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''Lois and Clark'' Canned

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It wasn’t Lex Luthor or kryptonite or an alien menace that did in Superman. It was simply the irresistible force: bad ratings.

In one sense, ABC’s decision last week to shelve Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was perfectly predictable: After finishing in the top 25 last season, the show plummeted in the ratings this year to a dismal 104th place. But the move was also surprising, since it will prove costly for the network. Last year, ABC ordered another full season of episodes from Warner Bros. (While both ABC and Warner refused to comment, speculation was that the studio had packaged the series with The Rosie O’Donnell Show for some ABC-owned stations.) According to an insider, the network is now on the hook for at least $40 million (22 episodes times roughly $1.8 million per show in license fees). And ABC may also have to deal with the $20 million that Warner would have gotten for selling the series abroad.

ABC is now looking to cut its losses. Sources say the network may pick up the show as a mid-season replacement. Another scenario has the parties making a deal where ABC agrees to pay more for its only other prime-time Warner program, The Drew Carey Show, and perhaps ordering additional series from the studio. Spokesmen for both ABC and Warner would say only that the issue will be resolved soon.

Of course the question remains: How did this happen? ”It’s pretty stunning for a show to go from being very popular and having a buzz, to all of a sudden being in the toilet,” says Susan Nathan, senior VP of research for ad agency McCann-Erickson. Observers point out that competition this season was noticeably stiffer (NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun, CBS’ Touched by an Angel, and Fox’s The Simpsons). ”If you have three really strong shows that speak to the audience,” says Fox executive VP Bob Greenblatt, ”the fourth one is never going to survive.”

But in the end, what might have really killed off the comic-book couple is…domestic bliss. (Call it the Moonlighting effect.) ”In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have had them get married,” says Robert Singer, executive producer of Lois & Clark. ”But people seemed to be clamoring for that. I guess we bent under the pressure.”

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