It’s hard out there for a TV pilot or midseason replacement series. Casting one’s lot with a The Book of Daniel or a Commander in Chief is like investing romantic fortunes in a foreign exchange student with an overextended visa—exciting, but foolhardy. Desperate Networks traces the rocky routes today’s hits traveled and introduces one cabal after another of parent-company CEOs, agents, intermediaries, executives, and writers/conceptualists determined to triumph on the Darwinian battlefield that is Big Four network television. In fly-on-the-wall reportage, Bill Carter flits from front to front between the mid-1990s and the mid-’00s detailing scheduling skirmishes, telling titans’ stories, and personalizing the networks: fading heavyweight NBC, suddenly acclaimed ABC, oldster haven CBS, and scrappy rising star Fox.
A wealth of behind-the-pixilated-curtain information appears here. Much of Fox’s reality schlock—When Animals Attack!, Celebrity Boxing—is the handiwork of Mike Darnell, a baby-faced man inexplicably given license to rankle viewers; he scored sensation American Idol when other networks passed. The decision of NBC’s Jeff Zucker to temporarily “supersize” Thursday powerhouses Friends and Will and Grace to 45 minutes each was made after The Weber Show/Cursed flamed out—solely with an eye to shoring up ratings against CBS’s Survivor-fortified schedule, not indulging audiences. Desperate Housewives was the brainchild of down-on-his-luck Golden Girls writer Marc Cherry, conceived in 2001. His pilot script, batted around and denied by almost every cable and broadcast network imaginable, didn’t reach the air until he altered its tone from “comedic satire” to “dark soap opera” and female ABC execs enthusiastically championed it.
Of the Thursday institution that was initially NBC’s legacy and, later, albatross, Carter writes: “The buying frenzy was driven initially by the movie studios, all of which came to the same conclusion: heavy television advertising on Thursday was critical to pumping up the box office. Studio films regularly opened on Fridays, and more and more they depended on huge opening weekends. Other advertisers quickly realized the value of Thursday nights as well. With young viewers steadily abandoning television on Friday and Saturday nights, Thursday became the last night to reach them. So fast-food companies wanted in. Soda-pop makers wanted to reinforce their brands before weekend leisure activities. Car dealers knew they sold the most vehicles on weekends.”
Carter, a New York Times reporter, is adroit at smuggling you into backroom deals sealed over cigars, “upfronts” and “mini-upfronts”—where networks pimp their wares to secure season-long advertising cash guarantees—and execs glad-handling while engineering contractual coronations and extensions for could-be she-anchors, late-night princes-in-waiting, and bold-faced stars. But he drops the ball by neglecting the eyeball-siphoning elephants in the room—the internet and video games—and giving successful cult darlings like Arrested Development short shrift. Perhaps Carter is plotting a book about under-the-radar gems and the countless series that die on the vine or never even make it to development. A fascinating premise—provided his publisher, surely as swamped and fickle as its TV brethren, don’t spike it.