ABC's Commander trails in polls after hot start

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Commander in Chief is losing its grip on power.

The new ABC drama series, which earned star Geena Davis a Golden Globe Award this week for her role as the first female US president, seems to be sinking into the same midterm malaise affecting the approval ratings of President Bush; Commander's ratings have been declining steadily since bowing to big numbers in September.

The series' downturn has industry insiders wondering whether its primary cause is the regime change that occurred behind the scenes after only six episodes were completed. Series creator and executive producer Rod Lurie was replaced as showrunner by veteran TV producer Steven Bochco, reportedly to quell ABC's concerns over production delays.

Now the network and Commander producer Touchstone Television, ABC's fellow Walt Disney subsidiary, are grappling with a dilemma that happens to be playing itself out in one of the series' own storylines: What will it take to get Commander reelected for another term?

ABC, Touchstone, and a spokesman for Lurie declined comment. A spokeswoman for Bochco did not return calls seeking comment.

When Commander premiered September 27, the series displayed the makings of ABC's next hit, delivering more than 16 million total viewers--the biggest haul for a Tuesday drama on any network in five years. Its second episode made it the only new series on TV to grow its audience from week one.

Over the following three weeks, Commander even saw its viewership trend up among viewers 18-49 and 25-54, demographics that advertisers pay a premium to reach, outpacing stiff competition in the 9 p.m. hour, including NBC's My Name Is Earl and CBS' The Amazing Race.

For the second consecutive season, ABC's decision to place most of its marketing efforts behind a particular show rather than its entire schedule seemed to be paying off. In fall 2004, then-incoming ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson and Disney-ABC TV Group chairman Anne Sweeney had distinguished themselves by concentrating Disney's marketing muscle behind Desperate Housewives and Lost, turning them into instant hits.

But just when it looked like ABC had another hit on its hands, Commander began slipping through its fingers in November, dropping to fourth in the time slot among viewers 18-49. Original episodes took a breather last month, only to return January 10 with a far smaller audience of 11.4 million viewers and its lowest marks yet in adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. In each of those demos, Commander was down at least 30 percent from its premiere.

On Tuesday, Commander dropped even lower, which was to be expected against the two-hour series premiere of American Idol. But even though NBC's Earl has been moved out of the Tuesday 9 p.m. slot to Thursday, Commander is sure to face an uphill climb should it remain on Tuesday because Fox's Idol is now the 800-pound gorilla of the night and will greatly benefit its 9 p.m. companion, House.

What may prove more problematic for Commander in February is NBC's Olympics coverage, because both programs skew older and female. Commander has the highest median age of all ABC series except the Dancing With the Stars show, at 54.7 years old.

While Commander may not have lived up to its initial promise, it's a drawback that might ultimately prove to be a footnote to ABC for the 2005-06 season. With Lost, Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy humming, and the Super Bowl on its air next month, the network is still very much a contender to claim the 18-49 crown for the season.

Insiders say Commander could be experiencing something of an accelerated version of the fate that befell The West Wing, which saw the success of its first seasons erode seemingly overnight once its original executive producers--Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme--left the show over creative differences with NBC.

Under Bochco's direction, the series hasn't made any noticeable creative shifts. But sources say Bochco hasn't quite gelled with Commander, having never run a series he didn't create. Nor is the family-friendly, straight-laced Commander tonally consistent with the edgy programming he has made his hallmark over the years--from NBC's Hill Street Blues to ABC's NYPD Blue to FX's Over There. Sources also suggested Bochco now may exit the show at the end of the season to concentrate on other programming he is developing under a two-year deal he signed with Touchstone last year.

By all accounts, Bochco was pressed for duty because Lurie was overwhelmed by the many tasks he took on as showrunner. It was quickly evident that Commander was falling way behind schedule, and production was shut down for three weeks beginning in mid-November. The production slowdown created a six-week break from original episodes that began last month, which likely caused some viewers to forget it was on the air. Sources said another problem for Commander caused by its production delays is that the program has no time to engage in the reshooting other ABC series typically undergo.

Once Commander returned after its break, ABC's marketing efforts were said to be too focused on relaunching major midseason changes to Monday and Friday to devote much time to reintroducing the series. Newer spots tout Davis' Golden Globe win, which ABC hopes will remind viewers to check out Commander.

As quickly as ABC moved to bring Bochco in after just two episodes aired, the damage may already have been done. Only the last three episodes of the 11 aired this season were entirely under Bochco's watch; a few in between were started by Lurie and completed by Bochco.

ABC could conceivably find a new time slot for Commander this season but may be reluctant to because the series has served its 10 p.m. lead-out Boston Legal well; Commander and Legal score high among upscale viewers in big urban markets, which appeals to advertisers. That said, Commander is almost certain to take a break in March, when ABC is expected to seed its schedule with midseason series.

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