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Networks confuse and abuse viewers

Last-minute changes, sudden cancellations

Almost exactly a year ago, NBC had a lot of viewers thinking something sneaky was going on — like secret, unannounced cancellation of "The West Wing."

Truth be told, nothing of the sort was in the works. What happened was that Fox was doing boffo ratings with its American League and National League Championship Series. When those series went to seventh-and-deciding games, NBC and CBS both decided not to effectively waste new episodes of some of their regular series, substituting repeats at (almost literally) the last minute.

On that particular Wednesday in October, however, NBC substituted two "Law & Order" repeats for an original "West Wing" and an original "Law & Order." Again, not hard to understand — for one thing, "West Wing" is a continuing story and airing an episode of sequence wouldn't make much sense; for another, "West Wing" repeats don't do well in the ratings.

But some viewers, both in Utah and in the rest of the country, suspected NBC had cut short the term of President Bartlet. And, frankly, given the shenanigans pulled by broadcast networks in general and NBC in particular in recent years, who could blame them?

Just look at tonight's NBC lineup — instead of the season finale of "Last Comic Standing" from 7-8 p.m., there are a pair of "Father of the Pride" repeats. As for that final episode of "Comic," NBC isn't saying when it will air. Or if it will air. But it probably won't. At least not on NBC. But maybe on one of its cable networks.

All we know is that the network will let us know who won somehow. Maybe on a Web site. Or maybe somebody will open a door at NBC's headquarters in Burbank and whisper the answer.

Now, "Last Comic Standing" was hardly a great show. I've made fun of it several times. (Maybe too many times.) And, after a rather successful run this summer, the fall edition was getting killed in the ratings.

But there are at least a few million people out there who were watching it and hoping — if not expecting — to see the final episode.

Is it any wonder that viewers are suspicious when their shows don't appear as scheduled?

Now, obviously, shows have been getting canceled ever since TV began. But network executives in years gone by would be shocked to see shows getting pulled off the air after advertising has been purchased, schedules have been printed and shows have been promoted on the air.

CBS has scheduled the premiere of the sitcom "Center of the Universe" four different times this fall, then changed its mind. Even though it has already bought big ads in magazines like TV Guide.

And, these days, network schedules — even those printed in daily newspapers — are sometimes no better than approximations. We don't always get the word on changes.

I kid you not — when NBC was inserting those repeats to avoid Game 7s of the ALCS and NLCS a year ago, the network e-mailed the change to me the day of the switch, after the paper had already been printed and delivered to your home.

That's the sort of thing that doesn't just frustrate me, but frustrates viewers. All the gamesmanship and one-upping that goes on among the networks may be entertaining for TV critics to observe (and write about), but it's the worst kind of customer relations a company can engage in.

And broadcast networks wonder why their share of the audience has been in such serious decline for so long. . . .