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May 14, 2000

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Anatomy of a Quiz Show Murder

       That's television. That's also the textbook example of how to murder a television show.
     One does not have to be a programming genius to see how NBC destroyed its entry into the prime time quiz sweepstakes, Twenty-One. If several double standards do not exist at the Peacock Network, I do not know where they are.
       In a previous column, we detailed at least six crucial mistakes NBC made with the revival of its 1950s classic. We won't recap that here. However, a few comments are in order.
       Twenty-One averaged an 8 rating for its 14 episodes. That's the equal to what at least eight surviving sitcoms averaged this year. That's higher than the rating of Greed by a point and a half. That's higher than the average of that thrillogy NBC offered on Saturday nights. That beats the rating of the Sunday edition of Dateline and is three points higher than the post-January average of 3rd Rock from the Sun, which actually was renewed by NBC---but likely will be held back as a replacement series. Further, I'll go on record and guarantee Twenty-One's rating was higher and more demographically acceptable than Vince McMahon's charade of a football league will be next February.
       That statistics lesson is designed to prove one thing. Network executives will get behind lower-rated shows they want to succeed and they'll shoot steadier-performing shows between the eyes if the right "suit" decides to pull the trigger.
       Twenty-One was doing just fine as a Wednesday at 8 series. The show won its time period all but one week in that slot----namely the week ABC dropped Who Wants to Be a Millionaire opposite, neutron bomb-style. So, four weeks later, NBC decides suddenly to swap its time slot with the Monday edition of Dateline NBC. Makes great sense. Drop the show opposite Everybody Loves Raymond, Ally McBeal and the strongest package of ABC movie titles in years. That's like sending Norman Schwarzkopf to the Persian Gulf with ten men.
       Still, this show refused to fold. Twenty-One ran an impressive second to the NCAA basketball championship game. The quiz climbed as high as 19th in the Nielsens, almost unprecedented for a series lodged in that kind of competitive slot.
       One has to remember, however, the ratings do not always dictate a series' destiny. Go back to 1972 with a show called Bridget Loves Bernie. Number six for the season in the Nielsens. Canceled at the end of the first year. Why? As the lead-out from All in the Family, which was doing a 52 share at the time, Bridget "only" pulled a 34 share. Despite having a top ten ranking, then-CBS programming chief Fred Silverman believed the sitcom was "wasting" too much of Archie Bunker's audience.
       From several inside sources we talked with, NBC really felt this property, which had been in mothballs since the scandals in 1958, was compelling enough on its own to be another Millionaire. Wrong perception. No game can measure up to the standardbearer at this stage, unless that game is significantly better. Twenty-One wasn't. It's a good game---not a great game.
       Those same inside sources say after six weeks, one specific NBC "suit," who is yet to be uncovered, was ready to throw in the towel on Twenty-One and nothing Fred Silverman and Phil Gurin could have done would have turned the tide for the game. Hence, why you saw the show moved to that killer time period on Monday nights.
       The promotion on this show was abominable. Giving away the finishes, I truly believe, on the major money winners was more of an irritant to viewers who like their game show outcomes to be a surprise. When David Legler became the all-time quiz show champ, ask yourself how many mainline newspapers picked up the story the next day. Did Access Hollywood, a part NBC-owned newsmagazine, dare to mention Dave's success? Not a peep. A big part of that is failure of NBC's marketing personnel to network with the key national TV writers enough to push the big champions at the level of Millionaire's. Let's not forget how ABC was ready with a month-long McDonald's promotional campaign for WWTBAM before its premiere. The CD-ROM game, the caps, the T-shirts, the board games were all ready to go after just three months. NBC did not offer one bit of merchandising for Twenty-One (something Fox has fallen short of the job on with Greed, as well). The approach was as if to say, "If we air it....they will come."
       NBC, actually, if it had the guts, could have made more hay out of Twenty-One's controversial past than it did. I still contend if the network had opened the door and used the legendary Herb Stempel as a contestant, even at 71, either on the premiere or during the February sweeps, the show would have had mainline ink all over the country, Stempel would have been on every talk show in America and people would have watched. This was suggested by everyone from me to TV Guide to Aaron Barnhart to the great Fred Wostbrock. No, NBC ran the other way because of Stempel's whistleblowing involvement in the original. Guys, that was 43 years ago and if you're going to get attention for a show, you have to pull out every stop. You blew this one.
       Ultimately, when a show of any kind is moved to five different time slots in two months, trouble is ahead. The audience has terrible trouble finding the show, particularly when one time slot change was decided too late to even make TV Guide and the major daily local newspapers. Just ask the producers of WKRP in Cincinnati why their show died prematurely in the '80s.
       I've been told by a number of people highly-placed to the network and this show of another reason NBC choked. The network believed because of the limited back-end potential of revenues from reruns of the series (and the PAX Saturday night airings do not produce extensive dollars), Twenty-One was not a financially sound investment. Oh, yeah? I suppose a willingness to commit $130 million in half a year to the six stars of Friends makes more sense when it virtually kills dramatic profits from that sitcom, top ten ratings and young demographics notwithstanding. Or the $300 million it shells out for ER. Twenty-One, even on a rare week of a big payoff, is a miniscule investment compared to what NBC is having to pay to keep two top ten shows. Remember, still, Twenty-One had four top 20 finishes.
       Let me finally hit on one other soapbox which I think is the ultimate double standard from this network. NBC Entertainment chief Scott Sassa made a major public proclamation of committing to more family-oriented programming on his network when he took over less than two years ago. What has he offered in that category? Providence and Twenty-One. Yet, he'll plunk down $130 million to retain one of the most valueless, sex-driven comedies in the history of television. That's a definite committment, Scott.        Silverman and Gurin have the okay by NBC (despite the fact of its ownership of the property) to shop this show to any of the other five networks. Don't hold your breath. NBC has done a brilliant job of making Twenty-One appear to be damaged goods. The show would play well on Fox but the fourth web has too many other games in development. Les Moonves of CBS is not interested. Profit potential would be too low on UPN or The WB.
       We'll all survive the loss of Twenty-One. On a personal basis, I'm thrilled to have had the joy of meeting some of the friendliest people in the world who have won on the show. David and Dave Legler, David Jones, Stephanie Threlkeld, Maria Retkofsky, the best-known Red Cross director since Elizabeth Dole---Dayna Klein and the guy who is going to get one of the biggest JPGs on TGSCC in two weeks for his sheer endurance, Ben Tritle, are some of the first-class people you will ever encounter. Their money and their short-term fame have not changed who they are as people.
       NBC will have no quiz shows on its prime time lineup in the fall. No future ones appear in development for nighttime. The network would rather walk the walk with the Dick Wolfs of the world, than with the modern-day Goodson-Todmans. We'll probably see a couple of games pop up on NBC's daytime lineup for the first time in a decade around October or January. I'll safely predict this---if those games receive no better promotion and nurturing than did Twenty-One, their life span will be about as long, sad to say.
       If anyone has an e-mail address on Lauren Griswold, television's new quiz show $$$ queen, please forward it along to us....Much is being made of the Frasier win in the 9-9:30 slot over Millionaire. Not a big deal. Seriously. We're getting close to the season finale and that always brings viewers back into the tent for a popular sitcom. Plus, after you hot-shot viewers with a stunt like the celebrity specials, you will have a distinct cooling-off period for a hit like Millionaire. A prime reason I contend you should not do another celeb event in November....A bunch of you have asked if I'll have a column on the Child Geniuses special. I indeed will. Any of you who ever try your hand at teaching college will learn quickly what the two weeks approaching final exams are like. I will be commenting on the Dick Clark and Kids evening in the next week....Ironically, despite Mediaweek insisting Greed is definitely in for next fall, several analysts are still rating the show on the bubble. The bigger-money shows of late have been far more exciting with more risk-taking but have drawn lower ratings....I'm not so sure now I don't think CBS might be as well off trying a bigger-money version of The Price Is Right with Bob Barker in prime time as going with The $64,000 Question. With all the reports I've had of "suits" putting their fingerprints all over Question, that smacks to me of sure disaster ahead....Many of you already know, thanks to brilliant media leaks, who wins the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions Friday but we will follow our policy of reporting on the day-to-day playoffs without revealing the finishes in advance.

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