Quick diagnosis: the networks need some video viagra — this year they suffered more than usual from limp inspiration and premature cancellation. Peter Berg’s lividly exciting Wonderland, Chris Carter’s promisingly comic-bookish Harsh Realm, the scabrous Hollywood satire Action — all gone before they had a chance to make an impression, and the always-great teen saga Freaks and Geeks was yanked on and off NBC’s schedule with cruel abandon. To be sure, some quick deaths were welcome — anyone remember Cold Feet, the show that took Homicide’s slot, or Safe Harbor, or the latest David E. Kelley masterwork, Snoops?
Meanwhile, such dross as CBS’ Ladies Man, Fox’s Family Guy, and NBC’s Stark Raving Mad hung around, even as their networks cowered at the mammoth ratings-gobbler that was ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. More than ever, the TV universe was susceptible to stunt broadcasting: Millionaire’s increasing number of regularly scheduled nights, along with its special Super Bowl, movie-trivia, and celebrity editions, don’t bespeak long-term confidence in a budding game-show classic but rather the milk-‘em-while-we-got-‘em philosophy of a network willing to squeeze those profit-making udders until they bleed. The year’s biggest stunt was also the TV season’s most embarrassing story: the garish spectacle of Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, whose matrimonial ”winners” still linger as a sweaty stand-up comic and a soon-to-be-airbrushed Playboy model.
There’s no denying it was a pretty stinky year, and I’m not even going to get into the sweat-stained precincts of wrestling, the TV genre that TV critics fear and loathe above all else, and quite correctly — it’s one thing to get a hate letter for a bad review, but who wants Mankind to drop by one’s office to give one a smackdown? Nonetheless, there was enough good programming to keep any adventurous viewer from turning up his or her nose at the medium. The West Wing, Once and Again, and the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks were the cream of the new shows, with HBO’s recent The Corner a magisterial miniseries. Combine those with the continued emotional complexity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an only slightly less-wonderful season for The Sopranos (sophomore years are tough on even the best series; illness curtailed the shattering ongoing performance of Nancy Marchand), the blossoming nosegay of Will & Grace, the rapid, His Girl Friday banter of Sports Night, the ever-increasing inventiveness of the criminally neglected Felicity, and the triumphant, Lazarus-with-an-attitude return of David Letterman, and you’ve got a TV season that kept entertainment mavens (and who among us isn’t?) programming their VCRs.
As always, there were paradoxes and conundrums. Just as The Practice started reaching its largest audience, the show took a turn for the screechy and preachy; just as The Simpsons was confirming in its 11th season that it is one of the most artistically rich series ever produced, a glut of cartoons came along that made you pray to God, the Devil, or even Bob that animation would just go away.
The fracturing of the prime-time audience that I wrote about a couple of years ago in these pages has, if anything, only increased. When it comes to quality shows, West Wing devotees and Felicity fans are mutually exclusive audiences, and not just because these series are scheduled opposite each other. We’ve reached the point where TV viewing is so extensive, and comprises so many cult followings, that it is possible to sit through hours of TV and never watch a show your next-door neighbor thinks is the greatest thing since I Love Lucy. As in the music biz, where Britney Spears fans rarely rage against the machine, TV watchers rarely unite as a consolidated mass to watch any programming other than a horrific news event. Or Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Which is, come to think of it, the same thing.
Think the 1999-2000 TV season was just another one of those stagnant, run-of-the-mill, same-old-same-old kinds of snoozes? Well, slap on your glasses and consider these facts: A sexagenarian-hosted quiz show titillated more people than a Jennifer Love Hewitt series. A warm-fuzzy drama about a separated fortysomething mom (Once and Again) was hotter than flashy shows from Chris Carter (Harsh Realm) and David E. Kelley (Snoops). And Fox debuted a sitcom about a hot-rod mechanic with a mentally ill mother and a boozing dad (Titus) — and viewers actually liked it. Still not sold? Chew on this: Despite airing a show with the title Shasta McNasty, UPN is no longer the cellar-dwelling network. (Pity the poor WB.) For more shocking revelations from the TV year that was, take a look at our no-holds-barred network report card:
This year’s rank: No. 1 Last year: No. 3 Average total viewers: 14.2 million
Hosted by an impeccably dressed Regis Philbin, British game-show import Who Wants to Be a Millionaire cashed in to claim TV’s top spot(s). How big was it? Consider: Nearly twice as many people watched the thrice-weekly show as tuned in to the entire UPN schedule. ”ABC has demonstrated that it’s possible to bring viewers back to network television and away from cable,” says Steve Sternberg, TN Media senior VP of broadcast research. The network spread the wealth: Bolstered by its Millionaire lead-in, The Practice increased ratings by nearly 40 percent; and although the NYPD Blue debut was delayed for Once and Again, the tactic benefited both shows (Once snared 10.9 million viewers, while Blue netted its best numbers since the 1996-97 season).
ABC’s new comedies (Odd Man Out, Oh Grow Up, Then Came You) fell apart. And in addition to the PI drama Snoops getting snubbed, fellow rookies Wasteland and Wonderland were quickly axed. Memo to ABC: Never again pick up a show beginning with W and ending in land. The Upshot: Guess who’s airing Millionaire even more nights per week?
This year’s rank: No. 2 Last year: No. 1 Total viewers: 12.4 million
The verdict is in: Judging Amy was one of the few freshman drama successes. (The lesson: Don’t underestimate the power of Tyne Daly.) And Everybody Loves Raymond solidified its status as the premier family comedy, with 17 million viewers. Meanwhile, a little military drama continued to JAG-gravate rival networks (enlisting 14.1 million fans).
Viewers went AWOL over the network’s new romantic comedies: Grapevine (not even proto-Buffy Kristy Swanson could juice up this resurrected sitcom), Love & Money (she’s rich; he’s poor; who cares?), and Work With Me (Nancy Travis+Kevin Pollak=four episodes). Equally disappointing was the quirky, critic-supported Now and Again, which had a promising start but lost viewers again and again. Add that to a weakening Saturday-night slate (Early Edition; Martial Law; Walker, Texas Ranger) and an Eyesore is evident. ”They need to get younger,” warns Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research at OMD USA. ”They still need to drop their median age below 50.” The Upshot: The Eye has its sights on the younger set with the upcoming island game show Survivor.