This year’s TV dead pool has taken an interesting, almost supernatural twist. Seemingly dead shows are being allowed to remain on the air, their still-ambulatory corpses stinking up the primetime schedule.
Normally at this time of year, less than a month into the new fall schedule, we’d be taking bets as to what the first new show to get the ax would be. Would it be ABC’s humor-deficient TV commercial spin-off “Cavemen”? Would it be CBS’ overly familiar “Falcon Crest”-goes-Latino soap “Cane”? Would it be CBS’ risky (yet-to-premiere) musical murder mystery “Viva Laughlin”?
The answer would seem to be FOX’s “Laguna Beach”-inspired reality show “Nashville.” The show was yanked off the network after only two airings. But even that isn’t written in stone. FOX executives have hinted that the show will probably come back later on this year, at least to burn off the unaired episodes. With baseball playoffs heating up and the World Series just around the corner, FOX was getting ready to yank its entire primetime schedule anyway.
But what about all those other new shows pulling in dismal ratings? Why aren’t we speculating on their imminent demise? In a word: unions. The increasing probability of a strike by the Writers Guild of America against the major TV and film studios next month has forced networks to hold onto the product they have. On Monday, the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable speculated that a strike threat has been particularly beneficial to such struggling shows as CBS’ “Cane,” Fox’s “K-Ville” and ABC’s “Big Shots.” Preston Beckman, head of program planning for Fox, explained why we’d be spending the next four months watching crummy shows when he told B&C, “If I cancel a show now and put something in its place, I have eight unaired episodes of that show. ... We would rather stick with what we have and have [a potential replacement show] to hold onto for a strike.”
This is not good news for anyone (except maybe producers of lousy TV shows that were about to get canceled). Television ratings this season have not been up to snuff. Last week, CBS was the top-rated network with an average 7.3 rating and a 12 percent share. But that’s down 10 percent from the same week last year. ABC is down 3 percent, NBC is down 11 percent and so far FOX has seen its ratings tumble 16 percent from last year. To add insult to injury, not a single new series has managed to crack the top 10 this season.
With a Writers Guild strike all but guaranteed, movie studios are rushing films into production and television networks are holding onto whatever fresh product they’ve got. A prolonged strike will have disastrous consequences for television viewing. Networks can’t even rely on that old fallback of cranking out “Survivor” rip-offs. Thanks to recently negotiated contracts even so-called “reality shows” would lose their writers—meaning that six months from now, we could be staring down our third set of “Caveman” reruns. Halloween is still a few weeks off, people, but it’s time to be very afraid.