Lights On or Off?

The fight for a TV show about truth, justice and high school football

Yet despite critics' approval and the director's efforts at authenticity, Lights has terrible ratings.

For the pilot episode, the show placed "a distant third" in the national ratings; the next three weeks, it was in fourth place nationwide, according to the Fast National ratings on Lights runs at the same time as the top-five smash hit Dancing with the Stars on ABC. It also competes with NCIS on CBS and baseball programming on Fox.

After the pilot aired in Houston, "The Roula and Ryan Show" on 104.1 KRBE had a segment asking viewers: "What's on your television probation?" (Basically: what shows excited you once, but aren't necessarily worth your time anymore?) Roula Christie mentioned Lights's poor local ratings -- "pathetic" for a show about Texas football culture, she thought.

This is a real cheerleader for Pflugerville High School...
Prep Sports Online
This is a real cheerleader for Pflugerville High School...
...and actress Minka Kelly playing Lyla Garrity.
Michael Muller
...and actress Minka Kelly playing Lyla Garrity.

"If the state of Texas can't get behind Friday Night Lights, the rest of the country is not going to, either," she said in a phone interview a few weeks later. "They have no hope. New Yorkers aren't going to jump on Friday Night Lights when there is a repeat of CSI."

The day of the "TV probation" segment, callers had other dismal comments about the show. Mostly, Roula remembers, they didn't approve of the portrayal of Texas.

"If you already have this impression of Texas as a bunch of podunk hicks in the country and all we care about is football and having sex on washing machines -- like in (the movie) Varsity Blues -- this just totally supports that," says Roula. "It's the anonymous Texan town and all they have going for them is that Friday night game."

At the same time, even though ratings are unpromising, other critics are now literally begging viewers to watch Lights.

"Your correspondent finds himself at full grovel, crawling toward Nielsen households, begging that they flip on Friday Night Lights," wrote Slate television critic Troy Patterson. Then, towards the end of the plea, he compared Friday Night Lights to Moby Dick. The Washington Post's Tom Shales also devoted a recent column to extolling the show's virtues.

Friday Night Lights, the movie, was released in 2004. According to the Associated Press, the film was "a minor hit," grossing $61 million on a budget of $30 million. Buzz Bissinger's book, on the other hand, has been anything but a slight success.

With more than a million copies in print, the book has been selling steadily since its debut. It was a New York Times best-seller in 1990 and again in 2004 when the movie was released. ESPN named it the "Best Sports Book" of the past 25 years. Back in the late 1990s, Bissinger told The Odessa American that he received between three to five requests for interviews a month. These days he gets between three to five requests a week, says his publicist Lissa Warren.

"He has never turned down an interview request," she says. "He is still committed to talking about this book not only because he's its author but because a lot of the themes are still prevalent in society today."

Prevalent or not, the television series is clearly not a hit like the book or movie. "Survival is up to the network," Peter Berg said on the set. And the announcement was not far off. If you asked anyone, they knew when it was coming: "Two weeks!"

That was two weeks ago. So word should be arriving any day now.

The idea for Friday Night Lights had been stewing in Buzz Bissinger's brain for decades. When he was 13, Bissinger read a magazine story about a football player in Abilene. The kid was "the god of the town," Bissinger recalled in a recent phone interview. "Everyone knew who he was."

Flash forward to 1986. Bissinger, then a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was taking a year off at Harvard University to complete a Nieman Fellowship, a prestigious program for journalists. He'd passed 30, had two young kids and was thinking of writing a book. At the end of his fellowship, Bissinger made a road trip out west, journeying through Texas. Driving through all the small towns, he noticed a curious, reoccurring theme: their stadiums were gorgeous.

"I was fascinated by high school football, Texas and the movie The Last Picture Show," he says. Thoughts about the Abilene football player resurfaced in his head and fused with his desire to abandon his regular life and do something completely different for a while. He recounted the feeling in the preface to his book: "Maybe it was where I lived, in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a house that looked like all the other ones on the block. Or maybe it was my own past as an addicted sports fan who had spent a shamelessly large part of life watching football and basketball and baseball. I just felt something pulling at me, nagging at me, a soft voice telling me to do it, to see for myself what was out there and make the journey before self-satisfaction crept in for good."

He wanted to find that perfect team. He briefly considered places in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. But, no "scientific search" was necessary. In the end, there was nothing quite like Permian High School.

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