BLOGS

Can Satellite TV Save Friday Night Lights?

Friday Night Lights fans couldn't ask for more. Just as the show's second-season DVD set hits shelves this week (at the bargain list price of $30), the ratings-challenged fave also gets saved from extinction: NBC, home of the first two seasons, strikes a deal with DirecTV to split the improbable third go-round starting this fall.

Of course, Passions fans couldn't have asked for more, either, when the same two entities found a way to keep their soap alive last year. Right after NBC dropped it last September, DirecTV picked up fresh episodes, and all was happy. For awhile. Then the satellite company also found continuing Passions unworkable, trimming it from four days a week to three, and finally announcing it, too, will give up the ghost (literally, in the case of this supernatural soap) in August.

So what does this mean for Friday Night Lights fans? Probably we shouldn't bet on too long a life for our beloved small-town Texas clan-and-community saga. It isn't only the lack of passion for Passions. We've seen the same dearth of support shake the foundations of Jericho after its cancellation reprieve. Despite last summer's loud fan campaign (peanuts to CBS programmers!), and despite promises by devotees to rally new viewers to the renewal, the ratings for the seven second-season Jericho episodes this midseason were disappointing. Yes, you could argue CBS scheduled the show badly (10 PM, when it had previously aired at 8). Or that the penny-pinching return lacked loads of the characters, action and sweep of the post-nuke saga's first season.

But you couldn't argue with the evidence that people who didn't watch it in the first place didn't try it in the second place, either. That's the likely scenario for Friday Night Lights, with viewers who've done without it for two seasons figuring they can't or don't want to jump in with the third.

Of course, maybe the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights has something else to recommend its continuance -- affluent viewers. It's the second most "upscale" series (behind The Office), reports The New York Times, which makes it the broadcast networks' strongest drama in well-to-do homes. Advertisers like to reach people with lots of money. So do satellite TV companies.

And so do DVD distributors. Friday Night Lights is owned by NBC (as was Passions), and produced by its Universal studio subsidiary. Continued airings are like continuing ads for the Universal DVD sets, not to mention the repeats on digital cable's Universal HD channel, web streams on the NBC-partnership video site Hulu.com, and rabid-fan traffic to NBC.com. Synergy, my friends -- that's the name of the digital age game.

But the pre-digital history of prime time television doesn't bode well for Friday Night Lights enduring in its network form. Few shows "rescued" from cancellation during the past five decades have lasted long. Cagney & Lacey in the 1980s was an exception, uncancelled early in its run thanks to producers' savvy in generating viewer activism in the snail-mail age. (Fans writing stamped letters! What an effort!) More usually, shows that get a death-row reprieve or a pickup by another network are soon to expire anyway -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from The WB to UPN (which was about to expire itself), Family Matters from ABC to a final limping season on CBS, ditto '60s fave Get Smart from NBC to CBS.

The reported possibility of Scrubs shifting from NBC to ABC next season is most likely a way of enabling the cult fave to conclude its run in style after this truncated strike season. That could well be the case for Friday Night Lights, too. Though NBC ordered 22 episodes this year, only 15 got shot pre-strike. That leaves seven scripts ready and waiting. And next season's order is for just 13 episodes. Sound like a fond farewell?

NBC's DirecTV deal calls for the series' third season to debut on the satelliter's original entertainment channel The 101 starting Oct. 1. (A Wednesday, you'll note. Not Friday.) NBC later runs those same episodes for the nation's majority of non-satellite homes starting after the February 2009 Super Bowl. (On Fridays, again, at 9 PM) By then, NBC will need of replacements for the inevitable fall failures, and can promote the show in NFL playoff games, away from the fall-season promo flood.

For all the good it will do. Just ask fans of the Fox casualty Arrested Development. The third(-season) try is not always the charm.

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