Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Swift ratings plunge leaveslady president show teetering

There’s more than one reason why the out-of-the-box hit “Commander in Chief” eventually became a spectacular failure. Unfortunately, not all the lessons learned from that stunning reversal of fortune could be predicted.

That’s why the TV business chops up and rotates (not necessarily in that order) those who make the decisions and why television criticism is mostly about failure analysis.

Fans of “Commander in Chief,” which stars Geena Davis as this country’s first female president, believe almost uniformly that ABC mucked up everything. That’s just partly true.

More than 16 million people tuned into the first episode of “Commander in Chief,” though it had received mostly average reviews. (I liked the first two episodes and was hopeful that creator and writer Rod Lurie could pull a “West Wing” out of his hat.) The initial success sent a groan through Hollywood because it meant that ABC, flush with success coming off the “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” freshman seasons, was at it again. “Boston Legal” appeared to be revamped, and “Grey’s Anatomy” was about to rocket into the stratosphere.

“Commander in Chief” did so well, it prompted that age-old Hollywood byproduct: the jealous smear campaign. Rival networks were clucking that it didn’t matter if nearly 17 million people watched the second episode — they were mostly older women, according to the numbers. Then “Commander in Chief” began to lower its demographic, increasing its total audience and generating buzz.

Behind the scenes, however, things were falling apart. Mr. Lurie had too much responsibility and didn’t delegate, so production fell behind, costing ABC money. (The same scenario led to Aaron Sorkin’s ouster from “West Wing”). Steven Bochco was brought in to run the show after just two episodes — putting him for the first time at the helm of something he didn’t start.

“Commander in Chief” was hitting a chord with viewers who either wanted the fantasy of a female president dramatized in prime time or liked the fact that, unlike “West Wing,” the series was tapping into the home life of Miss Davis’ character, President Mackenzie Allen, and her family.

However, Mr. Bochco is not big on female sentiment, and he brought in new writers and took the show in a more political, less personal, direction. Viewers slowly began to trickle away, and then the series ran into the Death Star (“American Idol”) on Tuesday nights in January.

This was a serious unraveling, and nearly 7 million people abandoned ship.

That prompted ABC to pull the series on Jan. 24 — and sometime during this mothballing period, Mr. Bochco bailed as well.

“Commander in Chief” didn’t reappear until last week, with a new night and time (Thursday at 10 p.m.), marginal promotion and a whole lot of lost momentum. Result: 8.2 million viewers and a series that essentially is dead.

Is this ABC’s fault? In the sense that it didn’t better control the damage, yes. Maybe it should have told Mr. Lurie from the start that writing, directing and running a series was too much work, because once ABC canned him, that was the beginning of the end.

The series suffered under Mr. Bochco, maybe from the change in direction or maybe from viewer fatigue. (The idea of a female president rapidly went from neat trick to just another drama).

Don’t blame ABC for this, though. Taking a break after that rough start made sense. This may be difficult for die-hard fans to digest, but after the second episode, “Commander in Chief” suffered a steep creative decline. It never rebounded. ABC, in fact, did what any good network would do with a series in chaos and lackluster episodes approaching: It minimized the damage to the rest of the schedule.

Wisely so, given last week’s awful episode. “Commander in Chief” went, in rapid succession masked by a very long off-air delay, from good to mediocre to nearly unwatchable.

ABC might miraculously reverse course and decide there’s something worth saving here — but chances are, it won’t. Any series suffering a 50 percent decline in viewership is dead. All that’s left is the official confirmation, and that should come to those who matter in the next few weeks, if it hasn’t already.

From instant hit to forgotten miss. Television — just when you think you have command of it, you don’t.


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