NBC kicked off the 2012-13 broadcast upfront season with a move that may have alienated millions of people: the cancellation of legal drama “Harry’s Law,” this despite the fact that it often was the network’s most watched entertainment series during its two-year run. The trouble with “Harry,” as NBC noted, was that its audience was unmanageably older-skewing, even though it was much larger than that of many other television shows. That means most of its viewers were 55-plus -- or “dead,” in the eyes of advertisers who continue to lust after the 18-34, 18-49 and, less passionately, 25-54 demographic groups.
Such industry ageism is nothing new. Indeed, it was an issue of near-calamitous proportions for CBS back in the early-‘90s, when that network almost buckled under the weight of all the old folks who were enjoying so much of what it was offering before it went all procedural crime drama and smart-mouthed comedy. Shows such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “Falcon Crest” were enormously popular but unforgivably mature in their audience profiles. CBS doesn’t skew as old today as it did back then; in fact, it manages to do just fine attracting large audiences of all ages – and advertisers, as well
In that context, it seems rather rash for NBC to go and kill one of the few shows on its network that drew a substantial audience even if that audience was “old,” rather than to find a way to make it work. But “Harry’s Law,” which appealed to millions of older people who enjoy watching television, was cut down in favor of a number of new series that NBC hopes will catch the eye of much younger viewers, many of whom choose not to watch television at all. They’re too busy with anything and everything else, especially when it comes to entertainment. Also alienated by this cancellation are the millions of people who welcome challenging and thought-provoking drama. “Harry’s Law” wasn’t a perfect show, but it was the only scripted series on television that consistently tackled controversial contemporary issues. For example, and as if on cue, two days after word came down (via a tweet from 60-plus series lead Kathy Bates) that “Harry’s” was toast, the show featured in what would turn out to be its penultimate episode a story about a gay man who could not give life-saving blood to his dying brother because of laws preventing gay men from donating blood without the written consent of the recipient, who in this case was unconscious on account of being near death and all.
Watching this show during its two seasons, even sporadically, I’ve heard numerous compelling and at times startling debates in many a lively courtroom sequence, on subjects ranging from human rights to animal rights to immigration concerns to the economic destruction of the American working class at the hands of the United States government, big banks and corporate giants. I believe a recent storyline that explored the potentially fatal dangers of high school football propelled that decidedly unpopular topic into the national conversation.
The cancellation of “Harry’s Law” also suggests that there is no place on broadcast television for a series featuring a woman in her 60s in its lead role, regardless of her talent or accomplishments. (One wonders how Bates, an Academy Award winner, even got the part in the first place.) Tellingly, this is not true of shows headlined by 60something men, as proven by some of the highly successful crime shows currently on CBS, including “CSI,” “Criminal Minds” and “Blue Bloods.”
Most “civilians” don’t understand how broadcast television works. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have been complaining to me about the fate of “Harry’s Law.” They see this as curious behavior for a federally regulated business tasked with serving all Americans regardless of age, ethnicity or economic status. Advertiser preferences are often in direct conflict to that, but a network can’t exactly demand that companies pay for something they don’t want.
That said, it should be increasingly clear to anyone with a head that 50-plus consumers are no longer all about adult diapers and denture cream, if ever they truly had been. From where I sit, men and women in their 50s and 60s (and beyond) are as likely to purchase goods and services as anyone else. It seems that if they aren’t busily buying things (or trying new things) for themselves, then they are hurriedly spending every spare dollar on their kids.
And so it is that the lack of industry support and cold cancellation of “Harry’s Law,” whose only crime was that it appealed to older viewers, many of them quite discerning, makes no sense on many levels. At the very least it is just plain sad. I’d argue that the typical viewer of this show was likely upscale, given the intellectual heft of its courtroom arguments, but what’s the point? NBC has a bundle of new shows ready to go for fall, some quite promising, others much less so. One of them stars a monkey. Enough said.