Monday, June 11, 2007

Revival of "Jericho" Shows Power of the People

Say you want a revolution/We better get on right away/
Well you get on your feet/And out on the street
Singing 'power to the people'
- "Power to the People" by John Lennon (1971)

The most powerful people in television are not the network executives who choose the shows, the executive producers who run them, or the actors that perform in them. No, the most powerful people in television are the millions of consumers who decide to watch a show (or not to, as Aaron Sorkin can tell you). Especially the viewers in the coveted 18 to 49 age demographic.

Nothing happens without the viewing public. If people watch something, the network executives will give them more of it, and the industry flows from there. Without viewers (or the hope of attracting viewers in the future), shows (and genres, like the sitcom) go off the air. It's that simple. The viewers run the industry. There is, of course, both a positive and negative impact of the audience holding such absolute control over the content of television.

On the negative side, the reason why CNN has evolved from a serious news organization to the Celebrity News Network, tracking the exploits of the latest talentless media whores du jour (welcome to the limelight Paris Hilton; don't let the door hit you on the way out to rehab Lindsay Lohan), is that Paris and Lindsay get higher ratings than George W. Bush and Harry Reid. If people watched CNN when they ran actual news stories, CNN would run actual news stories. But, because people clamor to hear more about Lindsay Lohan passed out in her car or Britney Spears shaving her head and melting down in a tattoo shop, CNN gives the people what they want. Power to the people.

Luckily, the door of power swings both ways. When the television networks announced their schedules for the 2006-2007 season, one of the evident trends was the popularity of serialized shows that carry a storyline through an entire season, thanks to the success of hits like "Lost" and "24." Most of the serials were soon cancelled. "Heroes" became a hit, and the CBS show "Jericho," about a small town in Kansas caught in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world, was fairly successful, too.

"Jericho" premiered to strong ratings, but suffered from another trend of the 2006-2007 season, the hiatus. The network took shows like "Jericho," "Heroes" and "Lost" off the air for a long period of time, and then brought them back to finish out the season. The networks' thinking seemed pretty sound. People hate reruns, and by airing the show in two continuous blocks, reruns could be avoided. Only, what the networks found was that absence did not, in fact, make the heart grow fonder. Instead, it was more of a case of out of sight, out of mind, as the serials all took rating hits upon their returns. For "Heroes" and "Lost," the drop was disappointing, but the shows were still hits. "Jericho" was not so lucky. When it returned without a big chunk of its post-hiatus audience (falling from 10.5 million to 8.1 million viewers), CBS decided to pull the plug on the show, choosing not to renew it for the 2007-2008 season.

For most television programs, such a decision marks the end of the story. History is littered with the carcasses of critically beloved, low-rated shows with rabid fan bases ("Arrested Development" is a recent example) that are cancelled and never heard from again. But in the case of "Jericho," the fans did not take the cancellation decision lying down, following John Lennon's call to arms and asserting the power of the people. Taking a cue from an expression of one of the characters on the show, fans inundated the network with peanuts. Yes, the fans sent peanuts through the U.S. Mail to CBS, 20 tons of them according to USA Today. As a result, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, the network picked up the show for a short seven-episode run next year, with the chance to return for a full run the following season if the level of viewership warrants it.

That's they key: While the peanut-sending "Jericho" fans succeeded in showing enough people power to accomplish something rarely done, getting a network to reverse its cancellation of a show, the power only extends so far. In the end, the larger body of viewers has to watch the show, or no amount of nuts or other food products will save "Jericho" again. As CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said in the Yahoo!/AP article, "You got our attention; your emails and collective voice have been heard ... But, for there to be more 'Jericho,' we will need more viewers."

I've only seen "Jericho" once. Aside from "Heroes," I'm not a fan of the serials. I watched an episode of "Lost" once and found it to be exceptionally well-written and well-acted, but I was put off by the level of commitment needed to keep up with the characters and storylines. While "Jericho" was far less confusing than "Lost," I still wasn't sucked in enough to make the time investment necessary to be a fan. But I was thrilled to read of CBS's decision to pick up the show for next year. "Jericho" is obviously a quality show, worthy of a slot on the schedule, certainly more than the 17 variations on reality series with the theme "So You Think You Can [Fill in the Blank]" (or the celebrity versions thereof).

Even more importantly, it's nice to see a network realize that the power of the people doesn't always reside in the statistically-questionable Nielsen ratings, and that power can be asserted through the organization and passion of a smaller group of fans. I'll be rooting for "Jericho" to attract an audience that meets or exceeds the 10.5 million it originally attracted, if for no other reason than to inspire more displays of people power when good shows are canceled in the future. Of course, as Tassler noted, the effort will be for naught if the numbers for "Jericho" slip into the single-digit millions. The power of the people only extends so far, limited only by the power of the Nielsens.