urx unit loader What lessons do we learn from CBS' 'Jericho' reprieve?

Lenniejames3_jericho_cbs_240Let me begin by saying that I’m happy for all of you Jericho fans out there. Just because a fourth of you abandoned the show in the spring doesn’t mean that the rest of you shouldn’t enjoy it.

But do you know who won’t be so happy with CBS’ choice to reconsider the drama’s previous cancelation? The heads of the other four networks. [Yeah, I’m including The CW, even if it’s just CBS’ baby sister and they’re under the same ownership.] No, none of the bigwigs would say that they’re unhappy. They’d talk about how this is a sign that networks listen to their viewers. But at NBC and ABC and FOX and The CW, they know that a somewhat dangerous precedent will be set.

Is this democratization of the medium or tyranny by a loud minority? I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Did CBS truly come to recognize that a mistake had been made or was the network shocked having actually canceled a show that people cared about? What, nobody sent buckets of brains to protest the amputation of 3 Lbs? No massive influx of, I dunno, yearbooks over the dismissal of The Class? What about fans of shows like The Guardian or Judging Amy or Close to Home, a trio of shows that CBS canceled without regret despite appreciably higher ratings than Jericho? What mailings could they have sent to force the network to show them more love?

If CBS execs had arrived at their upfront presentation last month and said, "Here’s our schedule and it includes Jericho. We know its ratings aren’t there, but we love its passionate fanbase and we want to do right by them," then that would have been making an impressive statement on the network’s part. It would have said, "We’re standing by our guns and saying that one of the advantages of being a first place network is that we can nurture shows like this." That would have been admirable. Instead, CBS played by business-as-usual, which isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, particularly when you’ve been No. 1 in total viewers for as long as they have. They canceled Jericho because it didn’t make the cut. Talking to reporters on the day of the upfront, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler gave no indication that there was any hope for the show, saying simply that it was a hard decision, but the decision was made.

Skeetulrich5_jericho_cbs_240_2And then, in the face of overwhelming peanuts, CBS blinked and that decision went out the window, replaced by a new one. This decision comes across as one part peer pressure and one part poor research. Did CBS executives not realize how invested Jericho fans were in the show? Did nobody recall the outcry after the cancelation of ABC’s Invasion, another so-so genre show that earned a faithful audience, quality-be-darned? Did they not anticipate that despite the network’s blundering of the show’s spring run, fans might be unhappy to see the show nuked, particularly after a cliffhanger finale that somebody somewhere must have seen? If they didn’t anticipate the outcry, that’s poor research. If they anticipated the outcry and planned not to do anything about it, that’s a bit cold. Or is Tassler just a big fan of peanuts?

And how many fans, exactly, were sending nuts anyway? After all, during the course of the season, Jericho fans were engaged, but they were hardly TV’s most devoted viewers. Were there more of those people than there are upset Veronica Mars fans? Are there more of those people than there are people who still believe, deep in their heart-of-hearts, that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was the best new show on TV and deserves another season? What’s the message that CBS executives have sent to other networks and to fans of other canceled shows? Is there a threshold of goodies that a network has to receive before they reconsider an otherwise sound business decision? Did somebody at CBS buy stock in Nuts.com back in early May, look at his latest dividend check and decide that the lost money for a second season had been amortized? Fans of Veronica Mars or Drive need to stop wasting their time writing letters and blog posts and filling out petitions. That stuff doesn’t matter. Start spending money and filling network coffers with trash that they don’t need.

Another question is what impact this will have on the creative process for struggling shows, particularly as they reach the end of their series orders in limbo. The writers of Jericho made a conscious decision approaching the finale that not only would they opt not to give any form of closure, but they would actively work to leave fans in a state of agitation. Far from the myriad of answers that the producers had repeatedly promised viewers, the Jericho finale concluded with our undermanned apocalypse survivors facing possible annihilation at the hands of the better armed and better prepared troops of New Bern. As the creators of The Agency know, this kind of blatant attempt to force the network’s hand doesn’t necessarily work, but you know that Rob Thomas is sitting somewhere wondering why he didn’t end his third season finale with Veronica being shot and fighting for her life. Frustrated fans might have sent letter-bombs to The CW, but they would have gotten the point.

Except that Veronica Mars was ultimately canceled for that most simple of reasons: Nobody was watching it and there was no indication, after three seasons, that the fan base — however rabid — was growing, despite myriad attempts to give the show the best timeslots The CW had available. That’s why Veronica Mars was canceled, kids, not because "The CW doesn’t get it" or some nonsense. Similarly, when CBS opted not to bring Jericho back, it was because the network’s business strategy said that shows averaging 8 million viewers per week in its second half don’t get to come back. Close
to Home
, a reliable time period winner and centerpiece of CBS’ Friday lineup averaged 10 million viewers and didn’t get to come back. Yes, NBC renewed more than a half-dozen shows with smaller audiences than Jericho — including its entire Thursday comedy block, the critically adored Friday Night Lights and Medium, which won an Emmy at some point — but that’s how fourth place networks operate.

But maybe the nuts were just a smoke-screen. There have been reports that CBS’ upfronts slate didn’t go over so well with affiliates, particular in more conservative, Middle American markets and particularly the edgier offerings like the self-explanatory midseason drama Swingtown. With its rural setting and Middle American values, Jericho was a straight-forward story about a community coming together, albeit in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Might reassuring a cultish band of fans really be a cover for reassuring a differently cultish band of affiliates?

Redman_methodman_methodandred_240I guess a network run by nut-sending fans couldn’t be any more out of touch with the mainstream than the current operational models with their addictions to the justifiably maligned Nielsen ratings or to ad dollars.

Oh well. Now that Jericho is back, can’t we all band together and see if we can get FOX to bring back another season of Method & Red? I have a few suggestions of what we can send to FOX executives. I’m sure they’d appreciate it more than nuts.

Sound off, fans… Are nuts the coins of the TV realm? Is this a good precedent or a troublesome one?