NBC’s The Playboy Club and Prime Suspect and ABC’s Charlie’s Angels had two things in common going into this fall. Highly recognizable titles, for once, as they all were based on famous brands. And they all got on the air after 2 consecutive rounds of development. Now they share something else: they all launched to disappointingly low ratings and are staring down the cancellation barrel. How did that happen?
Just a month ago, things were looking up for the 3 series. Besides pre-sold titles, all were backed by extensive promotional campaigns and all had a strong marketing hook. For Playboy Club, it was the Playboy empire which threw its support by hosting pre-launch parties at the Playboy mansion and doing a special cover of Playboy magazine promoting the show’s launch. For Charlie’s Angels, it was Drew Barrymore’s involvement as an executive producer. (She even appeared as a presenter at the Emmys alongside the series’ stars.) Prime Suspect had a well-known film actress, Maria Bello, as the lead. Additionally, in their road to the screen, all 3 drams seemed to follow the successful formula of CBS’s Hawaii Five-0. CBS originally put the reboot of the classic procedural in development during the 2008-09 development season with Ed Bernero as the writer. The project didn’t go to pilot, and the following season, CBS tried again with new writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Peter Lenkov. The script sailed through the pilot stage and the show landed on CBS’ 2010 fall schedule.
Similarly, Playboy Club, Charlie’s Angels and Prime Suspect were originally developed during the 2009-10 season with different writers: Charlie’s Angels was written by Josh Friedman, Prime Suspect by Hank Steinberg and Playboy (then Bunny Tales) by Becky Mode. None of them went to pilot but, just like CBS did with Hawaii Five-0 the year before, ABC and NBC took a second stab at the 3 concepts the following season with new writers. Al Gough and Miles Millar were tapped to write a new Charlie’s Angels script, Alexandra Cunningham to pen Prime Suspect and Chad Hodge to write Playboy. And like Hawaii Five-0, Charlie’s Angels, Playboy Club and Prime Suspect sailed though the pilot stage in their second try, landing on the fall schedules. But then the three new shows’ path took a different turn. When it launched last fall, Hawaii Five-0 did solid business and a few months later, the series sealed a lucrative off-network syndication sale. Meanwhile, Playboy Club, Charlie’s Angeles and Prime Suspect drew an underwhelming 1.3, 1.5 and 1.5 18-49 rating, respectively, in their second week and are teetering on the verge of cancellation. Only 2 series did worse Monday-Thursday on the Big 4 networks this week, both on NBC: DOA new comedy Free Agents (1.0) and sophomore drama Harry’s Law (1.2). Why didn’t Playboy Club, Charlie’s Angel’s and Prime Suspect work? In short, they all were not very compelling television shows. But there were individual reasons too. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina, successful shows are all alike, every unsuccessful show became a flop its own way.
For Playboy, there was a lack of clarity who the show is for. With a popular mens magazine in the title and the promise of scantly-clad bunnies, the series seemed to be targeting men. But it was at its core a female soap. The confusion with its mixed identity was clearly visible in the pilot, which looked like a soap, felt like a soap and behaved like one until it suddenly veered into dark territory with a murdered mafia boss’ body being dumped in the river. Having low-rated reality series The Sing-Off as a lead-in didn’t help Playboy Club‘s fortunes, either. But as much as watchdog the Parents Television Council wants to take the credit for the show’s demise, its campaign was hardly a factor. Advertisers abandoned Playboy Club because it was a very low-rated show so it was not worth the aggravation of being berated by the PTC for ads that didn’t get much bang for the buck anyway. Had Playboy been a hit, it was doubtful that any advertisers would’ve left the show which hardly features any nudity or particularly racy content. (Which some say it should’ve featured and aired on cable instead of broadcast.) Playboy Club also suffered from comparisons to the other new drama series set in the 1960s, ABC’s Pan Am, which looked more eye-catching and glossy, had a feature star as the lead, Christina Ricci, and had ABC’s marketing machine at full-throttle. That’s not to say that NBC didn’t support Playboy Club, it just seems that ABC pulled all the stops in promoting Pan Am, starting with an elaborate stint at Comic-Con.
Charlie’s Angels too was at Comic-Con where it held a screening, something that may have actually hurt the show as the Charlie’s Angels reboot suffered mostly from bad word of mouth and pretty abysmal reviews that trashed the show’s writing, directing and acting. The main gripe about the remake was that it took itself too seriously which may have worked for the original 30 years ago but today it came through as stiff and comical for the wrong reasons. The campy route the 2000 movie remake starring Barrymore took may have worked better.
As for Prime Suspect, the consensus is that it looks a lot less like the original British series and a more like another Law & Order show. Indeed, Bello’s Jane Timoney character is not dissimilar to Law & Order: SVU‘s Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson. In its defense, the remake was limited by being on an U.S. broadcast network. A full-blown version of Helen Mirren’s deeply flawed character with all her demons and addictions probably belonged on Showtime, not on NBC. Additionally, it seemed like we’ve seen the premise on U.S. television before — with Kyra Sedgwick’s character at the center, TNT’s The Closer has been widely referred to as the unofficial American version of Prime Suspect, especially early in its run. Still, word is that NBC’s chief Bob Greenblatt is willing to give the struggling show, which got mostly positive reviews, a bit more time.
It is too soon to assess any long-term effect from the demise of 3 high-profile series with pre-sold titles in a single fall season. But for now, it seems like the broadcast networks are scaling back on high-profile series remakes and brand exploitations for next season, with only a handful of such shows in the works, including CBS’ Bewitched reboot and 2 Beauty and the Beast projects: a remake of the 1980s series at the CW and a retelling of the classic fairytale at ABC.