School's Out

Robert WilonskyA 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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky