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`My So-Called Life' Nears Graveyard of Good Shows

January 25, 1995

Off Camera

`My So-Called Life' Nears Graveyard of Good Shows

By Verne Gay

WINNIE HOLZMAN, the creator of "My So-Called Life," certainly tried to sound chipper on the phone the other day.

But it was the kind of "chipper" that wasn't entirely convincing. You know the type: The bank is about to foreclose on so-and-so's home, but so-and-so says to himself, "Hey, at least I've got my health."

That kind of chipper.

Holzman's creation, you see, is staring right down into this black hole that has claimed so many good shows. And afterward, network programers pat themselves on their backs and say, "Gee, we tried but nobody watched."

It's the oldest, dreariest excuse in the biz.

An original episode of "My So-Called Life" will air tomorrow night probably for the last time. Perhaps forever. The black hole beckons. Increasingly strident campaigns by the show's outspoken fans will likely be of no avail. (Holzman and co-executive producer Scott Winant, a colleague from the days when they worked together on "thirtysomething, " will "talk" to some of these fans tonight at 8:15 on America Online.)

"I do have hope," say Holzman, a Roslyn Heights native who went out to Los Angeles five years ago with her husband, actor Paul Dooley, and had the good fortune to land a writing job on "thirtysomething." "Anything can happen in television and anything can happen to this show."

Sadly, "anything" in this case may well be the obvious. "Life" already has three strikes against it.

Strike one: The ratings are horrible (averaging a 6.9 rating [65.8 million households] and an 11 percent share of the audience, 119th out of 142 prime time shows, getting only a 9.1 percent of female, teenage viewers, its key target.)

Strike two: It costs ABC Productions, which owns the program, up to $1.2 million per episode to produce, and that figure - if accurate - will never be re-couped in syndication or cable.

Strike three: There's no place to put the show. The 10 p.m. time period - where "Life" stands the most chance of survival, has effectively been ceded to the news division ("20 / 20," "PrimeTime Live" and "Day One") because of a theory - correct in some cases, not in others - that stations want news lead-ins for their local newscasts.

Doesn't three strikes mean you're out? Not quite. ABC executives are numbingly ambivalent about the show. "My feelings about [it]," Ted Harbert, ABC Entertainment president, said before a recent gathering of TV critics, "are that it's one of my favorite shows in a long, long time. And reports of its cancellation and demise are premature, and untrue . . . We will not make a decision about that show until May."

Fact is, if "Life" gets picked up, it will mean that the network had horrible program development for the fall '95 season. That is unlikely.

It would be far too simplistic to slug Harbert and his minions. After all, they did give the show a chance. They did promote it. If numbers meant everything, it would have been canceled right after the Sept. 8 telecast (it premiered in late August), when it crashed to an 11 percent share. And, dear readers, we cite the lesson that every network programer learns in Network TV 101: any TV show - good, bad, or otherwise - must appeal to many people, not simply a few.

Nevertheless, something went terribly wrong with the way ABC handled this prestige project. Holzman, who judiciously claims to be "very grateful" to ABC for supporting the show this long, blames at least two culprits - the time period, and promotion. She once got a call from an admiring colleague who admitted that he never sees the show "because `I'm never home.' We get that from all sides all the time," says Holzman. "The twenty-somethings are out or are still working. People with kids are dealing with their kids."

"It's ironic," she adds, "that this is the year of the resurgence of TV drama [and] it is the most painful thing for me to be on the air at eight . . . We feel our show is every bit as sophisticated as [other network 10 p.m. dramas] and this is what drove us crazy."

The promotions had the same effect. "ABC was trying to hard to make the show safe, and they took its claws out [with the promos]. The promos were targeted only to teens, and [ABC] became afraid not to do that."

Then, she adds that the promotions were directed to a "bubblegum kind of teen, but the teens who are watching our show don't need to be played down to . . . We'd get letters saying, `Gee, we love your show. Why are the promotions so silly?' "

The reason for all the silliness, she believes, is that ABC never knew whether "Life" was an adult drama or an hour of teen-appeal angst. The network opted for the latter.

One industry observer who followed ABC's development of "Life" calls Holzman's criticisms "a crock . . . The show has had incredible word-of-mouth [besides on-air promotions] and it hasn't grown an inch. A lot of people just don't like it. It's very noble. Very serious. But it's pretty depressing."

So what's our verdict? Is ABC guilty or not guilty of killing a good - sometimes great - show? Right now, neither. And before the great black hole obliterates one more victim, ABC should do whatever it can to determine whether this show can draw a larger adult audience.

But where? A repeat once aired 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4, before "NYPD Blue" premiered, mustering a weak 15 share. Even though "Day One" is faltering Thursdays at 10, it's unlikely that "Life" would be tried there.

"I don't want to make excuses," says Holzman, "or say that we could get the highest of ratings. We know to some extent we will always be the show that people aren't sure about, or think is too weird, or not to their taste."

Yes, but surely there's room in network TV for even that kind of show?

Copyright 1995, Newsday Inc.

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"