Murder by the Numbers
Copyright© 2014 by Stultus
Halloween Horror Story: Chapter 1 - A respected TV ratings analyst discovers that a secret he has been protecting for most of his lifetime is in great danger of being prime-time peril. Can a semi-mythical children's cartoon really be a catalyst for pure evil instead? And what would the overnight ratings be for the start of the end of the world? Stay tuned...
Well, Virgin Wilderness finally premiered last night ... and in a modern network record for a new primetime TV network show it was officially cancelled less than two hours later. And good riddance!
Even for a 9pm Friday night show the expectations for the pilot episode hadn't been high and Friday evenings have never been a good place for any show that a network has had high future aspirations for. Still, it was remarkable to even pretty outright astounding that the network executives had read their tea leaves this quickly ... and accurately. Without even waiting upon the overnight ratings, let alone any Live+3, L+7D or even C3 statistics, they yanked the cord ... and fast.
Did I mention good riddance?
As a very highly respected professional TV rating analyst and critic, I usually receive advance DVD 'screeners' well in advance for all of the new pilot network shows, but I didn't receive one for Virgin Wilderness. Neither did any other television critic that I know of. This alone was a pretty fair warning that the show was likely to be a steaming turd, but fortunately I had made a few quiet phone calls and tracked down a copy to preview a few days before the official premiere on Friday night. I watched it twice, with growing disbelief that the network programming directors didn't have some moldy old rerun of a stupid sitcom that wouldn't have rated higher than this colossal waste of advertising airspace. Trust me; I know everything there is to know about TV ratings.
I've been working in the television ratings business for about fifteen years now and for the last ten years or so I've been the co-owner/operator of tvratings.com. We're the largest and most influential independent television ratings and network programming news web site on the web and I'm the statistics guru. I take the raw Nielsen numbers, adjust for DVR recording and viewing three days or a week later (D+3/7), resolve any C3 variance (did the viewer watch or fast forward the recorded commercials), and assess the social media 'hotness' of a show to determine what a show's true index value or final adjusted rating is. I'm pretty good at this and my predictions for whether or not a show will be either cancelled or renewed are over 95% accurate. It would be closer to 99% except Fox network tends handle it's cancel/renew decisions almost randomly, often with very little if any logic or rational justification. Still, that's a pretty decent track record.
So, on the basis of my professional judgment, Virgin Wilderness had to rank among the top 25 worst TV shows of all time. Perhaps even the top ten ... and I said as much in my weekly personal blog column, posted up online Friday night at 10:03pm, mere minutes after the pilot episode was over. No, I didn't hold back much on my personal and professional option that this new show ranked as a Zero, a stinky owl pellet. Pure crap. It was a shame really, because I'd originally been rather optimistic about this production after viewing the first tentative pilot episode about a year ago. But in life things tend to change ... and usually for the worst
Wilderness Rangers was something of a delightful surprise when I received the first demo screener of the original pilot episode early last fall. As conceived, the show was about a pair of inexperienced but clever state park rangers facing dangers and solving crises with inadequate experience and few if any resources. It was being developed as a tentative replacement series for the spring and even then it showed signs of hasty production and an inadequate budget ... but it had something going for it. It was a show that clearly was trying to do too many things at once; having enough action and suspense to hold a male audience but just enough hints of romance to attract the female audience as well.
Oddly it worked. The real attraction of the show (pun very much intended) was the obvious genuine smoldering sexual chemistry between the male and female leads. You could just tell that they were undressing each other with their eyes in every scene that they were together. You can't force sexual chemistry ... the lead's either have it or they don't. These kids did ... and I wanted to see more of it! Ok, the rest of the show needed some tweaking, but in my opinion it was well worth fixing. And in several blog posts last winter and spring I championed the show, even expressing my own professi0nal opinion that the show would be an excellent fit for that network's weak existing Sunday night rotation of largely female-centric shows.
Spring became summer repeat season and Wilderness Rangers remained lost in network limbo. Doing some followup I'd heard via some very off the record rumors that a second and even a third pilot for the series had been filmed, each with an entirely new cast, director and production crew. Not to mention massive radical script rewrites. Because it was being produced by an independent production company it suffered from a 'not created here' mentality right from the start and by the time some major budget hassles had been straightened out many months later, the original leads were unavailable, signed to other productions. This latest pilot screener, now called Virgin Wilderness, bore absolutely no resemblance to the original one, and now I hinted as rather loudly as I dared that this new freshman drama ought to be instead strangled in its cradle and left unbroadcasted.
I usually have a firm rule of never commenting upon a new TV series for at least two full weeks after its premiere. That's just politeness to the networks mostly – not shitting too much where you eat. Besides, it sometimes takes a new show awhile to find itself. The cast might need several episodes just to begin to 'find their characters'. Many shows just start off a little rough and need a bit of polishing, and some of them get it. Others, right from the start are obviously nothing but dead mouse pellets straight from the Renewal Owl's ass.
So, I restrained myself and didn't hit the Send button to upload my caustic review until I was sure that the pilot broadcast was over and the local nightly news had begun. That was all the 'wait and see' time that this turd deserved. In my review, I had even fabricated the rules for a drinking game to play in the unlikely event that the show ever enjoyed any future episode airings.
· The lead female ranger says, "Oh!" = Take a drink. By my official count this was at least fourteen times in the pilot episode alone. The fact that the new lead actress for the series appeared to be a complete and total tree-hugging airhead was probably the single worst thing that made the show unwatchable. Her IQ might have been about room temperature and her acting ability was strictly community college level ... but she was blonde and had impressively big tits that strained the top buttons of her tightly cut ranger's shirt. She'd have made for a passable co-star just for the eye candy ... assuming the writers gave her as few speaking lines as was possible.
· The lead male ranger says, "Damn, there's no cell reception/road/helicopter access in that part of the park!" = Take two drinks. We got the idea the first time but they repeated this mantra ad nausium the entire program. They're in the back-ass part of Nowhere and surrounded by rabid mountain lions and carnivorous bears waiting to chow down on lost hikers like picnic baskets. The worst part was his deliberately slow punctuated line delivery, ala a graduate of the Ricardo Montalban School of Fine Acting. Casting wise, the kid was obviously a SoCal beach boy hired for the role on the basis of his massive pectorals and biceps alone and it was utterly laughable that his character could McGyver his way out a paper bag, let alone fix a broken jeep or rescue helicopter with a wad of chewing gum week after week.
· Any time either the male or female co-stars blatantly ogle the asses or tits of the lead actor or actress = Take another drink, but get ready to have another soon. Sorry, I was already hammered by this point and pretty much lost count. In truth, there was a good deal of obvious sexual attraction between the cast... all of it unfortunately rather homosexual. The male costar, a wilderness rescue expert (or so purported to be) only had about four speaking lines, so he spent the remainder of his onscreen time obviously checking out the ass of the lead actor with a distinctly visible hard-on bulging out the front of his trousers. As for the female costar, during her onscreen moments her eyes appear to be locked upon the ample tits of the lead actress. She might have been bisexual and willing to give one of the cocks a go, but probably only as a threesome with her girlfriend.
· Any locker room/shower scene with male open shirt or bare ass = Finish the rest of the bottle. For some reason it was very important in the storyline for the male actors to change their shirts and display their overly muscular bare shaved chests several times during the 42 minute long episode. One locker room sequence briefly depicted the male lead while obviously nude except wearing for his ranger hat. It was all very overtly Tom of Finland and it couldn't possibly be any more homoerotic without them blatantly exchanging loads of their bro-tein man-chowder.
· Female shower scene bare ass/female full bare back or 49% of their breasts visible – Get a new bottle and some more ice and then change the channel over to Cinemax or the Spice Channel. The female cast had to make do with one longer (and equally plot pointless) shower scene together that involved lots of slowly and tenderly applied soap upon fully bare backs with just the most tantalizing hint of tit and ass in the midst of the steam. Admittedly, this sounds entertaining, but trust me you've seen better and juicer scenes elsewhere. Go rewatch the women's prison movie of your choice instead. There was more than a hint of suggestion that this pair of gals liked to snuggle together closely in bed to keep warm on long cold wintery nights here up north in the back-ass of nowhere, but really it was all pretty tame, especially by 'L Word' historical standards.
· When the ending credits roll ... turn off the TV and make emergency run to liquor store. No, actually please don't ... by this point you'd be far too drunk to drive.
You get the idea. When the only sexual attraction in a show is strictly same sex stuff, at least have the sense to market it as such accordingly. Gay/Lesbian themed shows can be marginally successful ... if properly presented and advance marketed accordingly. If you advertise a show as a conventional romantic drama ... deliver one. Don't spring a low budget backwoods Brokeback Mountain by surprise on them instead. Besides ... this sort of trickiness really, really pisses off the advertisers.
Anyway, this turkey was one and done ... and consigned to history in near record time! Now I could get back to work and worry about other programs instead.
Unfortunately, the goals of network, sponsor, and audience are not the same. The network wants to make money from ads, the sponsors want to reach the audience--and the audience wants to be entertained and wants to avoid the ads altogether. My site tvratings.com attempts to find and hold the middle of this very uneasy triangle. It's impossible to please everyone ... so I just crunch the numbers and tell the truth the way I see it, and it makes us extremely popular with industry and public readers ... and extremely profitable.
Monday through Thursday, my web postings are strictly limited to network ratings analysis. My emphasis is upon the six major broadcast networks but I also cover the bigger cable TV networks and top 100 or so cable programs as well, as time or interest permits. Every day I'll post the raw overnights for the previous evening's shows and update the previous week's data with D+3/7's revisions as I get or can create them. Several major networks (and a dozen different cable networks as well) also contract with us for a somewhat deeper private analysis of the raw and adjusted show ratings as an independent check upon their own in-house analysis'. Often we'll consult with major advertisers as well about what the true C3 numbers are for a show, determining if the program that they're paying prime advertising rates for tends instead to be DVR fodder and watched later ... with the commercials entirely avoided. C3 ratings directly measure commercial (not the program) viewership and are the primary metric advertisers/the networks use to set their rates.
Friday's are lot more fun; that's when I don the hood and feathery cape of my online alter ego, the Renewal Owl. Here on a featured page of our site I host the famous (or infamous) Renewal Watch, where I distill weeks or months of network rating data into a single simple index. Here, after making a few educated assumptions (or wild-ass guesses) I'll wisely prognosticate which shows will either be renewed for another season or else cancelled. I update this index weekly for the fall and spring primetime broadcast schedules and over the last ten years I've had an extremely successful prediction record. Usually I can predict if a new show is going to become an owl pellet within its first month, even if it has already received a second order of episodes for a complete full season. Every network sometimes needs filler (called Spackle) to fill in unexpected cracks and holes in the broadcast schedule. Fox network usually needs entire truckloads of it.
Saturdays are much more eclectic. I'm still working in the office more times than not, but unless there is some serious important number-crunching to be done for a network or advertising client, I'll use this time to get caught up on my email and check all of the online comments posted concerning my columns from earlier in the week. Often, if I have the time or ambition, I'll post up a short blog entry on a semi-random discussion topic about old TV shows or oddities of historical TV ratings, usually something to encourage our readers to post up their own thoughts.
With all of the fuss about the historically fast cancellation of Virgin Wilderness, my topic for today's blog community discussion was an easy one: 'What were the Fastest Ever Network Show Cancellations?' Not to be confused with 'Worst Shows of All Time', although this show might easily have made both lists. Actually quite a few shows had been killed in the past after just the first episode (at least twenty by my count), and I listed a few just to get the conversation stated, but to be killed off by the network in a bit less than two hours after initial broadcast was admittedly pretty hasty.
Anyway, I'd picked a good hot-button topic, and already by late Saturday morning my internet readers were in something of an uproar. Hunched over my laptop while trying to chew on a muffin I found that there were already over eight hundred posted comments, about twice as many as usual. Earlier a regular reader had private messaged me that my posting had already been cross-linked by most of the big webnews aggregate sites, like the front page of Yahoo, MSN, Fark, Reddit and even a minor link from Drudge. This wasn't commonplace for us, but it does occasionally happen and this was sure to bring us a large surge of new traffic today, and probably create a few new regular readers. Just like television ratings - more hits for our front page also means more advertising revenue for us.
Hey, we need to pay our bills too and hosting network previews and teasers for upcoming shows is profitable enough that we needed to hire a fulltime sales and marketing gal, Shirlene, a few years ago just to interface with the network PR flacks. This allowed me to do what I did best, crunch numbers, and for my partner Patrick to do what he does best, which is gather up all of the television industry news, rumor, innuendo or hearsay fit for posting upon our front page. Pat has virtually everyone worth knowing in the television industry in his contact list and you'd be surprised how many VP's and directors of Programming have him on their phone speed-dial. Every year we take in a couple of starving and (mostly) unpaid interns from the local college media program. At the moment, this semester's guy Friday is named Ryan and he's catching on to things around here really fast. In another year or two he'll be using what we've taught him at some network, probably making a pretty decent salary too. That's our entire company, running lean and mean ... and with a crazy obscene profit-sharing check awaiting us at Christmas-time too.
Life was really good in almost every measurable way ... until down near the bottom of the posted comments below my blog story was a reminder that Satan, pitchfork and all, was alive and well on this world. Here is a vastly abbreviated synopsis of that conversation thread:
· What about Bad News Bear? Wasn't that cartoon cancelled before it was ever shown even once on-air?
o No such show. Urban legend ... you're an idiot
§ Another ten or twelve posts concurring that original poster was an idiot
o Nope, Snopes lists Bad News Bear as 'Undecided – Lack of Evidence'.
§ Another five or six posts calling above poster an idiot and linking to old XYZ network rebuttal that such a TV show never ever existed at all.
o Actually, everyone's wrong ... the real show title was Bad News Brawn and the pilot episode might have been shown in some smaller markets sometime in 1993. My brother swears that he'd watched it early some Saturday morning
§ More assorted follow-ups calling poster an idiot
o Are you sure that the show's name wasn't Bad News Brown??? I saw some awful cartoon like this back when I was kid in Iowa
§ Nope, that was the name of a 1980's pro wrestler – Google is your friend
o (lots of debate over the alleged name of the alleged show and its alleged showing(s) or not ensure over the next two hours and nearly 100 more posts on this thread ... until)
o Pretty sure that Brawn was the bear's name in the show, but the title was definitely Bad News Bear. The show was broadcast for sure on the Armed Forces Network Korea in the winter of 93/94. I remember it.
§ (Growing hysteria that poster is misremembering, misguided or misinformed ... and/or an idiot – until her follow-up reply)
§ Yep, remembered it right ... I have the old original U-matic tape right in my hand now, "Bad News Bear - Pilot" on the label and stamped 'AFN' on the case. I have the other seven episodes too, I think, somewhere packed in storage. Dad was NCOIC of Broadcast Operations there and saved and took home anything and everything they ever threw out.
· (Internet silence ... and mostly the conversation changes to other topics)
Crap... Bad News Bear was a name that I had not heard for a very long time. Now I wished that I hadn't ever heard of it at all.
The poster's name was Maureen and I immediately sent her a private message asking her to either contact me back immediately via my private email address or else she could even call me by phone. I knew that what she had posted was real, the truth, and that she had in her possession original production tapes of this infamous cartoon. Not VHS or even Betamax copies, but real studio broadcast quality ¾ inch U-matic tapes that were the primary distribution method of the industry for over a generation and still a low-end workhorse of the television industry today over forty years after it was created, especially overseas. As poor as the Armed Services Network is, they're still probably using U-matic even today.
The really disturbing part was that I didn't think anyone else in the world knew that a total of eight Bad News Bear cartoons had been originally created. Even the mostly reliable Snopes only believed that a single pilot episode had ever been commissioned and perhaps been broadcast once or twice, but only in obscure television markets. The show had become the mythic embodiment of the worst ever cartoon in television history, being so utterly and appallingly bad that it was cancelled by a major network at nearly the last minute, unshown. Then all of the tapes were thrown out and even the name was to be forgotten and excised from corporate memory. That's the legend ... and it's mostly true.
I prayed that Maureen would ignore my PM to her. Nearly at once I regretted my impulse of sending it. I already knew the show had actually existed ... but I didn't need any other sort of tangible reminder. I also had once possessed in my hand a probably identical U-matic tape that had been packed away in some boxes of my father's things that I'd sorted out upon his death about six years ago. In his will he specifically asked me to find and burn that tape and then to spread the ashes of it upon his grave ... and I done this.
I prayed even more that Maureen wouldn't call me either ... but she did, about fifteen minutes after my message to her. She hadn't really wanted to make this call either apparently, but she needed someone to tell her story to that could understand it ... and so did I, once we got to talking. After all ... it was my father who was at least partially responsible for Bad News Bear in the first place.
It was also my father you should thank for saving the world from certain destruction back in 1992.
The Internet mythology behind the story of Bad News Bear is largely correct, at least concerning the fundamentals. Like strong under seas currents, the full story had much darker and more powerful depths.
Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, my father was a VP of Programming for XYZ network. It wasn't that big of a deal, at least power or influence wise ... networks have a lot of VP's running around and usually getting into each other's way. My dad worked under the Executive VP of Educational Programming, which back in those days meant Saturday morning cartoons and weekday afterschool programming. Mostly the later stuff as the 1990's wore on.
Back in the glory days of children's television, especially the 1960's and 70's, the FCC had a pretty liberal 'educational' requirement for the major broadcast networks that programming a three or four hour block of cartoon programming on Saturday mornings would easily satisfy. Good always defeated evil, bad guys always got caught and faced their just punishment, etc. Advertisers flogged their toys and paid pretty decent advertising rates in the process and everyone was happy and made money. Then the FCC began to require some meatier educational stipulations and by the early 1990's, the time honored and wonderful tradition of Saturday morning cartoons for the kids was starting to erode away. The idea of after school specials began to take hold along with a growing concept of 'edutainment'. The TV equivalent of eating your vegetables. Mostly, the ratings sucked too in the middle/later afternoon, but broadcasters were discovering that running paid infomercials on weekend mornings could be much more profitable than cartoons as well.
In this particular case, dad's boss wanted something suitably 'edutainment' to fill a troublesome Tuesday afternoon timeslot. Something like 'kids dealing with problems in school, like how to deal with bullies', he suggested. It was still nearly a decade before the Columbine shootings but in educational circles the concept of school bullying was gradually gaining some minimal awareness. That was the good intention anyway, or that's how my father told me it all happened. The road to hell is indeed lined with good intentions and this particular path was especially steep and reeked of brimstone.
Being late season 'spackle' to just temporarily patch up a troublesome timespot, the network production budget wasn't much. There wasn't time or nearly enough money to commission a pilot from a production studio, even for something fast and dirty for just a few episodes. Instead, dad had to call around looking for existing product that had been previously unsold and left to molder on the shelf in some backroom. Maybe even a foreign product that could be cheaply and hastily redubbed in English. That's where he thought Bad News Bear originally came from, some third-rate Korean cartooning sweatshop where it had then been sold to series of US distributers before ending up on my father's desk. The licensing paperwork all looked legit and there were even checkmarks and random anonymous initials in all the right places that indicated that the show had been prescreened and approved for public broadcast. It looked like the answer to everyone's prayers.
Who had been responsible for the final editing and English dubbing? My father either didn't know or couldn't say. The program title also kept changing names, a fact that also confused my Internet readers as well. The first working title had indeed been Bad News Bear, but this led to certain copyright issues related to the very similarly titled kid baseball movie 'The Bad News Bears'. Bad News Brown was the next working title that was strongly considered by the network execs, until someone pointed out that there was a professional wrestler using that exact name. So another quick title screen edit was made and Bad News Bruin was all set for his network launch.
Anyway, for about the cost equivalent of the spare change that is under the cushions of any random sofa, dad had eight U-matic tapes each with an original 21 minute length cartoon show. Perfect for what he needed ... until he sat down about a week before the first scheduled broadcast and watched the first pilot episode for the first time. Agog with disbelief, he watched it again and then took it up to his boss's office and made him watch him.
They were unanimous. The show was completely unsuitable and they'd have to find something old from out of the library to run in its place. Maybe a short nature show ... but anything would be an improvement over Bad News Bruin. In their report to the Executive VP of Daytime Programming that was all that they said ... completely and utterly unsuitable, but he didn't quite agree. Waste went against his religion and since the network owned the rights to eight half-hour cartoon episodes, they were going to get used. So, with a wave of the executive hand, the show went right into the Saturday morning programming schedule.
Senior TV network executives have long believed in the principle of shooting the messenger, so it with the certain risk of career suicide that anyone embarks on a crusade to kill off a problem show, especially before it has ever aired. My father did this anyway, making a pest of himself on the top executive floor while attempting to have the entire run of Bad News Bruin shit-canned before they could ruin the network's reputation. The problem seemed to be that at least one very senior (but unnamed) executive had championed the show, even going so far to say that 'kids would love it'. Dad didn't think so.
To prove that they were wrong, he scheduled a small private test screening that last Friday evening for about two dozen children of assorted ages, mostly kids of employees that could be recruited for ice cream and a cartoon at fairly short notice. Also invited to witness the screening were the senior exec's, and a few (enough anyway) did show up or sent minions to report back the results.
The results, so to speak, were disturbing. Within ten minutes a few of the younger children were already whining that they didn't want to watch anymore. A few minutes later the first sniffles began to be heard and by the time the short twenty-one minute cartoon was done at least half of the children, boys included, were actively crying. When asked at the end if they enjoyed the cartoon, only three hands (by mostly older kids) were raised. A few more hands were uncertain or had mixed feelings, but all of the rest of the children in their entirety voted that they did not enjoy the cartoon and wouldn't ever want to watch another in that series.
This is not the sort of result that any network executive wants to see. Crying children do not buy toys or computer games advertised on programs they never ever want to see again!
Mercifully, this was the end for Bad News Bruin at XYZ network. After a short executive meeting the scheduled launch for the cartoon was 'delayed indefinitely'. In those days before digital transmission, dozens of tapes (U-matics) of the pilot episode had already been mailed out to all of the affiliates, but after a series of frantic phone calls all (or at least most) of the local broadcast engineers were warned not to broadcast the show. Virtually all of the affiliates, it is assumed, obeyed. Later a follow-up message instructed the affiliates to destroy the tape with the pilot episode and none of the remaining seven episodes ever left corporate HQ. Dad swore that he put his original copies of the remaining seven episodes into the big confidential tape shredder at work personally and watched (with glee) as they were turned into minute bits of mylar and plastic.
That should have been the end of it ... but rumors persisted that a few copies survived out in the wild and that the show might have been at least partially broadcasted by several of the smaller affiliates as originally scheduled, or played as late night/early morning spackle at some small independent UHF stations all over the country. The thought that the entire eight episode run could have appeared at an Armed Forces TV station didn't surprise or shock me in the slightest. The Far East Network of military TV stations was small with a pitiful budget and the majority of their programming library was old legacy materials that weren't even suitable for modern syndication anymore. They happily took any donations that they could get their hands on, and an orphan like Bad News Bruin absolutely fit this bill!
Maureen, like me, was one of the rare unfortunate few that truly knew that this infamous cartoon was not in fact an amusing urban legend, but a demonic owl's pellet of nearly pure distilled evil instead!