Few things about television anger viewers more than the quick hook that prevails in broadcast TV these days: the seemingly instant and arbitrary way new shows are canceled, often within three or four weeks of their debut. The poster child for the victims of this practice is Smith, a fascinating cops-and-robbers drama starring Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen that CBS unceremoniously dumped after three episodes this fall. Is it really fair -- not to mention smart -- to spend several million dollars developing a show, luring big-name movie stars to it, and then give it only 126 minutes of screen time to find its audience?
Well, CBS executives say these decisions are less arbitrary and more carefully considered than they look. Kelly Kahl, the network's No. 2 programming boss, says there was unfortunately a lot of data to indicate that the Smith Fan Club would soon be able to hold its meetings in a phone booth.
"We look for patterns," says Kahl. "We want our shows to succeed. We are looking for little kernels of good news every week, especially with a new show...[Smith] had a good lead-in, had a good chance to work its time period, came in with pretty good premiere numbers. But it dropped 15 percent in week two and then another 15 percent in week three. And at week three, we saw its lead-ins, NCIS and The Unit, both go up about 15 percent.
"At that point, you wonder what the future is for the show -- where is the growth going to come from? One of the toughest things we find for shows is that if you get people there [with a good lead-in] and they leave, getting them back is almost impossible."
Canceling a show, Kahl says, "is one of the toughest things we do. Every cancellation is, in some sense, an admission of failure -- we picked a show built around a bad idea or miscast it or put it in the wrong time slot. We never do it casually. We want our shows to succeed. Every week we're telling producers, give us a reason to believe, give us a reason to bring it back one more week. Even a little improvement in a single demographic can sometimes be that reason. But sometimes it's just not going to happen."
Kahl's explanation was the most succinct and sensible I've ever heard from a network executive of the modern practice of hurling shows overboard almost as quickly as they air. But I'd still like to hear from somebody at ABC about Emily's Reasons Why Not, a sitcom dumped last season after a single episode of 22 minutes. I can only guess that large numbers of Nielsen families committed suicide after watching it.