The Pop of King

A Kingdom That Didn't Come

Stephen King on the failure of ''Kingdon Hospital'' -- The master of horror dissects popular culture in his monthly column

Stephen King on the failure of ''Kingdom Hospital''

As April of this year passed and I got more and more ''Kingdom Hospital'' DVDs marked ''domestic broadcast version,'' two things became apparent to me. The first was that the shows were getting steadily better. The second -- by tax day it could no longer be denied -- was that we were going down the tubes. That was a Maalox month for me, and I often found my thoughts turning to the great screenwriter William Goldman's First Rule of Show Business: ''Nobody knows anything.''

''Kingdom Hospital'' should have worked. It was based on a Danish miniseries that was both funny and scary. We had a great cast, including two Academy Award nominees (Bruce Davison and Diane Ladd). We had a network (ABC) that was fully behind us, because I had delivered successful miniseries projects to it before and because it was desperate for a hit. I had a near-perfect rapport with my KH writing partner, Richard Dooling, who knows plenty about medicine and whose macabre sense of humor is in perfect harmony with mine. Add to this a producer with whom I've worked for 10 years, a director who heroically signed on to shoot all 15 hours of the show (and work with the same core crew throughout) to give the series a seamless, made-by-hand feel, and jeez louise, why WOULDN'T I feel confident?

ABC execs felt that way too. Not everything I'd done for them was great -- only God gets it right all the time -- but some of our cooperative efforts, such as ''The Stand'' and ''Storm of the Century,'' had done well with the critics as well as in the ratings. The network made no secret of wanting a marquee dramatic success in the midst of the reality show glut. Also, ABC had something that, to my knowledge, it never had before: every single script. This made the show easier to budget, easier to schedule, and much easier to cast (actors love seeing the whole arc of their characters). And for ABC it became easier (at least in theory) to evaluate ''Hospital'''s chances of success. What the network believed -- what executive producer Mark Carliner and director Craig Baxley believed, what my cowriter, Rick Dooling, and I myself believed -- was that ''KH'' was going to be a roaring success. As late as this March, Rick and I delivered a season 2 ''bible'' which the Alphabet net bought, paid for, and eagerly received.

Of course, most of the execs who bought that bible -- and ''Kingdom Hospital'' in the first place -- were gone by May, part of a major network shake-up that may not be over yet. KH was ''put on hiatus'' (net-speak for ''get that dead fish outta here so it doesn't stink up the May sweeps''). It will finish, however; those of you who want to see how the story ends -- which it does rather splendidly, I think -- can watch the final four episodes that began June 24 with ''The Passion of Reverend Jimmy,'' our tip of the cap to Mel Gibson.

So who's to blame for this el floppo? The network? That would be an easy answer -- ABC has fallen on hard times -- but it won't wash. ABC promoted well and delivered a large enough audience for the premiere episode to land in the Nielsen top 20. After that, watching the ratings was like watching a man walk down a set of suicide steps. We went from 5.5 to 3.7 to 2.3, finally bottoming out at something like a 1.0, which is basically the ratings equivalent of the black death.

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