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Mr. TV: On the Bubble

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With just two weeks to go before the broadcast networks unveil their fall 2009 lineups, I thought I would once again stick my nose into their business and follow up last week’s column with more suggestions on what to do with the various “on the fence” series.

Let me immediately begin by begging the networks to put According to Jim  and Scrubs (both on ABC) and My Name is Earl (NBC) out of their respective miseries. If Fox, as rumored, is serious about keeping Earl alive, note to programming chief Kevin Reilly: Most shows that switch networks don’t succeed. Scrubs is just the latest example.

I commend ABC for exercising patience. This is the network, after all, that gave second-season renewals to low-rated freshman dramas Eli Stone, What About Brian and October Road. That said, there is every reason to believe that one of its recently introduced scripted hours—Castle, Cupid and The Unusuals—will land a pick-up. But since Cupid in 1998-99 did not work and Castle is just plain bland, I would give the nod to unique-looking The Unusuals. Something this quirky is never an easy sell. But then again, neither was the also-unusual Hill Street Blues, which was in the same boat when it first launched back in 1981.

It is important, of course, to pepper your lineup with returning shows. But ABC should wipe its comedy slate clean, and that includes sophomore Samantha Who?, which cannot survive without the support of former lead-in Dancing With the Stars.

CBS has publicly stated that the returns of the older-skewing Cold Case and Without a Trace are in question. If the net would realize the potential value of the 50-plus crowd (no network does), these still-potent players wouldn’t be question marks. Also on the bubble on CBS are dramas Numb3rs, The Unit, Eleventh Hour and Flashpoint, and comedies The New Adventures of Old Christine, Rules of Engagement and Gary Unmarried. Old Christine needs another season’s worth of episodes for off-net syndication, so a pick-up is probable. And Numb3rs on Friday is still winning the 10 p.m. hour on the HUT-challenged evening. But with few holes on the schedule, it will be an uphill battle for renewal elsewhere. When a show is fighting for survival, sometimes it pays to be on a weaker network.

NBC will probably be handing out more pink skips because of Jay Leno inheriting almost one-quarter of its schedule. While I am well aware granddaddy Law & Order will tie Gunsmoke’s record as the longest-running scripted drama in the history of TV next season, it really is time for this fossil to call it quits. Heroes will be back, but for fewer episodes, and lead-out Medium is also vying for a spot. Although Heroes also needs more episodes for off-net syndication, the show is collapsing and few people watch serialized dramas in repeats.  So, just let it go, NBC. And I would do the same with Medium, which already has plenty of episodes for syndication.

With former Will & Grace star Debra Messing waiting in the wings with a new comedy, NBC may also want to give up on Amy Poehler’s recently introduced Parks and Recreation. The premise is limited, the ratings are sinking and, well, the show just isn’t that funny.

Over at Fox, the network brass was wise to end the run four-year old Prison Break (which concludes on May 15), but issuing a renewal months ago for MIA sitcom ’Til Death for the sake of its future off-net run was an unfortunate call. If viewers don’t watch on the network, why will they in syndication? While Joss Whedon’s involvement in recently introduced drama Dollhouse gives it a glimmer of hope, this will never be anything more than a fave for a small core of fans. And recent Friday occupant Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles also needs to bid adieu.

The CW, of course, has a lot of work to do. And the only way it can move forward is to get rid of dead wood like Reaper, Everybody Hates Chris and The Game. Although fall starter Privileged was anything but in the ratings, it may be worth bringing back to inject some potential interest in either deadly dull Friday or Sunday. Considering Privileged ended last February with a cliff-hanger, viewers (few as they may be) are entitled to some resolution.
And so are some of these on-the-fence series.   

Do you agree or disagree with Mr. TV? Please e-mail mberman@mediaweek.com and let him know if you would like your response published in an upcoming issue.