Assessing the fallout from CBS' 'Jericho' maneuver

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The dramatic Season 1 finale of CBS' "Jericho" concluded with two high-stakes cliffhangers: Will a Kansas town of nuclear war survivors successfully fight off a lawless invading militia? And will a network that dares to renew "Jericho" despite its below-the-line ratings be rewarded for having faith in the show?

Nearly a year later, the citizens of "Jericho" are alive and well. But CBS' roll of the dice hasn't quite paid off.

The seven-episode second season of "Jericho" returned in February to a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 and has since sunk to average a 1.8 in the past couple of weeks.

Online, however, the show has done better. The premiere was streamed about 700,000 times on CBS.com, and "Jericho" is one of the most downloaded shows on iTunes.

But online success doesn't yet pay the rent on a broadcast scripted drama. Two "Jericho" episodes remain, and chances of a pickup are slim. Producers shot two endings -- one a cliffhanger, one more of a wrap-up -- and oddsmakers bet CBS that isn't risking another cliffhanger.

Which isn't to say that the network's decision last year was a mistake. Season 1's narrative homestretch -- a tense and emotional ramp-up to civil war -- was a creative peak. Fans desperate for more episodes organized what has been called the largest protest ever mounted to try and halt the cancellation of a TV show. Playing off a line of dialogue in the finale, viewers famously sent about 45,000 pounds of peanuts to CBS.

With audiences increasingly distracted by other entertainment mediums, what network wouldn't be tempted to give a second chance to a show that sparked so much enthusiasm with a story that kept getting more interesting? After all, viewers never get this riled up about "Cold Case."

A completely different way of looking at the "Jericho" renewal, however, was that the network actually did not listen to its viewers. The first six episodes in 2006 averaged a 3.5 rating, while the last six averaged a 2.4. In the cold light of Nielsen math, departing viewers might not have been mailing peanuts, but they too were sending a message: The show wasn't holding their interest.

"No matter what happens with 'Jericho,' there will be no regrets here," one CBS insider says. "We listened to our audience, and the producers delivered seven terrific episodes at a time we needed original programming during the writers strike."

Fans, however, have a very different take on the "Jericho" saga. Despite CBS risking a pickup, many blame the current "Jericho" woes on the network's lack of support.

"CBS should have done the right thing and gave 'Jericho' a chance," one fan wrote on AOL's "Jericho" message board. "Instead, they gave it a terrible time slot, a lower budget (and) tried to cram an entire season into seven episodes."

It's true that "Jericho" budget cutbacks resulted in noticeable differences. Season 2 has been a ghost of the first -- missing characters, less action, fewer exterior shots and plenty of two-people-in-a-room scenes.

Showrunner Carol Barbee, who also is an executive producer on CBS' upcoming summer drama "Swingtown," defended the network's cuts as "a blessing in disguise."

"We'd have come back if they gave us $1.95 and three days to shoot," Barbee says. "I like two people in a room talking. We've earned the right to not have to run-and-gun every few minutes. I think the quality has taken a huge leap up."

So what's the lesson to learn from "Jericho?" That networks should always base programming decisions strictly on the ratings?

With media distribution systems reaching young viewers in new ways, such a strict stance seems foolish. Not to mention creatively depressing. At its peak, "Jericho" infused its drama with likable characters caught in impossible moral dilemmas. Maybe the show's lesson is that, sometimes, there's just no right answer.
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