Dead Pool '03: Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues
School's out for summer
Mr. Cooper's meaning is not difficult to grasp. As anyone who's ever spent May's final dying days fighting off sleep during a trigonometry lecture will tell you, there's no feeling of relief quite as joyous as the moment the last school bell of the year rings and you're unleashed upon an unsuspecting world for three unsupervised months. Even a decade or more after cracking open our last textbook, there's not a Vidiot on staff who doesn't remember the tingly rush brought on by summer's arrival and its promise of freeform days and responsibility-free nights. Mr. Cooper's song is a paean to freedom, a musical prose-poem that captures the unfettered rapture of telling The Man where he can cram it. It's an anthem that strikes a chord within the heart of anyone who's ever dreamed of casting of the burdens and cares of the workaday world to live a life of sleeping 'til noon, eating cold pizza for breakfast and dancing around in your boxer shorts while watching Divorce Court reruns.
It also happens to perfectly capture the mindset of broadcast network executives and how they approach this crazy TV business.
Since the earliest annals of recorded time -- the 1950s -- broadcast network executives have religiously adhered to two commandments: 1) Thy season shalt begin in mid-September or thereabouts; and 2) Thou shalt stop broadcasting original episodes in early May. For many a generation, as soon as the last contrived sweeps month stunt of the last series has been aired, TV executives bolt from their desks like giddy schoolboys and leave behind their offices in New York, Hollywood and Burbank for more exotic locales -- the Hamptons, the Big Island, Sherman Oaks. In their absence, the networks under their care would broadcast... well, not nothing exactly, but certainly not anything worth your time or effort to watch. Reruns of shows you didn't much care for the first time around. Dusty and forgotten episodes of shows that were canceled the previous winter. Pilot episodes of programs the network green-lighted and then became too embarrassed to air when there was the slightest risk that somebody might actually be watching. And, of course, Cher specials.
It's easy to follow network TV's line of reasoning for waving the white flag all summer-long: Why waste expensive-to-produce programming when nobody's watching? Better to wait until the fall to unveil original episodes when a TV-addicted nation would be so desperate for something new that they'd watch anything, even if it wasn't very good.
How else do you think The Love Boat stayed on the air for nine seasons?
Well, that hoo-haw may have flown back when there were only a handful of channels broadcasting and a quarter cost a nickel and our boys were giving the Hun what-for at the Argonne. But these days, when you need a scientific calculator just to keep track of all the available viewing options, the notion of a September-to-May TV season seems about as quaint and antiquated as Sunday Blue Laws. And don't think the people running cable TV channels haven't noticed. They've discovered firsthand that when you put something new on the air during the summer months when network TV has taken a powder, people will watch. And if you're fortunate enough to put something good on the air, people will keep watching, even after the networks return from their long summer's nap.
Network executives were smart enough to notice the trend -- not smart enough to change their discredited, outmoded way of doing things, mind you, but the journey of a thousand miles begins a single, non-idiotic step, as Buddha might say, if he were cranky and out-of-sorts. Determined to find a way to stop viewers from fleeing to cable without giving up their three months of low-cost programming, network TV hatched a bold (for them), new plan: come up with original summer programming, but do it on the cheap. In other words, flood the airwaves with reality programming until the nation begs for mercy. And then air some more.
The strategy has met with some degree of success -- Survivor and American Idol both got their starts as summer fill-in programming, don't you know -- but for the most part, reality shows slapped onto the summer schedule make their debut, run their course, and fade from memory faster than last night's leftovers. Honestly, could you really rattle off the differences between For Love or Money and Paradise Hotel without first consulting flash cards? Can you remember anything about American Juniors, other than that it didn't feature Simon Cowell making little kids burst into tears? Were you even the least bit aware that not only is Big Brother still on the air, but that this is the fourth go-round for the most boring reality show in all of recorded history? I mean, what if they kept showing a sign of the Apocalypse and nobody noticed?
Normally, this would be the time of year for all this nonsense to wrap things up. Summer fill-in programming -- the tiresome reruns, the misbegotten pilots that only saw the light of day in the unforgiving August sun, the thrice-damned reality shows -- would exit the stage in favor of network TV's best and brightest new fall programs.
But not this year. Maybe it's because networks have been rolling out new shows helter-skelter -- Fox pulled back the curtain on The O.C. more than a month ago, and UPN, the WB and even NBC have been spitting out series premieres for the past week. Maybe it's because the weather's cooling and the leaves are turning, and yet, we still find ourselves ass-deep in reality programming. Maybe we really are living in an age of diminished expectations. Whatever the reason, the new fall season begins in full-force this week, and, to your TeeVee pals, at any rate, it just feels like more crummy summer television -- cut-rate, halfhearted and thrown onto the schedule just to spare the embarrassment of broadcasting dead air. It's as if the TV networks have taken a different lyric from Alice Cooper's seminal rock anthem School's Out to heart:
Out for summer
Overly pessimistic? You tell me. Especially after you consider that the shows making up the freshman class of the Fall 2003 season include:
Sure, there are some bright spots. Joe Pantoliano heads his own crime drama, and you've got a show on NBC where Nikki Cox has been cast as a Las Vegas hooker. But, by and large, unparalleled pleasures such as these are few and far between. And a world full of punchless sitcoms, retread crime shows and haunting visions of Whoopi Goldberg grinning at her own warmed-over jokes is not one in which any of us should want to spend any amount of time suffering. What, then, is our motivation for even acknowledging the start of the Fall TV season instead of just selling our television sets for cash and investing the proceeds in various flavored liqueurs?
Well.. there is the annual TeeVee Dead Pool.
Readers who stuck with this site through our endless onslaught of awards doubtlessly remember the Dead Pool, but for the benefit you newcomers, we've been doing this contest amongst ourselves long before TeeVee.org was even a gleam of HTML code in Jason Snell's eye. The contest works like this: we all pick three shows in the order in which we think they will receive their justly deserved cancellation notice. Whoever picks correctly -- or the closest to correctly as determined by our Byzantine scoring system -- gets a prize, which may or may not be actually delivered.
And we're continuing our grand tradition of allowing you readers to correctly pick canceled shows and then not receive prizes for your efforts!
Um... that offer sounded a lot more appealing before I typed it. Anyhow, here's what you do:
1. Compose an e-mail that lists the three shows you think will get mowed down like dogs the fastest. Please list them in order.
2. In addition to listing your selections for the TV boneyard, include the date you think the first show will be canceled. This will be used in the event of a tiebreaker, or in case the actual winner does something to irritate us, forcing us to disqualify him on an obscure and arbitrary technicality.
3. Send that e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org by October 1.
4. Please include a generous cash bribe, lest we invoke that irritating-reader-disqualified-on-an-arbitrary-technicality rule.
Points are awarded thusly: Pick the first show to get canceled, and you receive three points. Correctly pick the second show to get the ax, and you get two points. If your third pick is the third show to be sent to the happy hunting ground, you get one point. And if any of the shows you picked are canned -- but not in the order you picked them -- you receive a saucy half-point. The winner is the person with the most points, or the most generous cash bribe.
Just so that we're clear on this, a show is considered canceled when a network pulls it from the schedule with no plans ever to let it return to the airwaves. A show that's taken off the air temporarily? For our purposes, not canceled. A sitcom that goes on hiatus so that the network can burn the existing scripts and replace the cast with puppets before relaunching the show under an entirely new title? Not canceled. A program that network executives swear on a stack of Bibles will return to prime time, even as they're destroying every last evidence of its existence? Not canceled.
We call that last one the Fox Rule, by the way.
As to the prizes at stake, we know that there's another Dead Pool contest out there that's awarding a bevy of electronic devices to the winning contestant. Well, our winner gets electronic equipment, too -- except that in our case, the electronic equipment in question bears a striking resemblance to a T-shirt.
Yes -- we're giving away a TeeVee t-shirt. Got a problem with that? Then, we'll cheerfully refund your TeeVee subscription. Hmm? You don't pay anything to read TeeVee? Well, then we're both going to have to learn to live with disappointment.
Discount prize giveaway aside, we invite you to join in the fun of our annual Dead Pool. Study TeeVee's highly anticipated Dead Pool handicap, argue with friends and family over your picks, and send in your entry. But most importantly, try to enjoy a good chuckle at the expense of the rotten shows that will soon be darkening your TV set for the foreseeable future. Because that may be the only relief you get from the unrelenting misery of some of these programs. Take the aforementioned Whoopi, which, we must stress, may well be one of the most awful things to happen on television since the Oswald prison transfer. Thanks to its early premiere date, the stinky Whoopi Goldberg sitcom enjoyed boffo ratings. NBC is already hailing Whoopi and its nearly-as-bad follow-up Happy Family as the first hits of the new season.
That calls to mind a lyric from yet another Alice Cooper song:
Welcome to my nightmare.
Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.
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