The voice mail message is succinct: "You've reached what used to be the Century City production office. We are closed." That's the epitaph a canceled series gets, one also due Fox's fanciful drama Wonderfalls. Like CBS's Century City, Wonderfalls aired only a handful of times before it was axed last week. Some observers say the casualty toll indicates a weak field of midseason shows, including such struggling efforts as ABC's Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital and CBS's The Stones. Out TV director Todd Holland, a creator and executive producer of Wonderfalls, thinks the analysis misses the point. What's happening, he says, reflects a sea change in entertainment in general--and not for the better.
Studios write off movies that don't "open big," with an impressive debut income, just as networks hastily dump shows that don't make an immediate and serious dent in the Nielsen ratings, Holland said. "You really have a hard time commanding a network's patience and attention, the same way you do a movie studio's patience and attention." He recalled the fate of Krippendorf's Tribe, the 1998 film he directed that starred Richard Dreyfuss. "I got a call Friday night, opening night at 7 o'clock, and the president of Touchstone told me, 'Sorry, we just couldn't open the picture,'" Holland said.
That meant marketing was quickly abandoned, along with any chance for the film to build an audience. In TV terms, Wonderfalls got roughly the same bum's rush. To start with, the series required careful handling. A comic drama about a discontented young woman (Caroline Dhavernas) who lives near Niagara Falls, N.Y., works in a souvenir shop, and starts hearing directives from tacky animal figurines, it obviously wasn't a cookie-cutter entry. (Holland says he and out cocreator Bryan Fuller came up with the idea at the same time Joan of Arcadia was created, but the hit CBS series about a teenager who hears from God made it to TV first.) Wonderfalls also needed the right time slot to attract the young demographic that Fox courts and for whom the show seemed designed. And, finally, it needed breathing room to establish itself.
In the current fashion of network TV, it got none of the above. The series was stranded at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, when a chunk of the typically elusive young audience tends to be out, with an excursion to Thursday--against NBC's powerhouse reality series The Apprentice. (Fox, which declined to comment, gets some credit for teaming Wonderfalls with a spiritual partner on Thursday: It followed Tru Calling, about a young woman who hears calls for help from the dead.) Expansive marketing was lacking. "There is a correlation between advertising and promotional spending and return," observed Holland. Two Fox shows that received elaborate brass-band welcomes, Malcolm in the Middle (said to be the beneficiary of a $6 million launch in 2000) and newcomer The O.C., are thriving.
"Everyone knows that hits are made, that you nurture a show.... You give it a great time slot and a lot of promotion, and then the show has to earn its audience, to keep it," said Holland, whose extensive credits include Malcolm in the Middle and The Larry Sanders Show. Maybe Wonderfalls eventually could have drawn viewers by virtue of what Holland calls its "wicked bad-boy comedy, but with heart," which he saw as very Fox-friendly in the spirit of The Simpsons. Four episodes, however, and it was over. Holland's pleas for one more airing were rebuffed by Fox.
Patience is not a virtue these days, particularly when networks can get easy, immediate ratings gratification from reality shows. The rapid turnover in scripted series makes their failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, Holland suggested. Network reluctance to give shows time to grow makes viewers skittish about committing to shows that are unlikely to last. Networks could find themselves stocking up on reality fare but also acquiring a sameness that erases their identities, Holland said. Will viewers who think of NBC as the comedy destination for Friends link the network as closely to The Apprentice? Ultimately, the loss could be even bigger, Holland said. "I feel like the sort of wonder you can create from small worlds of fiction is totally in danger of extinction because people--the audience or the networks--don't have the patience to nurture that kind of journey," Holland said. "Anything you don't nurture and feed, withers. Our imaginations, our dreaming spirits are in danger of giving up." (AP)