A few months ago, one writer for the NBC comedy series "NewsRadio" took to wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the show's latest depressing Nielsen ranking. As the series dropped to No. 97 on the prime-time chart, just one slot ahead of "Feds," gallows humor prevailed on the set.
The cast and crew, working on the final episodes of the season, had serious concerns about whether their ensemble series, about the quirky workaday lives of the staff of a struggling radio station, would survive past the season's end. Then Paul Simms talked to Rolling Stone magazine.Simms, 31, the creator and head writer of "NewsRadio," vented his frustration in an interview in the April 17 issue. In it he accused NBC executives of failing to promote the series or schedule it properly.
He referred to them by a particularly profane name. Sounding like a man who knew the end was near and no longer worried about repercussions, he said to the reporter: "It can't get any worse. What can they do to me?"
Well, they could decide not only to renew the series in the fall but to give it one of the most coveted times slots on television: Tuesdays at 7:30, sandwiched between the twin hits "Mad About You" and "Frasier." And they did.
These days Simms has nothing but kind words for his bosses at NBC. "I think they've always believed in the show," he said. "Obviously, I'm tremendously excited. It's an opportunity to relaunch the show, in a great time slot."
Second chances like this are rare in prime-time television, where desirable time slots are usually filled by promising new shows, not struggling two-year-olds. "NewsRadio" seems to have bucked fate for several reasons, among them the show's quality, Simms's persistence and a realization by Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment, that the show may have been inadvertently sabotaged by the network's tinkering with its prime-time schedule.
The story of how "NewsRadio" reached this point and what has happened since then sheds light on the plight of prime-time shows "on the bubble" - that is, fragile ones being kept on life support by the networks despite the shows' problems.
"NewsRadio" did well when it went on the air, in March 1995, first on Tuesday nights and later on Sundays. Critics praised the show, and its ratings were solid, at times climbing into the top 10.
Last fall, that changed. NBC moved the series to Wednesday nights in an attempt to bolster one of the weaker evenings on the network's schedule, and the ratings plummeted.
Executives say the schedule change made sense at the time. "What we do is, we incubate shows and then use them to open up time periods," explained Littlefield. "The show had a good run, and we said: `It's ready. Now let's move it to Wednesday.' We did that, and then it died."
Part of the problem was that the series found itself going head to head with a similar smart-and-quirky workplace comedy, ABC's "Drew Carey Show," which was just starting to build momentum in its second season. While the "Drew Carey" ratings surged in the fall, partly on the strength of the growing popularity of Carey, "NewsRadio" seemed to disappear.
NBC moved it from 8 to 7 to get it away from "Drew Carey," but that didn't help.
Some suspected that other factors were at work. Dave Foley, a star of "NewsRadio," said, "We felt like we'd been doing good work, but that there just wasn't enough promotion of the show."
There was also a sense that "some influential people at the network didn't like the show," he added,
It was believed that one such person was Preston Beckman, NBC's head of scheduling. In his interview with Rolling Stone, Simms said that Beckman "hates the show," particularly the acerbic relationships among its characters. When asked more recently what he thought of "NewsRadio," Beckman said only: "The fact that it is now in that time period on our fall schedule speaks for itself."
Certainly, the series has an edgy sensibility, which is to be expected from Simms, a former writer for HBO's mordant hit series "The Larry Sanders Show" and the original NBC "Late Night With David Letterman."
Simms set the show at a radio station, making it one more in a barrage of series with news-media settings, from "Murphy Brown" to newer shows like "Ink" and "The Naked Truth."
But unlike most of those shows, "NewsRadio" focuses less on the glamour of media than on the sometimes unpleasant universals of office life. The employees at WNYX, a budget-strapped New York station, spend much of their time engaging in petty power plays, snooping on one another, flirting, feuding over who has the best desk and pinching office supplies. Only occasionally do they do any actual work.
Simms likens the show's offbeat style and dry humor to the 1970s "Bob Newhart Show." Its premise - office as dysfunctional family - and setting also invite comparisons to series like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "WKRP in Cincinnati."
But unlike those hits, "NewsRadio" lacks a major star, a drawback that has concerned NBC executives. Although the cast has drawn rave reviews from the beginning (Entertainment Weekly described the group as an ensemble second only to that of "The Simpsons"), no one star has emerged from the group, not even the show's unlikely central character, the low-key, boyish-looking Foley, who plays a mild-mannered station manager struggling to maintain office decorum.
The group includes several performers who came from stand-up and sketch comedy, including Foley, formerly of the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, and Phil Hartman, who was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," as the station's pompous announcer.
The station's neurotic staff also includes a haUghty anchorwoman (Khandi Alexander), a mischievous secretary (Vicki Lewis), a conspiracy-theorizing technician (Joe Rogan), a hapless naif of a reporter (Andy Dick) and an insecure news writer (Maura Tierney), whose romance with Foley's character is the office's worst-kept secret.
For all those characters, Simms's Rolling Stone interview may have been a life-or-death turning point (although Simms says he was "tremendously" embarrassed about it afterward).
After the interview was published, Littlefield approached Simms. "I told him, yes, there was a possibility the show might be canceled," Littlefield said, "but I said there was also a possibility that it could be saved, especially if he delivered five strong episodes at the end of the season."
Littlefield also dangled the possibility that the show could eventually be moved to a "protected" time slot if Simms had a strong finish. To do that, Simms had to produce a handful of episodes that were both well written and deemed marketable by the network.
"The network was interested in episodes with bigger stories, something they could promote," Simms said. So as the season ended, he took his characters and story lines beyond the day-to-day office routine.
In one episode, the unapologetically rich station owner (played by Stephen Root) suffers a heart attack and lies comatose in the coffee room, prompting a series of bedside confessionals by the staff. In a futuristic science-fiction fantasy episode, the characters inexplicably find themselves in outer space (where they continue to engage in the same office bickering).
Simms even resorted to a bit of stunt casting, lining up a guest appearance by Jerry Seinfeld. That episode, in which the radio station desperately tries to get an interview with Seinfeld to boost its low ratings, neatly mirrored the television show's actual situation.
Littlefield said he was pleased with the final episodes. "He delivered," he said of Simms. "He did a number of things to bring more eyeballs to the show."
And of the renewal decision and the new time slot, Littlefield added: "We realized that the show, right now, just doesn't have that open-up-a-time-period stuff. But we felt it's still a signature show we believe in, so we had to find a satellite position for it."
Littlefield believes that in its new time slot, the show will draw a large audience and could help NBC defeat ABC for Tuesday night dominance. To help give the series a head start and to "juice up the numbers," in Littlefield's words, the network is now showing summer reruns of "NewsRadio" on Sunday nights, after the hit sitcom "Third Rock From the Sun."
And NBC is running more on-air promotion for the series, including an ad that spotlights Dick's bumbling character, Matthew, to the tune of the song "Cool Jerk."
Littlefield has made it clear that he expects nothing less than stellar results come fall. "Paul is being given a great opportunity," he said, "and he's going to have to have a sensational year."
Simms believes that with its second chance, his show will draw the audience it deserves. "Actually, the paucity of viewers we've had in the past may work in our favor," he said, "because it means a lot of people will discover the show for the first time."
Even Foley, sounding like his wry character, seems guardedly optimistic. "With this time slot," he said, "it is now going to take a real effort on the part of viewers to continue to avoid us."