Ratings Were Peanuts, Too

Skeet Ulrich, left, and Esai Morales, center, on the now-canceled series.
Skeet Ulrich, left, and Esai Morales, center, on the now-canceled series. (By Cliff Lipson -- Cbs)
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By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, March 22, 2008

Seven more episodes and 20 tons of peanuts later, CBS once again has nuked its low-rated apocalyptic survivalist series, "Jericho," and, once again, we've been reminded the threshold for success in broadcast TV is very much higher than the threshold for success in other pursuits -- including online nut sales.

The March 25 episode will be the series finale, the network said. Producers had shot two endings to this season's seven-episode order. One is a cliffhanger, the other not so much. CBS will air the latter.

One month ago, on the day of the show's improbable second-season return, CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler sent a message to its fans (who, I'm sorry to report, call themselves "Jericho Rangers"), telling them that "at long last, the night we've all been waiting for has arrived" and urging them to strong-arm everyone they know to "turn out in full force" and watch the show.

Sadly, they did not. In fact, while the Jericho Rangers are extremely good at buying peanuts, they proved completely inept at recruiting new Rangers. This season's audience was even smaller than last season's, which was so small it caused CBS to cancel the show in the first place.

How bad were the numbers? This week's episode was watched by a mere 5.7 million viewers. Even factoring in the 1 million-ish people who were said to be watching the show later, via DVR or on the Internet, that's still not up to the 7.7 million who'd caught last season's finale. And that was such a comedown from the show's premiere crowd of nearly 12 million, CBS decided to whack the show. Which made perfect sense, given that the only CBS series less interesting to viewers than "Jericho" last season were either Saturday night filler/rerun material ("Crimetime After Primetime," "48 Hours Mystery," etc.) or canceled ("The Class," "3 lbs.," and who can forget "Armed & Famous"?).

"Without question there are passionate viewers watching this program; we simply wish there were more," the network said yesterday in a cautiously worded, pre-batten-down-the-hatches statement e-mailed to reporters.

The numbers were particularly disappointing given that CBS had scheduled the show toward the end of the writers' strike, and thus it had faced no real competition in its time period.

CBS's stab at a serialized the-end-is-near drama starred Skeet Ulrich as Jake Green, a resident of Jericho, a peaceful Kansas town (despite the presence of notorious troublemaker Gerald McRaney) plunged into mayhem when one day the residents were suddenly able to see the Rocky Mountains -- no small feat from that distance -- and a nuclear mushroom cloud hovering over them.

In what turned out to be the finale for just the first season, Green borrowed the famous WWII nose-thumbing line -- "Nuts" -- delivered by the acting commander of the 101st Airborne when the Germans demanded that U.S. troops surrender at the Battle of Bastogne. Jake was responding to a demand for surrender from residents of another formerly peaceful town down the road a spell.

Last May, when CBS unveiled its "Jericho"-free prime-time schedule to advertisers at Carnegie Hall, angry Rangers began sending bags of nuts to network suits. Some Ranger discovered NutsOnline, and they got organized.

According to NutsOnline's Web site, 40,377 pounds of peanuts were shipped to CBS in Los Angeles and New York. That's about 8 million peanuts. (Sadly, more peanuts than viewers.) CBS execs were impressed; CEO Leslie Moonves told participants at a conference the campaign to save "Jericho" had reached "Touched by an Angel" proportions -- and that was saying something.

In addition to the 20 tons of peanuts, some 30,000 protest e-mails were sent in just the first week after CBS acknowledged "Jericho" had been scrapped.

The news media went berserk, taking only a short break from their wall-to-wall "Jericho" peanuts coverage to report the canning of NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly. Feature stories were written about why peanuts were a more effective tool for the resuscitation of dead shows than bottles of Tabasco sauce (favored by teen aliens -- the outer space kind), which had been sent to WB suits to try to save "Roswell," or the rented-Ferris-wheel strategy employed by "Everwood" fanatics to try to persuade CW chief Dawn Ostroff to save that show.

Editorials were written about the hazards of using words like "canceled" when talking about a series targeting people obsessed with apocalypse themes. Profiles were written about the guy who heads NutsOnline -- the real winner in this story.

Late yesterday, bloggers once again were complaining about CBS's treatment of "Jericho" -- bad time slot, blah, blah, blah. Some were trying to mount another campaign, this time to send "Don't Tread on Me" flags to CBS. Others had instead suggested launching another peanut-sending campaign. Only this time they would send them to executives at Sci Fi Channel (who have our deepest sympathy); they had already picked up reruns of the first season of "Jericho.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company