When Fox abruptly canceled its critically lauded but low rated summer docuseries ”American High” after only two weeks, no one was more angst ridden than the show’s executive producer, R.J. Cutler. Though ”High” had a youth oriented reality show hook (14 suburban Chicago teenagers baring their souls á la MTV’s ”The Real World”) and an impressive pedigree (Cutler executive produced the 1993 Oscar nominated documentary ”The War Room”), the network aired only four of its 13 half hour episodes before replacing it with back to back airings of the animated series ”Futurama.”
But Cutler tells EW.com that the network shouldn’t have been surprised by the size of ”High”s audience – an average of some 3.5 million viewers – especially since the show landed in what he calls a ”godawful timeslot”: Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m., opposite CBS’ live edition of ”Big Brother.” ”[Fox] does not, at the moment, have the ability to exercise the kind of patience that good taste would dictate in the case of ‘American High.”’ he says.
At press time, Fox had not returned calls for comment. But if analysts are correct, the early death of ”American High” is a symptom of the larger challenges that the nearly 14 year old network now confronts. According to Fox’s calculations, the network suffered an overall 16 percent ratings drop among adults aged 18 to 49 during the 1999-2000 season – a sharper decline than any other network except the WB. Fox’s prime time schedule also lost two key long running shows, ”Party of Five” and ”Beverly Hills, 90210” – both favorites among young, loyal viewers. The upcoming fall lineup is especially critical, TV analysts say, because Fox is no longer a fledgling network that can wait for audiences to embrace what it’s offering. Instead, the network needs to launch new shows that instantly match the ratings of its biggest hits. ”Right now, Fox is beginning to face a lot of the problems that traditional networks have always faced,” says media analyst Steve Sternberg of TN Media. ”It’s going to be a tough year.”
In the past, Fox developed fewer series and waited for them to catch on. When ”90210” premiered in 1990, the show’s audience soared from about 7 million viewers in the fall of that year to nearly twice that number in the second half of the season. Now, though, the network needs to fill the current gaps in its schedule with ratings winners. Says Sternberg, ”They have so many time periods with new programs. They really need to come up with new shows that work.”
Which means that even good reviews couldn’t save ”High,” whose average viewership was less than half that of the other big networks’ successful summer debuts. Stacy Lynn Koerner, TN Media’s vice president of broadcasting research, cites the example of NBC’s Monday Night drama ”Mysterious Ways,” whose audience has been twice the size of ”High”’s. (Despite that, NBC hasn’t yet decided if it will add ”Mysterious Ways” to its fall schedule.) ”Fox may have felt that ‘High’ did get a great deal of press, but still nobody was coming to the set to watch it,” says Koerner, ”So, they cut their losses.” Still, she adds, that doesn’t necessarily mean the show was a bomb. Such ratings would be ”very good” for a network like PBS, or cable channel like MTV, she says.
For his part, Cutler is upbeat about finding a new home for ”High.” (Fox’s F/X network has run unseen episodes of other Fox produced shows, including ”Harsh Realm,” which was cancelled after a brief fall ‘99 run.) And he may be right, if the busy message boards for ”American High” on Fox.com are any indication. After the cancellation, one disgruntled fan wrote, ”This is a joke; one of the best series on TV is canceled and replaced with reruns of crap? Fox should be ashamed [for] pulling the plug.” Sounds like the early cries of ”Freaks and Geeks” style grassroots TV activism.