free of allegedly comedic gimcrackery or the Former Teen Heartthrob Rehabilitation Project.

Although ABC's president Susan Lyne claimed the network was reclaiming the "smart family comedies that reflect our viewers' lives" throne, the network will be showing the ham-handed George Lopez Show and introducing 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. The new show stars John Ritter (thus retiring him from the guest-star circuit for a while, undoubtedly to John Larroquette's relief) as a "loving, rational dad" (ABC's words, not mine) who seems surprise and appalled that teenaged girls have minds of their own. It's based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, who may very well be blameless when it comes to the televised interpretation of his opus, but I still can't help but wonder if this entire show could have been prevented by handing someone, anyone, a copy of Reviving Ophelia.

8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter will be airing on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. EST/PST, opposite Gilmore Girls, JAG and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm just saying.

Tuesdays will also include Life with Bonnie (9 p.m. EST/PST) and Less Than Perfect (9:30 p.m. EST/PST) -- opposite Frasier, The Guardian, Smallville and 24. Life with Bonnie is a vehicle for the underrated Bonnie Hunt; I can only hope the promotional copy is lying when it says, " Bonnie writes, directs and stars with the same comic flair she brought to her film, "Return to Me," because I don't recall "Return to Me" (or, as the husband and I call it, "Give Me Back My Dead Wife's Heart!") having an especial comic flair. Or, for that matter, any flair. Anyway -- Life with Bonnie is another star vehicle. I'll hope that it's more smartly executed than ABC's previous star vehicles (Bob Patterson and Geena) were. As for Less than Perfect, I suspect headline writers across America will be having a field day when coming up with the title of reviews for this: it's about a "perky" secretary to a network anchor and the scheming office politics which she must endure.

On Wednesdays, The Bachelor returns. I understand one of the authors of The Rules is now available; perhaps she can participate on the show and put her money where her mouth is. ABC is also showing Meds, a medical drama set in San Francisco going up against CBS's medical drama set in San Francisco (Presidio Med) -- it makes you wonder if several network programmers are off their meds -- and Law and Order, which is not set in San Francisco. Meds is apparently about "two renegade doctors [who] bend the rules and find the loopholes in a constant quest to treat their patients. Together they practice medicine with a take-no-prisoners attitude and don't-take-no-for-an-answer tactics." There is literally nothing I can add to that.

Dinotopia was apparently enough of a success for ABC to warrant picking it up as a series to be broadcast on Thursdays at 8 p.m. This is clearly the big family gambit, as dinosaurs and kids are a natural mix. Were I anywhere in the age 4-9 bracket (when I passionately wanted to be a paleontologist), I'd watch this series. Since I'm not, I won't be. But I can tell you, based on the book (which I own) and the miniseries (of which I caught an hour), the show will likely be a continuation of the interspecies utopia where the biggest problems tend to be of a charmingly antique nature -- rogue dinos, natural disasters, the odds the modern world will discover the place -- while skipping over other historical dilemmas like the odds that Compsognathidae corallestris become Marxists or a giant comet throws the ecosystem out of whack.

Following Dinotopia, Push, Nevada hopes to attract anyone who really wants to spend their nine p.m. on Thursdays watching a show set in Nevada where there are mysteries to be solved and obtuse dialogue to be spouted. For those of you wondering how Push, Nevada will differ from CSI -- broadcast television's other show set in Nevada where there are mysteries to be solved and obtuse dialogue to be spouted -- this one is brought to you by the Project Greenlight team and is focused on setting up and solving a central riddle, kind of like "Who killed Laura Palmer?" except it's apparently a reality TV show with money involved, as opposed to smartly-dressed midgets. Either Push, Nevada will end up being one of the most inventive things to come along in years, or it's going to be unwatchable. It may well be both.

ABC's last new offering, That Was Then, airs on Friday night at 9 p.m. EST/PST. It's apparently a lot like "Back to the Future" or "Peggy Sue Got Married", i.e. predicated on the depressing premise that high school is, like, the most important thing ever and grown adults with problems can trace the origins of their woes back to their senior year of high school. Anyway, That Was Then is about a loser who can trace the origins of his woes back to high school, travels back in time to fix them, and ends up in a future not unlike the last few episodes of Felicity, where we all get reminded of the law of unintended consequences.

Frankly, it wouldn't kill ABC executives to watch this show, given the state of their own network. Let's just hope they spend the year critiquing their network and learning from their mistakes, instead of trying to build a time machine to go back to a time when they showed good programming. Knowing ABC, though, I'd put my money on the time machine.


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