Hollywood West

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2008, 12:00am

With the US now in what looks like full-fledged recession (corporations haemorrhaging employees, average families having to rent their spare rooms to strangers, young people going back to live with their parents), the television networks aren't off the hook either.

While the general perception of the TV industry is that it is all glitz and glamour and filled with stars earning at least US$100,000 an episode (we're looking at you, folks at Grey's Anatomy), the fact is that the TV business is as vulnerable to the vagaries of the market as any other medium and any other enterprise. And, where venerable magazine houses such as Conde Nast and Time Inc are closing some of their publications - even the empire that is O from Oprah Winfrey has had a couple of misses - it's only to be expected that the networks are having problems too.

As a result, TV shows that once held shiny promise for viewers, advertisers and the channels that air them, are slowly disappearing. It seems like almost every day brings news of more cancellations, with network publicists and producers citing less-than-stellar ratings and shows struggling to find a (large enough) audience.

The other week, it was announced that no new episodes would be ordered for new-ish shows Dirty Sexy Money and Lipstick Jungle - not for now, anyway. (And as anyone who has monitored these things for any length of time knows, once a show is gone, it's gone.) New series such as The Ex-List disappeared after about four episodes, another sitcom with Jerry O'Connell barely lasted three showings - which must be a record in the annals of TV failures.

It doesn't always have to do with the quality of the fare (although, yes, the O'Connell show was called Do Not Disturb and was about a lecherous hotel manager and the random guests who came through - a bit like The Love Boat, but on dry land). Instead, as I am given to understand it by people who work at that end of the media, network execs just don't have the time, money or inclination to carry something that isn't a runaway success: if it doesn't have the numbers of Lost, they don't want it.

That might sound ruthless, but these are trying times in the world of television. Advertisers are shoving their money elsewhere, or just keeping it close to home. Car companies, once among the biggest advertisers on network prime time TV, are in their worst shape ever, as are the major retailers and department store chains whose ad dollars contributed to the frothy little clothes worn by the women on Desperate Housewives. It just doesn't make sense to keep a show going unless several million people tune in.

I, for one, am hugely disappointed that some of these shows have been so summarily dumped. If you missed Dirty Sexy Money - an updated take on Dallas but with much more cash - when it aired in Hong Kong, you don't know what you're missing. A conniving patriarch with fabulous, mane-like hair (Donald Sutherland), his five dysfunctional children, his unhinged relationship with the family lawyer whose father the patriarch may have killed, all set against a backdrop of unabashed wealth in New York; network TV really doesn't get much better than that. But despite rave reviews and a staunch following, the series is wrapping up after only two seasons.

Ditto for Lipstick Jungle, where a trio of gorgeous, glam women (Brooke Shields being one of them) run studios and magazines and fashion brands and juggle marriages and boyfriends. It's like Sex and the City (same people behind it, author Candace Bushnell included), but without the shoe obsession. And just when I was developing an affinity for them, forging a connection with the series, it's yanked away.

One theory being bandied about is that in this dire economy, people don't want to watch shows about rich people. (There might be something in that - a couple of reality shows to do with the high life, including something called First Class All the Way, have been sidelined). I don't know how true that is. My thinking has always been that TV watching is really nothing more than escapism - unless you're tuned in to the History or Discovery channels, where there might be more brain fodder. But the idea is to turn it on and soak it in without having to think too much. It's not called the idiot box for nothing.

But, clearly, not everyone thinks that way. Even contemporary, meaningful shows from award-winning creators (Boston Legal, for example) are calling it quits. The Shield, which has had seven illustrious and gripping seasons, is done for - although that has allegedly more to do with the creative life of the show than any financial considerations. The fact is, it's just taking a lot longer for something to hit, hit big, and make it worthwhile to stay on the air. Even 30 Rock, the brilliantly satiric sitcom, is said to be teetering on the brink, this despite awards and accolades galore for its creator and star Tina Fey.

I hear also that Heroes, which was such a huge phenomenon when it first aired couple of years ago, is struggling to stay on the schedule.

All of which makes it hard for the average TV watcher who tunes in, gets hooked, and then finds out the show will be wiped off the slate. It's like changing jobs and moving countries for a boyfriend only to have him dump you. (OK, maybe not quite as dramatic as that.) I thought I'd give The Ex-List a try from the get-go. The premise, based on a hit Israeli TV show, was compelling enough: a young woman is told by a psychic that she has already met the love of her life, so she retraces her dating steps and reconnects with all the guys she'd ever been with. It was funny and engaging and sweet, and, I thought, sure to find a following.

Not so much, as it turns out, which means that I, an innocent viewer like so many other TV watchers, will never know what happens.

Perhaps it's time for me to call my own psychic. And in the meantime, we'll always have American Idol.