Last week, "Smash" earned a 4.0 rating/6 share, according to Fast National overnight ratings from The Nielsen Co., giving NBC its second highest-rated outing of the week.
That was actually good news for the Steven Spielberg-produced musical show, since in the four episodes prior to that, the show was averaging just a 3.8 household rating. Not too big of a difference, and probably enough for NBC to call it a success.
Yet, "Smash" has lost, on average, 42 percent of its lead-in from "The Voice." Sure, that reality competition show has seen a ratings decline after a huge premiere, but "Smash" never seemed to find a way to keep up with its lead-in at all.
"Smash" somehow succeeded, with a huge lead-in show, but no matter what it did, just could not beat out NBC's top-rated scripted program, a little Kathy Bates law drama called "Harry's Law."
Unlike "Smash," there were no significant lead-ins for "Harry's Law." On its original night, Wednesdays, its lead-in was first "Free Agents," which averaged a 2.3/4, and then reruns, not putting a new program in the 8:30 slot just before "Harry's Law" until "Best Friends Forever" premiered to a 2.5/4 in early April -- well after NBC moved Bates to Sundays.
Yet, "Harry's Law" didn't suffer too much. In fact, it averaged a 5.0/8, and beat its timeslot by 14 percent over last year.
When it moved to Sundays, people thought "Harry's Law" would suffer. It didn't. With no lead-in and a three-month break, "Harry's Law" premiered to a 5.6/9, and through nine episodes, has averaged a 5.1/8. That's right, the audience the show already had on Wednesdays -- which led NBC's scripted programs (by a lot) -- followed it to Sundays, and improved the Sunday 8 p.m. timeslot for NBC by 122 percent.
And Wednesday wasn't just a magic timeslot for NBC. "Bent" took over "Harry's Law's" slot in March, and managed to survive only three episodes there, averaging a 1.6/3 -- a decline of 68 percent from what "Harry's Law" was doing there before.
Through the end of April, "Harry's Law" has averaged a 5.1/8, and despite losing 14 percent of its audience from last year, is NBC's second highest-rated show behind only "The Voice." However, when you look for "Harry's Law" in the fall (or even at mid-season), you're not going to find it there. That's because NBC didn't have the patience to keep it.
Yet, NBC had the patience to keep "Smash," a show that won't even be in television's top 50 by the time final ratings are completed. NBC had the patience to keep "The Office," which is in turmoil in terms of who is the star of the show, and who lost nearly 22 percent of its audience from last year.
It also kept "Community," despite firing its creator and showrunner, and despite it averaging just a 2.3/4 -- barely enough to have a spot in the top 100. That's right, the top 100 -- less than 20 shows are doing worse in the ratings, and the vast majority of them are on The CW.
"Harry's Law" was a great show for NBC, not just for its total audience, but for what it brought to the table. It was smart drama -- the kind David E. Kelley is known for -- with an amazing cast, led by Bates, that included Nathan Corddry, Christopher McDonald, Mark Valley and Karen Olivo. Following in the tradition of another Kelley show, "Boston Legal" (but not as blatant), the show was rife with commentary not just about life, but about the television industry as well.
In fact, in a recent episode, Bates character of Harry Korn tries to pull herself out of bed, missing the days she was in the 18 to 49 age demographic -- a spot where the show is not strong in (its audience skews older, like its cast). In that same episode, "Harry's Law" tackled something I've yet to see any other show really tackle: Why is it still illegal, after nearly 30 years, for gay men to donate blood?
Kelley is the kind of person that will look for issues others ignore or are too afraid to bring up. And that's why Kelley's shows have had a loyal audience whether its Kathy Bates or William Shatner in the starring role.
CBS is not immune to this either after canceling "Unforgettable," television's No. 12 show. The only difference here is that "Unforgettable" was not its top scripted show. It was actually No. 8. And unlike NBC, CBS can afford to dump higher-rated shows, especially when it has more than a half-dozen that get even better ratings.
Still, I get worried that sometimes networks look at these shows as nothing more than little piggy banks, and that when they feel they can put no more money in that piggy bank, they just smash it open, and grab everything they can.
These shows aren't piggy banks. They are the livelihood of hard-working cast and crew. And yes, television is about beginnings and ends, and sometimes we just have to live with the decisions a network makes, especially if ratings are not where they should be.
But "Harry's Law" and "Unforgettable"? Nothing really justified these cancellations.
I'm so happy that shows like "Cheers" and "Seinfeld" didn't premiere in today's mentality of instant hits. If they had, we would never have two very influential shows. And they are not alone.
Some shows just need some time to cook. Others are pretty close to simmer -- like "Harry's Law," which had found its pace in the second season, and was showing NBC that it could see audiences in the top 50 not called "The Voice."
But what can we do. It's not clear if demographics were a key part of the decision, but if it is ... start to be worried. If you're in the key demo now, like Harry Korn, you won't be in it forever. And your viewing habits should count for something, too.
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