Sometimes the solution to a problem is so glaringly obvious, you can't believe it goes unnoticed. Such is the case with the broadcast networks and, in particular, the WB.
Once deemed the most likely to survive as America's fifth over-the-air network, this season has seen the Frog stumble. The United Paramount Network (UPN) almost hired Dr. Jack Kevorkian to come in and help them die a dignified death.
However fortunes have changed, and it's UPN that's up on the once critically adored WB. Though that's largely due to UPN's broadcast of wrestling, the WB still is in some choppy waters. Yet, they could so easily turn things around.
The WB's biggest problem is that they are trying to fill six nights with about four night's worth of programming. Compounding this problem is that their shows aren't producing enough new episodes. The WB is forced to fill holes in its schedule with repeats of its successful shows.
Unlike its bigger rivals, it runs virtually no specials or movies. Still worse, most of the network's shows are serialized, making them less attractive in reruns. Not only does this hurt a particular show within its own time slot, but it also does little to help the network when that program's repeat is enlisted to plug a hole somewhere else.
Word around Tinseltown is that Felicity is on the verge of being canned. Most point to star Keri Russell's new hairstyle (she went from long luscious curls to a very short cut). I hope no one at the WB is buying this, because this is the least of Felicity's problems.
Besides falling into the "make-up/breakup/make-up/ breakup" trap, Felicity, like her sister shows, is not producing enough new episodes to keep their already small audience interested. When you're trying to appeal to a demographic notorious for having a short attention span, three weeks between new episodes is an immeasurable chasm.
The aforementioned serialization is also a liability. At first it makes sense. If you have a continuing story line, people might tune back in week in and week out. There are two problems with this: It has to be a real good story line, and you have to keep new shows coming. The trend in television is to appeal to that 18-34 demographic that advertisers covet, and they are coveted because they spend their money recklessly. The WB and UPN have been the most active in trying to recruit these folks. Essentially the WB has tried to bring in the chicks, while UPN has tried to woo the dudes. While the latter is up on the year, neither network is drawing the kinds of numbers it wants, even within the demographic.
At the beginning of this column a solution was mentioned. It's actually a three-part plan. Phase one: Drop the heavy serialization. Trying to re-cap with a "previously on ..." isn't enough. It's going to drive away more viewers than it keeps, particularly young viewers.
Phase two: Make more episodes! Yes, this adds costs, and stars might balk at losing part of their hiatus, which affords them time to make films and whatnot. Overall, this is still the way to go. It costs less to produce 24 episodes of Felicity than six Safe Harbors and 18 Felicitys. As for the stars complaints, ask yourself, "How many of these folks have made any impact on the big screen?" Let's see. OK, Amanda Peete was quite good in The Whole Nine Yards, then there was ... there was ... um ... you see my point.
Phase three (quite radical): Make half-hour dramas. Ouch! It's definitely more costly to produce two different half-hour shows than one one-hour program. But think of the audience. It worked for Dragnet, Adam-12 and Twilight Zone.
People are sick of sit-coms, but those shows don't demand as much time. Come to think of it, if you're only going to produce 18 hours a year of a particular show, why not just divide it up into 36 half-hour chunks?
Obviously something has to be done. Shows that were hip in my house (like Felicity) have given way to shows like Cover Me (Sundays at 8 p.m.) over on the USA Network. It's not great television by any stretch, but it's new and, well, I like everyone's haircut.