School's Out

When Fox-TV canceled American High, the network hit a new low

Sep 6, 2000 at 4:00 am
A month ago, R.J. Cutler thought he found a home for his child, one that would coddle and nurture his baby until it was ready to stand on its own two legs without wobbling or falling. A month ago, it all seemed so simple to the Oscar-nominated producer-director, who was used to making his films by maxing out his credit cards and then begging for distribution. He pitched his TV show, got permission to make it, and got four episodes on the air, all with the blessing of critics who christened his show the only thing on network TV worth watching not named The West Wing. It was all so blessedly easy--a real American high.

Today, Cutler struggles once more to find a new home for his child, which has been kicked out onto the street and told it is unloved and unwanted. At this very moment, he awaits final news about who will finally adopt his television show, American High, and broadcast the nine--nine!--episodes that Fox Broadcasting Company had no interest in showing on its struggling 12-year-old network. Never mind that Cutler's show, a dazzling documentary chronicling the tumultuous, very real lives of 14 Chicago high-school students, received glorious reviews and cultivated a devoted following that even now begs on Web sites for more episodes. None of that mattered on the network that brought you Married with Children and Beverly Hills, 90210 and the dumbed-down Simpsons rip-off Family Guy.

Fox wanted American High gone, and so it was days after it first appeared. On August 16, when viewers tuned in to see how Sarah was coping with Robbie's inevitable departure for college or how Allie was coping with her parents' divorce, they instead found reruns of Futurama, the silly and slight cartoon from Simpsons creator Matt Groening. For those who wanted to know what became of misunderstood troublemaker Morgan, beautiful recluse Anna, sensitive singer-songwriter Kaytee, openly gay Brad, and all the other lost, confused, scared, and lonely students at Highland Park High School, it was disappointing, if not a little devastating, judging by the postings on the show's Web site.

But it was business as usual at a network that has seen its viewership decrease by 16 percent over the last year. According to an August 7 story in Business Week, Fox has lost "a chunk" of the 18-to-49-year-old demographic advertisers desire; it was, says the magazine, "one of the largest single-year declines recently among the major networks." Fox has been quick to kill its stragglers: The network abruptly pulled the plug on Action, X-Files creator Chris Carter's Harsh Realm, and the summer series Opposite Sex long before those shows had run out of episodes to air. American High was just the latest corpse to get thrown off the sinking ship.

"Look, there are networks that support their work, that support the work of the people they invest time and energy in, and then there are other networks where everybody is operating in a culture of panic," Cutler says, his voice full of frustration and betrayal. "Unfortunately, our show was on a network that was going through an administrative transformation. There were three people in charge of the network in the course of our producing this TV show, and that was only a year. You gotta talk to Gail Berman. I believed her when she told me she loved the show, but you gotta ask her why she decided not to air it anymore. It's almost like they designed it like they'd have an excuse to take it off the air."

The Gail Berman to whom Cutler refers is Fox Broadcasting Company's new president of entertainment, but since she didn't return calls for this story, there is no way to ask her how she felt about American High or why she canned it a mere two weeks into its run. There's really no need, because television is a business that makes sense only to the people who live inside the small, brain-dead box. Such mundane concepts as logic and reason don't exist in the TV industry. How, after all, does one explain why Fox hyped American High weeks before its release, only to dump it in what Cutler calls "the world's shittiest time slot" (it aired opposite CBS's Big Brother, which had as its lead-in Survivor)? And how else to explain the fact that Fox Broadcasting Company's parent company, Twentieth Century Fox Television, is actually paying for the completion of the nine unaired episodes, which eventually will land on an entirely different network? The network simply exists to distribute product, and the people who run it couldn't care less if it's actually any good. Hence, Family Guy.

"Five million people tuned in every night American High was on the air, and more would have come to it," says Cutler, best known for producing the inside-the-Clinton-campaign documentary The War Room. "I think it's terrible for them, and needless to say, it's frustrating for the filmmakers. We want our work out there. That's frustrating, and Fox can't figure out why viewers are not loyal to their network. One of the reasons is the shows that get ratings on Fox are the kind of shows people watch like a car wreck. Why isn't anybody loyal to a car wreck? Well, you stare at the damned thing and you can't take your eyes off it, but you can't wait to get as far the hell away from it as possible as soon as you can. That's the Fox network right there, and that's the situation they're in. It must be frustrating for them."

Just last week, The New York Times ran a fluffy profile of Berman, which bore the headline: "Berman's Theater Roots, Flair for the Offbeat Might Set the Stage for a Revival at Fox-TV." Bernard Weintraub wrote that when Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, appointed Berman, "Fox was clearly seeking to revive the network's formula of luring mainstream audiences with offbeat shows." Weintraub was referring specifically to the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle; Berman brought the smart, if occasionally too smart-ass, show to Fox when she was president of Regency Television, which produces Malcolm. But Weintraub neglected to mention that Berman canceled Fox's most offbeat show--not to mention its best show. To do so would have negated the point of his puffy profile, which documented the 43-year-old's dramatic rise from Broadway producer (Hurlyburly, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat) to television executive.

Berman may not want to talk about the reasons behind the show's cancellation, but they're not hard to fathom. After all, television is a business driven by a single motivating factor: fear. Berman, who came to Fox after American High had been given the go-ahead, wanted nothing to do with the show. If it succeeded, she would have received none of the credit, but if it failed, she would have been forced to bear the brunt of the blame. Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive officer of News Corp., which owns everything under the Fox umbrella, from Ally McBeal to the Los Angeles Dodgers, would have yelled at her. Actually, Berman probably would have been fired, as so many before her had been.

Cutler initially pitched the show to Fox in January 1999; a few months later, then-president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company Doug Herzog ordered 13 episodes. But by the time the show was ready to air (it was originally scheduled to debut July 10), Herzog was out, and Berman was in. Herzog, who had come to Fox after a celebrated stint as head of Comedy Central, lasted only 16 months at the network. He was the fourth programming exec to be shuffled out the revolving door in four years; the door didn't have time to hit him or his predecessors in their asses on the way out.

In some ways, you can't blame Berman. If American High was going to fail, why should she fail with it? After all, the TV exec is a coward by nature, unwilling to take risks for someone else's decisions--and unwilling to stick by a show even when it garners critical acclaim and low ratings. American High's ratings were relatively tiny: On August 2, the first day the show aired, 4.3 million people tuned it; on August 9, that number had dropped by some 900,000 viewers. And so Fox panicked, even though the network all but guaranteed its death sentence by giving it such a lousy time slot to begin with.

Cutler insists the final nine episodes will air, though he declines to say where; he insists that if he were to confirm the rumors--so far, MTV and the Fox Family Channel are among the alleged leading candidates--he would jinx the process. He will say that one of the networks has promised to continue the series, taking it to a rural school one season, then an urban school the next. The show would work well on either network: On MTV, it will be the real Real World; on FFC, it could air on the same night as Freaks and Geeks, the acclaimed, and likewise canceled, NBC series now airing in a limited run.

"Gone With the Wind couldn't perform in the time slot we were in," Cutler says. "It was up against other shows that had built-in followings, and it was introduced in August, when people aren't looking for new programs or changing their watching habits, and when Survivor was building up to its climax, which was the television phenomenon of the last 10 years. When the show didn't perform from day one, Fox was saying, "Well, maybe this isn't going to work out. Maybe people don't want to see TV shows about high school.' And then they gave it one more week, and the exact same thing happened. We held our audience, we did fabulously with teen viewers, but we were in a horrible time slot. We were horribly positioned, and we performed horribly as a result, so they took us off the air. Why didn't they have more patience? Why didn't they believe in their own convictions? Why didn't they support a show that a lot of incredibly talented people worked on for a year and one every critic who looked at it loved and gave it reviews unlike any Fox had ever seen? You gotta ask them."

But they aren't talking, because what, in the end, could they say?