LORNE MICHAELS put spaces between his words that weren't normally there. "I . . . was . . . sort . . . of . . . canceled," he said, the last of those words uttered with the most difficulty. It was the week that NBC axed "The New Show," Michaels' first network series since whirlwindedly creating and producing the original "Saturday Night Live." He was suffering the first major commercial failure of his professional television life.
Failure it was, a temptation the Nielsen families resisted in aching numbers and, to judge from some newspaper reviews, no succes d'estime either. But "The New Show" was more interesting in failure than almost any of the season's so-so hits were in success. And the fact that it failed has discouraging implications for prime-time network TV and for television in general.
When it comes to prime time, most implications tend to be discouraging. But coming off Michaels' success with "Saturday Night Live," which carved out new marketable territory for network TV and, more important, attracted back to television a segment of the audience that had abandoned it, the crash of "The New Show" bodes naught but ill. It suggests the prime-time spectrum is even narrower than was previously thought and even less hospitable to variations from a rigidly routinized norm.
The cancellation of "The New Show" is more significant than the cancellation of any of the many formula shows introduced and canceled during the TV season now concluded. More good would come of "The New Show" if it had succeeded, and more bad may come of its cancellation. It was not a great show. It may be a great loss.
Thus the question of why it failed and what its failure means is more complicated and more depressing than is the case with the standard network flop. Failure is more common in television now than it used to be; it is also more rapid. Michaels expected NBC to stay with "The New Show" for 13 weeks, but the program was canceled after its ninth outing, on March 23. Indeed, Michaels says, the towel was poised for throwing-in after opening night.
"After the first show was when all the panic set in, and it was just unbelievable," Michaels says now from his office on Broadway. "When anything isn't working in television, boy, do you hear a lot of opinions." By the time the series was over, Michaels' Above Average Productions company ("Where Art and Entertainment Meet"), which produced it, had lost $1 million--less than the $3 million Michaels at one dire point predicted--and Michaels was suffering shellshock from his experiences in hardball television.
There are new demons now, or at least old demons with larger horns and pitchforks, and Michaels had to wrestle them. One is the accelerated pace of the ratings race and the access by network executives to more instantaneous ratings information than ever. Another is the network version of Bottom Line Fever, a stifling new intransigence by those who control network purse strings and facilities.
"The business affairs office is running the network, and there's a total adversarial relationship with the producers now," Michaels says. "They were unrelenting. We couldn't get a break on anything. NBC has had record profits the past couple of years, and that's why. Cost-cutting. It's a bottom-line thing. The whole country's that way now. I kept thinking, 'They're not doing this to me, this isn't happening to me,' but they were, and it was.
"I kept wanting to scream at them like a child but I didn't. I'm 39. I can't do that any more."
Michaels says that among measures suggested to him by NBC accountants was that his program be done in front of a curtain to save on production costs.
"The New Show" was a comedy-variety program with a core ensemble cast, though one only beginning to jell when the show was canceled, and various guest hosts. It premiered Jan. 6 with Steve Martin as host, and the first thing viewers saw was a wittily accurate satire of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video with Martin as Jackson. The premiere was uneven but showed provocative and promising potential.
But Monday morning's national Nielsens revealed the program earned a paltry 9.7 rating and 16 share, far lower than is considered acceptable. On its last airing, "The New Show" earned a 7.0/12, not much better than prime-time documentaries get. It averaged a poor 16 share during its three months on TV. Consistently, however, "New Show" had no lead-in support from programs that preceded it on Friday nights. The lead-in on opening night was "The Jerk, Too," one of the lowest-rated TV movies of the season.
Complaints from producers about poor lead-ins and lack of network support are common. Michaels is not indulging in that kind of grumbling. He says by and large that he does not have major quarrels with such network executives as Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment. But from before the beginning, Michaels had to make adjustments that thwarted and frustrated him.
Michaels wanted to do the show live, but NBC studio 8-H in New York was reserved for the second generation of "Saturday Night Live," and so Michaels was forced not only to tape his show a day or two in advance but to tape it at rented CBS facilities on West 57th Street, where technicians and crew were totally unaccustomed to putting out an entertainment show. Cost overruns and production calamities were such that Michaels finally worked out a deal, after the third "New Show" aired, to use 8-H for taping on Tuesday nights, clearing out in time for the "Saturday Night Live" rehearsals.
When Michaels produced "Saturday Night Live," he recalled this week, a prime-time program always took precedence over a late-night program. But now "Saturday Night Live" was an established hit (of course it was Michaels who established it) and the business affairs office would not give "The New Show" preference in allotting studio space. It was one sign that Michaels was in part a victim of his own past success.
The time slot Michaels wanted for the progam was 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, but Tartikoff couldn't give it to him ("St. Elsewhere," a long-running flop from MTM Productions, occupied the period). During the run of "New Show," it was suggested to Michaels that he move to 8 p.m. Fridays, but Michaels says he was having enough trouble with network Standards and Practices (the censor) at 10 p.m. At 8, things would only be more restrictive.
From Burbank, Tartikoff, who is probably TV's most highly regarded programmer even though his network finishes third in prime time every year, says the 10 p.m. slot was part of "The New Show's" undoing.
"Since it played at 10 o'clock, patience with it was less than it would have been at 8 because of the lead-in situation with affiliates," Tartikoff says. Affiliates want a strong 10 p.m. lead-in for their 11 p.m. local news shows, key sources of revenue. "The same body of affiliates who made a helluva living off 'Saturday Night Live' and Lorne Michaels were now screaming for his head," Tartikoff recalls.
Michaels says his "only anger" with Tartikoff is over the way the program was canceled. Before the ninth show aired, Tartikoff suggested a hiatus as an alternative to the big sleep with additional taped "New Shows" to air later in the season. He told Michaels to think it over. But the next morning, Michaels learned that "SNL" executive producer Dick Ebersol had made overtures to two members of "The New Show" staff. "In effect, we learned we were canceled from Dick Ebersol," Michaels says. "I've never felt as bad or as used as I was then.
"If you're a pro, you win or you lose, and you accept that. 'The New Show' was a loss, no question about it, but the cancellation could have been done with a bit more class. NBC loves to think of itself as this 'home for the creative artist,' but it's really just another network run by its sales department."
Michaels also says he holds no grudge against Tartikoff. "He was great throughout the whole thing. He tried real hard." He does not feel so fondly toward NBC Chairman Grant Tinker, who, he suggests, has instituted the drastic cost-cutting measures that were part of "The New Show's" albatross. "I didn't hear from Grant Tinker once, not before the show went on, while it was on, or after it was canceled," Michaels says. "Not a letter, not a visit, not a phone call. The sad thing is, I think that's standard."
Tartikoff has his own explanations for the failure of "The New Show." He concedes one of them is a network problem; that "New Show" was heir to "the September train wreck of the fall schedule" that he installed. It brought NBC low ratings and led to massive cancellations. But there are reasons peculiar to "The New Show" itself, Tartikoff thinks.
"There were two sets of circumstances that made 'The New Show' travel the path it did and ultimately led to its cancellation," says Tartikoff, who discusses television with more candor and intelligence than most network executives. "One is that Lorne was overly hung up with the ghost of 'Saturday Night Live' and went out of his way not to do things that could be compared with the old show whether favorably or unfavorably." Tartikoff says it was "Lorne's decision to stay out of the building," meaning NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters and studios, so as to keep from running into Ebersol and reminders of "Saturday Night Live."
Michaels says, "If I hadn't been bending over so far backwards not to copy myself, I would have had an easier time of it." Last year, while planning the program, Michaels said, "I would prefer this to be my third series, not my second. It's the worst position to be in. If I try to put any new, talented people on the show, people will say, 'She's not as funny as Gilda Radner,' or 'He's not as good as John Belushi.'"
In fact Michaels was slowly assembling a new group of repertory players. A revised "New Show" titles sequence was to include their faces in the opening graphics. That opening was to debut on the tenth show. It was never produced.
Tartikoff also says that Michaels promised him "a revolving door of celebrities--Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Carrie Fisher, Teri Garr, etc., etc. A lot of those names turned up but never in the kind of numbers to have sufficient marquee value for a network TV show."
Michaels replies, "You can take all the big stars in the world and put them in a show and not get ratings. The nature of that kind of variety show doesn't work any more. Brandon can name 10 'stars' I've never heard of. Erik Estrada in a comedy sketch is not what I like to do. That's the old form and as low as comedy got on television, when you had stars who don't do comedy dropped into comedy sketches. It's not what I wanted to do.
"Television is the one medium, because of its repetition value, that can produce stars today. In the old days Henry Fonda and people like that made three or four movies a year. They don't make them that fast any more. By stars I'm talking about the kind of stars that grew out of the 'Mary Tyler Moore Show.' Most of them are still TV stars. Even Gavin MacLeod. That was what I hoped to do. That was my mandate."
Michaels recalls that before "Saturday Night Live" first went on the air, former programming chief Marvin Antonowky, now no longer with NBC, suggested as "stars" for the premiere show Rich Little and the Marine Marching Band. This was not quite the bill of fare for the youthful audience at which Michaels was aiming.
Beyond all the technical problems that crippled it, the network bungling that thwarted it, and Michaels' own difficulties in dealing with the specter of his sensational "Saturday Night Live" success, there must be deeper reasons why "The New Show" not only failed to catch on, but failed so dramatically to capture attention. It is almost as if the program had never existed, as if it were televised in a Twilight Zone of its own.
Allen Rucker, one-time producer of "SCTV Comedy Network" and a founding father of the pioneering TVTV documentary group, now works in comedy development at Universal Studios. He was asked why, from his vantage point, "The New Show" failed.
"It just didn't seem to have a place in anyone's life," Rucker said from his office at Universal. "That's why it didn't work. 'Saturday Night Live' did have a place. It was an extension of the humor the young audience had learned to love from the National Lampoon or Mad Magazine or wherever. 'The New Show' seemed old; it didn't seem new. It seemed like a bunch of old guys. It fell through cracks of some kind. It fit in the time of the '70s and was completely out of place in the '80s."
Such thoughts have occurred to Michaels as well.
"Maybe we're all just '70s people," he says. " 'It looked too '70s'--that was the perception that was passed on to me a lot after the first show." Michaels is very conscious of having grown older and aware that television now caters to an audience that seems to have grown younger. "The worst part," he notes, "is when you're sitting at a meeting of network executives and they refer to 'the kids' and you realize they aren't talking about you any more."
Two of the most innovative producers in modern network television, Lorne Michaels and Norman Lear, both had prime-time flops this season (Lear's was "a.k.a. Pablo" on ABC). Are things moving so fast and so relentlessly in television that such men are now out of the running? Tartikoff says, "It would be a great mistake to say Lorne Michaels and Norman Lear are not the horses to bet on any more. If I were a financier, I would back either one of them in a minute."
In Michaels' case, there is now some tarnish on a golden boy. But Michaels is no less brilliant than he used to be. He is still among the minority of producers in network TV with respect for the medium, respect for the audience, and an eagerness to innovate in substantive ways. A case could be made that television failed Michaels more than Michaels failed television. He warmed TV up with "Saturday Night Live" but there is the possibility that TV now, at least prime time, is too cold to be warmed. There aren't many words that can be used to sway executives who speak in numbers.
"I thought 'The New Show' would be The Next Step," says Michaels. "I liked 'The New Show' and thought it was getting better. I have no regrets on it. There's a lot of work in there that I'm proud of. I'm too young to stop working. I'd like to work in television again. I don't know what it will be just now, but I hope it will be a real big hit.
"If not," he says with some sarcasm, "I'll still get into the Hall of Fame for 'Saturday Night Live.' "