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"The machine is moving along so that in those situations, whatever you haven't put on yet looks better than what you do have on that's performing badly," Thompson says. "It's like a guy sitting in a bar with his date: He sees two girls sitting at the end of the bar who look better than his date, and he thinks, Hey, that looks better than what I have. That's just the system they have over there at the networks. And the fact is, Fox can take anything off, and they have eighteen episodes of When Animals Bite My Asscoming up. There's a lot of short-term thinking, because development departments are telling their bosses: 'Don't worry about it, because I made this developmental deal with some Wayans fetus.'"
The irony, of course, is that in the age of HBO's The Sopranos (which drew nine million viewers for its season finale on April 9, beating Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and CBS's live production of Fail Safe), networks should be willing to gamble on edgy, sophisticated programming. They should fear for their very existence in the era of 170-channel satellite systems and on-demand Internet programming and TiVo systems that allow you to create your own "schedules." These are the days of narrowcasters: If you want to watch a network about nothing but cooking, the Food Network awaits. The era of the broadcaster is coming to a close. That's why network executives now lose their jobs faster than a counter boy stealing change from Jack in the Box. Doug Herzog, the former Comedy Central wunderkind who brought South Park to the network, lasted only fifteen months as the head of programming for Fox. It didn't matter how much he loved Action. When it came time to save it, he was already overboard. Long gone are the days of Fred Silverman and Grant Tinker; long gone are the days when ratings failures such as Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld (a bust at first) could linger on critical goodwill.
But it appears as though the networks went out of their way to sabotage the chances of Freaks, Wonderland, and Action. NBC debuted Freaks & Geeks on Saturday nights last fall, otherwise known as "the death slot," Feig says. It's put there because a network executive will grow fond of a television show that will attract people -- say, well-educated, hip 24- to 36-year-olds -- who don't watch television during the week. Network suits then figure the only suitable place for such a show must be on either Friday or Saturday nights, precisely when that audience is doing something other than watching television. Really, this makes complete sense in TV Land.
"The network knew they put us in a bad slot," explains Feig, "and they came out saying, 'We're going to nurture the show and build an audience for a year, because it's a bad time slot.' But since we got so many incredible reviews, people seemed to make a point of staying home to watch the pilot. So they watched it and liked it and said, 'Next time I'm not doing anything on a Saturday night; I'm going to watch that show,' and the next week, they all went out, and our numbers dropped. And I don't think we ever really recovered with the network mentally. I knew we were in trouble when I could barely rearrange my schedule to see my own show. You're just fighting an uphill battle. The networks are like, 'Why spend the time nurturing Freaks & Geeks when we have hits we can slot in there, like Dateline and Will and Grace?'"
When NBC relaunched the show on Monday nights earlier this year, it was already a lost cause. By then those who wanted to watch it couldn't find it, and those who hadn't seen it had no idea it was even there.
Action and Wonderland were treated even more shabbily by their respective networks. Fox placed Action on Thursday nights at 8:30, placing it directly against NBC's "Must See TV" lineup, which isn't the juggernaut it was during the Seinfeld heyday, but viewers' habits die hard. ABC did the same thing with Wonderland, pitting it against the number-one drama on television, ER. It was nothing less than a suicide run. And not a few television-industry insiders believe ABC always planned to sabotage the show, which presented a bleak, disquieting view of life inside a New York City mental hospital. Wonderland, in fact, was so disturbing that nine major mental-health organizations banded together and labeled it a "public health hazard."
Berg, once a regular on Chicago Hope, turned down a request for an interview, but his friend Paul Feig suggests ABC panicked when the show's ratings dropped precipitously during the airing of the very first show four weeks ago. About 15 million people tuned in to watch it when it debuted March 30. But 30 minutes in, around the time a pregnant character played by Michelle Forbes was stabbed in the stomach with a hypodermic needle, more than half the audience hit the remote control, never to return.
"The only difference between what happened with us and Wonderland is ABC knew it was going to be a tough show going in," Feig says. "Everybody was so happy with Freaks & Geeks, and good feelings abounded. We skipped merrily into the gates of hell."