Sunday, March 23, 2008

More from Mara Brock Akil on the end of 'Girlfriends'

Networks tap the vets

'ER,' 'Scrubs' among series poised for renewals

"Goodbye" is the hardest word in television this year.
The writers strike-induced shortened season has everyone rethinking plans for next year -- and the beneficiaries may include aging skeins such as "ER" and "Scrubs" and bubble entries like "Friday Night Lights."

Less lucky: The CW's long-running "Girlfriends" and NBC's "Las Vegas," both of which were permanently shut down during the strike.

For several veteran series, though, the work stoppage gave the nets an excuse to squeeze out another season -- and shows that can serve as anchors in what's becoming even rougher primetime waters for new skeins.

The decision to pump one more season out of some of these stalwarts and bubble shows comes as the networks have grown increasingly concerned with the development they have on hand for next year.

"They're safety nets," says one webhead. "Certainly there's a 'better the devil you know than the one you don't' attitude out there. Can NBC do worse than another season of 'ER'? You bet they can."

After 14 seasons, "ER" was set to take a final bow this year, while NBC had promised that "Scrubs" would say its farewells this spring. CW's "Smallville" was also expected to take flight in May, and ABC's "According to Jim" wasn't even expected to be back this year, much less next.

Post-strike, these time-proven shows are looking a lot better to webheads: "Smallville" has already secured a pickup, while "ER," "Scrubs" and "Jim" are all expected to make return trips to primetime next year as well.

The Peacock, meanwhile, is looking at ways to bring back the critically acclaimed "Lights," despite its low marks, while low-rated performers like CW's "Reaper" and ABC's "Men in Trees" could also return in the fall.

"You have a very truncated development season," an exec says. "No one has any clue what they're going to end up with. People are concerned that some pilots won't be ready. You've got to put something on in the fall."

Hence, the "do over" mentality at the nets. In several cases, fall 2008 is gonna look a lot like fall 2007. Not only will frosh 2007 skeins like ABC's "Pushing Daisies" be given a relaunch as if they're new shows, but skeins that kicked off fall 2007 with an eye toward a series finale will now kick off fall 2008 with that same sentiment.

All this comes even though shows like the 14-year-old "ER" deliver only a fraction of their peak ratings from years past. Once the No. 1 show on television, and in the top 10 for a decade, it has averaged just 9.5 million viewers this season, putting it in the middle of the primetime pack.

In this age of diminishing returns, those swiftly declining numbers are still better than most of the new shows that fill their spots.

"You think 'ER' is bad? Look at 'Lipstick Jungle,' " an exec says. "Think 'Jim' is bad? Look at some of their other comedies."

The nets also are looking at those final laps as a way to yank a few extra ratings points out of auds while they still can. Rather than let "ER" limp off the air with a whimper, why not tout one last season as a chance for viewers to say farewell?

The nets and studios are also looking at ways to make the renewals work from a financial perspective. Renewing aging shows -- particularly if they no longer perform in the Nielsens -- is usually a losing proposition. License fees are huge and budgets are bloated, as costs naturally escalate through the years.

That's why NBC is negotiating a lower license fee for "ER" before guaranteeing a 15th season, and is in talks with partners like DirecTV to help shoulder the cost of another season of "Lights."

And should "Scrubs" move to ABC, as expected, the Alphabet net can dramatically lower that comedy's license fee. NBC still has several more episodes in the can, ready to air in April. For ABC, it's the chance to add a critically acclaimed vet sitcom to the lineup, as it slowly tries to rebuild its laffer stable. Why would the studios agree to such a license fee drop? In the case of Warner Bros. and "ER," NBC at one point paid so much for the medical drama (at its peak a decade ago, $13 million per seg -- although that number is far lower now) that even a big dip in fees would still make it worthwhile to keep the show in production.

It also helps that the skein's cast is mostly new -- and perhaps cheaper. And the show still has enough creative life to draw "Sopranos" alum Aida Turturro, who has already been cast in a recurring role that's expected to continue into next season.

At ABC Studios, an additional season of "Scrubs" allows it to reap more money in off-net syndication.

But in a few cases, the nets and studios crunched the numbers, and decided it still wouldn't make sense to bring back a long-standing property. That's what happened to "Las Vegas," which aired a cliffhanger in its final episode in February but won't be returning, and "Girlfriends," which wasn't given the chance to resume production after the strike and finish its eighth season.

"Did I like the way it ended? No," says "Girlfriends" creator Mara Brock Akil. "Would I have liked it to have a proper ending? Of course. Unfortunately, this was one of those budget decisions. To put value into a show they knew wasn't coming back when they were trying to keep life in others, I understand it."

The strike put a crimp in Akil's plans to properly wrap the series up; several loose ends may now not be resolved.

"When the news came, I chose to focus on the blessings," Akil says. "Nobody wants to end this way. But after 172 episodes, we had a wonderful ride."


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