Score One for Old Media: Dems' Debate Is the Night's Hit, While Webby 'quarterlife' Shows None

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Over at NBCUniversal 2.0 Tuesday night it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair -- it was the MSNBC telecast of the Democratic presidential candidates' debate, it was the premiere of NBC's too-hip-to-live started-on-MySpace hot-blogger-chicks drama "quarterlife."

Yes, to paraphrase Chuckie D., it was a tale of two networks -- one that stayed on point, the other apparently programmed these days by people with contempt for the business in which they make their living.

Let's start with the best of times, shall we? Over at MSNBC, "The Last Democratic Presidential Candidates Standing Debate," starring Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, Brian Williams and Tim Russert, became the cable news network's most watched program -- ever, copping nearly 8 million viewers.

The debate ran from 9 to 10:36 p.m. From 9 to 10 it was second only to Fox's "American Idol" and returning sitcom "Back to You." In the 10 o'clock hour, when Fox turns over its airwaves to its local stations so they can scare the pants off viewers with breaking local news about toxic mattresses and sex slaves, the final 36 minutes of the debate and first 24 minutes of "The Post-Debate Navel-Lint-Picking Show," starring Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, ranked No. 1 in all of television. (The full "Post-Debate Navel-Lint-Picking Show" ran until midnight and logged an impressive 4 million viewers.)

MSNBC's debate coverage was the third most watched this election season, trailing only the ABC Democratic presidential debate last month and CNN's Hollywood debate earlier this month.

MSNBC's numbers were helped along a bit by the fact that, in Ohio, the NBC-affiliated broadcast TV stations preempted NBC programming to carry MSNBC's debate telecast. WKYC in Cleveland was one of the debate sponsors, and NBC News arranged for the other NBC stations in the state to be able to carry it also.

(The debate was so hot in Ohio it actually trounced "American Idol," even though with three months still to go in the singing competition, David Archuleta practically wrapped up a win with his voice-of-an-angel rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine," causing judge Paula Abdul to rant about wanting to squeeze his head until it came off and dangle his body from her rearview mirror. Seriously, people, I'm not making this stuff up.)

This, sadly, brings us to the worst of times, NBC's premiere of its bold experiment in trans-platform cross-pollination, "quarterlife."

NBC's buy of "quarterlife" was covered breathlessly in the trades back in November. Producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick -- you may remember them as the guys who created "thirtysomething" a million years ago -- had developed this show for ABC. But ABC passed, so the two men carved up the episodes into mini-sodes and debuted it on MySpace, which suddenly made it "new-media" hot, instead of "un-greenlit series on old media" cold. And then NBC bought the broadcast rights and the trades marveled that Herskovitz and Zwick had managed to retain ownership rights on what was to become a genuine network series while NBC announced it was a great opportunity to snag a "scripted series with an online following" during the writers' strike, as trade publication Hollywood Reporter put it.

In its much-ballyhooed NBC unveiling Tuesday night at 10, "quarterlife" clocked just 3.1 million viewers, finishing in the time slot behind not only ABC and CBS but also behind its own MSNBC.

On the bright side, "quarterlife" with its 3.1 million viewers did manage to beat the show it replaced, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," by 100,000 viewers. "L&O: SVU" was telecast on USA and logged 3 million viewers.

"Quarterlife" was the 17th most watched show of the night, behind:

¿ Fox's "American Idol"

¿ Fox's "Back to You"

¿ CBS's "NCIS" rerun

¿ MSNBC's candidates' debate

¿ ABC's "Primetime"

¿ NBC's "Biggest Loser"

¿ CBS's "Jericho"

¿ MSNBC's "Post-Debate Navel-Lint-Picking Show"

¿ CBS's "Big Brother"

¿ Univision's "Al Diablo con los Guapos"

¿ ABC's "Just for Laughs"

¿ ABC's "According to Jim"

¿ ABC's "Just for Laughs" repeat

¿ Univision's "Pasi¿n"

¿ ABC's "Carpoolers"


¿ CW's "One Tree Hill"

But, of course, since it hails from MySpace, NBC expected "quarterlife" to target younger viewers. Sadly, "Law & Order: SVU" beat "quarterlife" among teens. So did Oxygen's "Bad Girls." MSNBC's debate and post-debate coverage tied "quarterlife" among teens in the hour.

At press time, NBC had not put out any statement to the effect that "quarterlife" was no more. But the Hollywood Reporter, citing "sources," said the series probably would join an elite group of broadcast series so bad they were canceled after just one episode.

NBC Co-Chairman Ben Silverman -- whose likes the broadcast TV industry has not seen in ages, according to Ben Silverman -- hinted "quarterlife" had been tossed on the tumbrel and was on its way to the scheduling guillotine, telling THR the series was "so worth the try."

Silverman explained that's because the Web site traffic "went up a huge amount." And, of course, "we continue to try new things and new models."

"It's very inexpensive but we hoped for higher ratings," he said.

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