Don’t Call ‘Melrose’ Dead Just Yet

The ratings for the CW soap were disappointing, but not fatal. Could Heather ride to the rescue?

Last Updated: September 10, 2009 @ 6:25 PM

Nobody at the CW is panicking over the lackluster ratings generated by Tuesday’s much-hyped "Melrose Place" premiere.

 

That doesn’t mean folks are happy about the numbers, either. Or that conversations aren’t taking place about bringing original special guest star Heather Locklear back to the fictional apartment building.

 

CW execs are "disappointed" by the show’s so-so kickoff, a person familiar with the situation conceded Wednesday. "Melrose" attracted about half as many viewers as last year’s successful launch of "90210" (full ratings report here).

 

The numbers sting because the network gave the show a monster promotional push, taking over virtually every website and billboard it could lock down in the days before the premiere. And reviews were surprisingly strong for a trashy soap opera: Entertainment Weekly, the Wall Street Journal and the Hollywood Reporter all raved.

 

Despite all this, CW execs probably had an inkling the "Melrose" numbers wouldn’t wow. According to sources at a rival network, while the new show had high name recognition, intent to view among viewers had been low all summer long.

 

In other words, many folks simply had no desire to check back into "Melrose."

 

And yet, it’s too soon to declare the drama dead.

 

Unlike the feature world, TV execs — particularly at a smaller network like the CW that’s still in building mode– can afford to be at least a little patient in waiting to see how a new show plays out with audiences. It will be at least a month before CW programmers have a clear sense of just how well or poorly "Melrose" is actually doing.

 

The big mystery: Will "Melrose" suffer the same massive week two dropoff experienced by "90210" last fall? That show lost 30 percent of its premiere audience in week two, and was down to just over 2 million viewers by its finale.

 

If "Melrose" slides another 30 percent next week, then it could very well be curtains for the show, since it’s starting from a much smaller premiere base.

 

But what seems more likely is that the audience that did tune in for Tuesday’s premiere was made up more of hard-core potential fans rather than nostalgia-seekers. Given the solid reviews and decent online buzz around "Melrose," don’t be surprised if week two of the show slips a more modest 10 percent.

 

As one top industry agent puts it, "If they stay above a 2 (in the ratings), they’ll be fine."

Indeed, it’s worth noting that "90210" was renewed by the CW even though its series finale attracted just over 2 million viewers (vs. the 2.3 million who watched "Melrose").

 

The CW is also waiting to see how "Melrose" does once DVR data is figured in.

 

The network’s shows regularly experience some of the biggest live-to-DVR jumps in the live-plus three and live-plus seven day figures. If "Melrose" shows big growth once DVR numbers are figured in, it’ll make CW execs all the more comfortable with its performance.

 

There’s another factor working in "Melrose’s" favor, at least in the short term: CW execs really like the show’s creative direction.

 

A year ago at this time, "90210" premiered to big numbers — but CW insiders were far from overjoyed. They didn’t like how future episodes were coming together, and the week-to-week falloff in the ratings only added to their misery.

 

CW and CBS Television Studios stuck with "90210," however, adding new creative talent and toughing out the Nielsen slide. Numbers stabilized, and last night, the season two premiere of "90210" posted double digit demo increases vs. the show’s season one finale.

 

By contrast, CW execs are upbeat about how upcoming episodes of "Melrose." They think the show gets campier, nastier and more interesting as weeks go by.

 

Finally, don’t underestimate financial calculations in determining the future of "Melrose."

 

One of the big reasons the CW has stuck by "90210" is because the show has been a major financial winner for CBS TV Studios, making $2 million per episode plus in international revenue.

 

"A show like that is profitable from day one on the network," CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves said late last year. CBS co-owns the CW with Warner Bros.

 

All of this doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement at "Melrose."

 

For weeks now, the biggest behind the scenes drama at the show has been whether or not the CW and CBS TV Studios would strike a deal with Locklear to return as the nasty Amanda.

 

The network and producers have always wanted her to be part of the show. The original plan was to have Locklear fill the role currently occupied by Laura Leighton: The former "Melrose" resident who ends up dead in the pool.

 

But the parties couldn’t agree on financial terms. Insiders have said that at points in the negotiations, Locklear’s camp may have floated a per-episode fee that would have been tough for the CW and the studio to swallow.

 

Talks picked up again a few weeks ago, insiders said. It’s unclear what sort of numbers are being discussed now or where the conversations stand.

 

Most observers think Locklear would add some major oomph to "Melrose," much as she did on the original series, which she joined at the end of season one.

 

Still, other observers note that producers can’t rely on viewers’ past affection for "Melrose" to make the new show work.

"The show is not going to succeed as simply a nostalgia piece," a top lit agent told TheWrap. "It needs to be a cool twentysomething soap."

 

Some critics have also urged producers to add even more suds to the "Melrose" mix, making key character bitchier and finding even more over the top storylines. Insiders report that’s already happening, with episode four in particular featuring some juicy twists.

 

And then there’s the one matter the CW can’t fix– at least this year.

 

The network virtually goes off the air in the summer, airing virtually nothing but repeats between May and September. That gives the network virtually no on-air promo base in which to promote to its core audience.

 

"Despite the billboard deluge, the network is dark all summer," one agent laments. "It kills them."

 

The CW had planned to launch a reality drama called "The Blonde Charity Mafia" over the summer but opted to hold it for the regular season. The result: Near-record low ratings for the CW over the summer, and no momentum headed into premiere week.