If the show is indeed a goner, it's simply one more nail in the coffin that is watchable television. The naïve among us have long assumed that since the Big Four networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox) no longer care about presenting us with smart, challenging programming, we would find our pleasures elsewhere -- say, among the 170 channels on satellite, where art allegedly is less susceptible to the evils of commerce. After all, the best shows on television exist on HBO (The Sopranos), Comedy Central (The Daily Show, South Park), the Food Network (Iron Chef), the Cartoon Network (Powerpuff Girls), and Bravo (The Awful Truth). Take off Friends, King of the Hill, and The Late Show with David Letterman, and the Big Four might as well air nothing but static and a laugh track. People would still watch.
Black from the dead: Richard Brooks, left, and Clayton Rohner are the mod squad in good vs. evil.
But, as it turns out, not even the fringes can provide a safe haven for the artistically ambitious. Sci Fi is owned by USA Cable -- which, in turn, is run by Barry Diller, the former Paramount and Fox exec who launched the Home Shopping Network before becoming chairman of USA in 1998. And one source close to good vs. evil says Diller was never a very big fan of the show, and that his attitude toward the show led to its demise -- even though Stephen Chao, president of USA Cable, is an enormous fan. Indeed, Chao took the show from Sci Fi, where it was supposed to debut last summer, and made it the flagship show on USA Network, another of USA Cable's properties. But when Diller's disdain for the show became apparent, the network's execs (who couldn't be reached for comment) tanked it by moving it around with little promotion. If nothing else, killing off the low-rated show would save the network, which owns good vs. evil, a hell of a lot of money -- $800,000 an episode, to be precise.
When the show debuted on USA Network on July 18, 1999 -- after WWF's Sunday Night Heat, no less -- it garnered the network's highest-ever ratings for a brand-new program: a 2.7 rating, or about 2.6 million viewers. But the ratings fell steadily, and USA executives panicked, fearing that the wrestling audience had tuned in for a couple of weeks and decided they hated the show (presumably because it was in English). The network then moved the show out of its 8 p.m. Eastern time slot and moved it to 10 p.m. -- without warning, otherwise known as killing a show without having to pull the plug. USA ran 13 episodes of the critically adored show, originally titled GvsE, then suddenly stopped.
The fact is, good vs. evil has already been canceled once. In December, when USA yanked the show from its lineup, the network claimed it was "on hiatus," which is like saying an overdosed actor is in the hospital suffering "from dehydration." In January, the network announced it was moving the show back to Sci Fi and that it would "debut" the series by airing the nine episodes that never showed up on USA. But when good vs. evil re-launched on March 11 with a new name and nine more episodes, it did so with no fanfare. Those who found the show on Sci Fi most likely did so by accident.
"The show was originally for Sci Fi, and then when they saw the first couple of episodes, they decided they were going to push it on USA and make it more of a flagship show for them -- more than we ever conceived it as," says Jonas "Jay" Pate. "We always thought it was a cult show that aired at 11 p.m. on Sci Fi. I think it's a little bit of an acquired taste. You don't want to present it as your bread-and-butter. You have to let the audience find it. So in a way, I feel like it's now where it always should have been in the first place. I'm happy it moved, and I wish we had never gone to USA. I feel like it's just a different audience than one that watches wrestling and Walker, Texas Ranger."
Yeah -- one that speaks in grunts, and one that speaks in complete sentences.
"I didn't want to say it," Pate says, softly.
If the show is indeed banished from the airwaves, it makes little sense for several reasons -- foremost among them, Sci Fi actually owns good vs. evil, which is a bargain to produce (most hourlong network series run in the millions per episode; a single ER runs NBC $8-9 million). Sci Fi only leases the rest of its lineup -- which features foreign productions (Lexx, about a female sex slave trapped on a penis-shaped spaceship) and mediocre syndicated fare (Xena, Hercules, Friday the 13th) -- for an average of $150,000 per episode. That means Sci Fi and USA could run the hell out of good vs. evil without having to worry about spending extra money; it could schedule the show every day in hopes of finding its audience. But the network airs the show at the worst possible time: Friday nights at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern time, meaning the audience it hopes to attract probably ain't home to see it.