Friday, November 5, 2010

What's In a (Producer's) Name?

NBC's Undercovers got the news yesterday that it would not be getting an episode extension, making it one of just six fall newbies (out of 21 total) that won't. The show's ratings consistently underperformed my expectations, particularly the mere 2.1 demo it scored on premiere night. I didn't think a show not just from J.J. Abrams, but seemingly right in the Abrams wheelhouse, could possibly be so close to DOA.

But perhaps I should stop making ratings prognostications based on the names behind the scenes. Some of these "names" are becoming overrated. Let's take a look at the history of a few of TV's most heavily promoted behind-the-lens names. For the most part, these guys haven't created much new show success on TV screens in at least half a decade.

We'll start with J.J. Abrams.

Why he's big:
  • First, the reasonably successful Felicity on the WB, which ran for four seasons;
  • Then the reasonably successful spy drama Alias on ABC, which got five;
  • Then the extremely successful Lost on ABC, a hit out of the gate and for its entire six-season run on ABC.
But since then...:  
  • In the immediate post-Lost glow, ABC went crazy on Abrams. First, it was relationship drama What About Brian, which did OK enough in the post-Desperate Housewives slot late in the 2005-06 season to get renewed, then played out 19 low-rated episodes in 2006-07 on Mondays. 
  • In between the What About Brian seasons, his relationship drama Six Degrees premiered in fall 2006 after Grey's Anatomy and lasted just six episodes there with horrific lead-in retention. It returned to the schedule in March 2007 to play out the rest of its 13-episode order in a Friday burnoff situation, but only two aired there. The remaining five never aired on TV but did show up on and eventually hulu.
  • He has created a relatively long-running show for Fox in sci-fi drama Fringe, but the show has never been much of a performer. Its best relative showing was its first few episodes after House in fall 2008, but for the last two seasons it's basically been in "take one for the team" mode on Thursdays at 9:00, where it's usually done around a 2.0 demo.
  • And Undercovers, which (like the other three series) saw a ton of his name in the marketing, saw the Big 4's fourth-lowest premiere demo of the season. But that 2.1 premiere demo was easily the high point, as it's mostly managed ugly mid-1 demos since then.

Jerry Bruckheimer

Why he's big:
  • Bruckheimer as a TV force pretty much began with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a pleasant Friday night surprise in fall of 1999 which grew into a primetime monster after its move to Thursday.
  • But even more significant was the vast array of shows that CSI spawned, the Bruckheimer crime drama brand on CBS. There were two direct CSI spinoffs, Miami and NY, and a couple other early 2000s shows in Without a Trace and Cold Case which lasted well into syndication.
  • And let's not forget reality effort The Amazing Race, still going strong nearly a decade after its fall 2001 premiere.
But since then:
  • Starting around the midpoint of the decade, something happened to the Bruckheimer name. Fall 2005 saw the premieres of Close to Home, which only lasted two seasons but admittedly was a fairly debatable cancellation, and NBC's E-Ring, which made it only one full season.
  • Beyond that, not even full seasons. He had two failed shows on The WB in 2005-06; Just Legal was pulled after three episodes on fall 2005 and Modern Men lasted just eight episodes in spring 2006. 
  • Fox legal drama Justice saw no extension from its initial order in the fall of 2006 and ended up playing out its eps on Friday night down the stretch.
  • The 2008-09 season saw him going back to the CBS crime drama well with Eleventh Hour, but it got only a small extension on its initial 13 episodes and no second season.
  • In 2009-10, two more failures, the slightly extended The Forgotten on ABC and the basically burnt off Miami Medical on CBS.
  • Let's not forget Dark Blue, a fairly low-rated TNT drama that probably didn't even deserve a second season. But it got one and proceeded to flop again.
  • Then there's 2010-11. ABC legal program The Whole Truth will not get an episode extension. His NBC drama Chase is, amazingly, the first Bruckheimer broadcast newbie to get a back nine since E-Ring and Close to Home. And in my opinion, it doesn't really even deserve one. Its ratings are fairly Undercovers-esque.

Mark Burnett, the guy many people associate with reality TV

Why he's big:
  • His biggest success is definitely Survivor, now a hit on CBS for over a decade.
  • There's also The Apprentice, a monster out of the gate for NBC which has plummeted in the years since and is now pretty much a ratings embarrassment. But hey, it's lasted quite awhile. And while the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice failed, he's been behind Stewart's syndicated show Martha, which is still kicking.
  • Unlike the other two guys, he has had a somewhat legitimate success story in the second half of the decade, that being Fox's Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, which Fox got good use out of in primetime for three seasons. It continues to run in syndication.
But since then:
  • He's been involved in a lot more projects than the other guys, so this will not be as comprehensive. He's had a few shows that eked out more than one season but weren't ever really bonafide successes: The Restaurant, Rock Star, The Contender.
  • Then there are the flops. There weren't too many early in the decade, but 2004's The Casino on Fox was an example of a show that didn't even play out its run.  It was right around 2007 when the flops starting pouring in. Pirate Master on CBS and On The Lot on Fox were embarrassments in the summer of 2007 (particularly OTL, a collaboration with fellow Big Name Steven Spielberg). Then came NBC strike bait My Dad is Better than Your Dad and Amne$ia and TNT's extremely low-rated Wedding Day. He's managed to get a second season out of ABC newbie Shark Tank, but even it has produced modest ratings at best.

Anybody have any other ideas? I thought about including Greg Berlanti as well, but that may have been more appropriate circa 2009 when he had three shows on ABC and two were flopping. His No Ordinary Family of this year is doing OK. And I'm not sure his name gets lots of promotional play anyway. Dick Wolf's another possibility, but it's been awhile since he's tried shows outside of the Law & Order brand.

So I've shone a light on some of the overrated big names. But are there promotable "names" who are guaranteed ratings gold?

The one that really jumps to mind is Chuck Lorre, who's got two pretty substantial hits on the air in Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory right now along with the season's biggest newbie in Mike & Molly. And it could well grow even bigger if the other two are any indication. And he had a few other shows with decent runs even before those, like Dharma & Greg.

How about Seth Macfarlane, who can seemingly churn out a decently-rated animated program at will? His foray into live action with The Winner didn't do well, but it's hard to deny his power when he has three shows (Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show) in a two-hour block.

Another notable one without a trail of flops in her wake is Shonda Rhimes, who is pretty much two for two with Grey's Anatomy and spinoff Private Practice. That name will be put to the test when Off the Map premieres this midseason, as "from the creator of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice" will no doubt be a part of those promos.

Again, any other ideas? Maybe some of the folks behind American Idol like Simon Cowell (who also did America's Got Talent) or Nigel Lythgoe (who also did So You Think You Can Dance)? I could throw in Gordon Ramsay as well, but I hesitate to include some of these guys because I've mostly tried to keep it to people who aren't major on-screen presences but just get sold in promos as having made good shows.

As far as I can see, the commonality among a lot of these names that still have pretty pristine track records, perhaps with the exception of Lorre, is that they just don't have that large of a sample size yet. It goes to show how difficult it is to consistently get it right. So should we label a show a surefire hit based on a big creator/executive producer "name"? Decidedly not. Should networks stop putting those names in the promos? I don't know. I'm sort of leaning toward yes. It's not like all these shows started huge and then declined. Stuff like The Whole Truth and Undercovers seemingly got no help from the "names" from day one. And in fact, a lot of these guys really started churning out the flops as soon as (or soon after) they reached the point where their names could be brought up in promos.

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