Olympic push for 'Ellie'
No guarantee of success for Louis-Dreyfus sitcom
By Thomas J. Watson
Some of the most-aired elements of NBC’s ongoing coverage of the Salt Lake City winter Olympics have nothing to do with the Games themselves.
They are Olympic-themed promos heralding Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new sitcom, "Watching Ellie," which premieres Feb. 26.
But whether the heavy promotions will enhance the show's chances for success, after an initial sampling by viewers, is far from assured.
Media buyers think not. The show will have to succeed on its own, and they believe no amount of promotion will make it a hit if it lacks hit chemistry.
If anything, heavy promotion raises expectations, and the risk is that viewers will become turned off all the more quickly, rather than allowing the show a chance to find its legs.
While the network would not release exact figures, John Miller, president of the NBC Agency, the network’s in-house marketing division, speculated recently that Olympic viewers will see up to three "Ellie" spots per night, which could conceivably total 45-50 spots by the time the games end Feb. 24.
Louis-Dreyfus, of course, is the third former cast member of the hit series "Seinfeld" to try her hand at a show of her own, following attempts by Michael Richards and Jason Alexander that suffered ignoble cancellations after only a few weeks.
When Alexander’s "Bob Patterson" series flopped this past fall, industry wags suggested that there is a "Seinfeld curse" at work here. NBC’s heavy promotion of "Watching Ellie" within the high-rated winter Olympics seems designed to beat such a curse.
"First of all, there is no ‘Seinfeld curse,’" says Steve Sternberg, senior vice president and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA.
"That’s all press hyperbole. The problem lies in the fact that ‘Seinfeld’ is still on–and very successful–in reruns. The audience still identifies these actors in their ‘Seinfeld’ roles and finds it jarring when they suddenly turn up playing totally different people."
Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services at Carat, agrees:
"Look at ‘Frasier.’ When NBC and Paramount decided to give Kelsey Grammer his own series, they wisely retained the character he had been playing on ‘Cheers,’ which, like ‘Seinfeld,’ was a great ensemble piece. They made Frasier the lead in his own show, but they surrounded him with another great ensemble–and they gave him some of the best comedy writing in television."
So will all the promotions within the Olympics help "Ellie" win the gold?
"No," and "no," agree Sternberg and Brill.
"Certainly the Olympic exposure is raising the awareness level for the show," says Sternberg. "And in this day and age, that’s important. The downside is that everyone who’s interested will be watching that first show, so it had better be a winner or the audience will never come back."
History tends to prove Sternberg’s point.
NBC used its coverage of the 2000 summer Olympic Games, which aired the last two weeks in September of that year, to promote its fall lineup.
It gave ample support to its about-to-premiere television series. According to data from CMR, the new drama series "Deadline" received 50 spots; "Ed," 49; "Titans," 43; while such new comedies as "The Michael Richards Show" received 26 spots; "Tucker," 26; and "Daddio," 21.
Of those six programs, only "Ed" survived the fourth quarter.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the highly anticipated "Michael Richards Show" received a 15 household share of audience for its premiere, followed by an 11 for week two–and went downhill from there.
"Titans" opened to a 13 share, and then fell to a 10 and three nines before being canceled.
"Daddio," "Tucker" and "Deadline" were all canceled and removed from the schedule within five weeks of their premieres.
"Olympics or no Olympics," says Brill, "if the show is not funny, no one will be watching ‘Ellie’ after the first couple of weeks."
February 15, 2002 © 2002 Media Life
-Thomas J. Watson is a Los Angeles writer and a contributor to Media Life.