School's Out

When Fox-TV canceled American High, the network hit a new low

Just last week, The New York Times ran a fluffy profile of Berman, which bore the headline: "Berman's Theater Roots, Flair for the Offbeat Might Set the Stage for a Revival at Fox-TV." Bernard Weintraub wrote that when Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, appointed Berman, "Fox was clearly seeking to revive the network's formula of luring mainstream audiences with offbeat shows." Weintraub was referring specifically to the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle; Berman brought the smart, if occasionally too smart-ass, show to Fox when she was president of Regency Television, which produces Malcolm. But Weintraub neglected to mention that Berman canceled Fox's most offbeat show--not to mention its best show. To do so would have negated the point of his puffy profile, which documented the 43-year-old's dramatic rise from Broadway producer (Hurlyburly, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat) to television executive.

Berman may not want to talk about the reasons behind the show's cancellation, but they're not hard to fathom. After all, television is a business driven by a single motivating factor: fear. Berman, who came to Fox after American High had been given the go-ahead, wanted nothing to do with the show. If it succeeded, she would have received none of the credit, but if it failed, she would have been forced to bear the brunt of the blame. Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive officer of News Corp., which owns everything under the Fox umbrella, from Ally McBeal to the Los Angeles Dodgers, would have yelled at her. Actually, Berman probably would have been fired, as so many before her had been.

Cutler initially pitched the show to Fox in January 1999; a few months later, then-president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company Doug Herzog ordered 13 episodes. But by the time the show was ready to air (it was originally scheduled to debut July 10), Herzog was out, and Berman was in. Herzog, who had come to Fox after a celebrated stint as head of Comedy Central, lasted only 16 months at the network. He was the fourth programming exec to be shuffled out the revolving door in four years; the door didn't have time to hit him or his predecessors in their asses on the way out.

American low: Brad was but one of the students in American High whose story was cut short by Fox's decision to cancel the show.
American low: Brad was but one of the students in American High whose story was cut short by Fox's decision to cancel the show.
R.J. Cutler figures more people saw American High in one week than ever saw his documentary The War Room in theaters, on videotape, and on television.
R.J. Cutler figures more people saw American High in one week than ever saw his documentary The War Room in theaters, on videotape, and on television.

In some ways, you can't blame Berman. If American High was going to fail, why should she fail with it? After all, the TV exec is a coward by nature, unwilling to take risks for someone else's decisions--and unwilling to stick by a show even when it garners critical acclaim and low ratings. American High's ratings were relatively tiny: On August 2, the first day the show aired, 4.3 million people tuned it; on August 9, that number had dropped by some 900,000 viewers. And so Fox panicked, even though the network all but guaranteed its death sentence by giving it such a lousy time slot to begin with.

Cutler insists the final nine episodes will air, though he declines to say where; he insists that if he were to confirm the rumors--so far, MTV and the Fox Family Channel are among the alleged leading candidates--he would jinx the process. He will say that one of the networks has promised to continue the series, taking it to a rural school one season, then an urban school the next. The show would work well on either network: On MTV, it will be the real Real World; on FFC, it could air on the same night as Freaks and Geeks, the acclaimed, and likewise canceled, NBC series now airing in a limited run.

"Gone With the Wind couldn't perform in the time slot we were in," Cutler says. "It was up against other shows that had built-in followings, and it was introduced in August, when people aren't looking for new programs or changing their watching habits, and when Survivor was building up to its climax, which was the television phenomenon of the last 10 years. When the show didn't perform from day one, Fox was saying, 'Well, maybe this isn't going to work out. Maybe people don't want to see TV shows about high school.' And then they gave it one more week, and the exact same thing happened. We held our audience, we did fabulously with teen viewers, but we were in a horrible time slot. We were horribly positioned, and we performed horribly as a result, so they took us off the air. Why didn't they have more patience? Why didn't they believe in their own convictions? Why didn't they support a show that a lot of incredibly talented people worked on for a year and one every critic who looked at it loved and gave it reviews unlike any Fox had ever seen? You gotta ask them."

But they aren't talking, because what, in the end, could they say?

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