Fox's $10 million pilot was a hit -- but industry watchers say the series may soon take a fall

By Lori Reese
October 10, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fox’s ”Dark Angel” is flying high in the ratings, but Tuesday night’s episode (airing at 9 p.m.) may tell whether the much hyped James Cameron sci-fi series will soon have its wings clipped. The two hour opener on Oct. 3 drew 17.3 million viewers — the highest ratings ever for a Tuesday night premiere on the Fox network, according to Nielsen. But TV analysts and media watchers question whether the show can sustain audience interest far beyond its flashy $10 million pilot. ”I think [‘Dark Angel’] might have made a better two hour movie than it would a series,” says Paul Schulman, president of media consulting firm Schulman/Advanswers.

Schulman points out that executive producer Cameron — best known for big budget projects like ”Titanic” and two ”Terminator” films — may not be able to train his epic scale vision to the demands of the small screen by developing the show’s central character (played by newcomer Jessica Alba) in a way that will keep viewers coming back. But Charles Eglee Jr., the show’s coexecutive producer, says such concerns about Cameron aren’t relevant: Though the Oscar winning director’s name is the one grabbing media attention, it’s Eglee (formerly of ABC’S ”Murder One”) who is the main, hands-on writer and producer. ”Jim’s got a day job, obviously,” says Eglee, a longtime pal of the Oscar winning director. ”And my background is in television, so I run the show. Jim’s contribution is on the conceptual level.”

No matter who is ready to shoulder responsibility, a downward slide for ”Dark Angel” would be bad news for Fox, which desperately needs a boost after last year’s 14 percent ratings decline. A Fox source told that the network was excited about ”Dark Angel” because it could lure back the young female viewers who have been migrating to the WB for youth oriented series like ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” ”With three big shows that went away — ‘90210,’ ‘Melrose Place,’ and ‘Party of Five’ — we need shows to satisfy those viewers,” admits David Nevins, Fox’s Executive Vice President of Programming. Even Eglee says that he and Cameron selected their youth oriented approach because it suited the network. ”We didn’t want to develop a concept that didn’t seem to fit with the branding of Fox,” he says. ”We wanted to be sure that whatever we did would find a home on that network.”

”Dark Angel”’s pilot, which aired opposite the first presidential debate and the WB’s ”Angel,” captured more women than industry watchers expected, with a 7.9/20 share among females 18 to 34 (compare that to ”Buffy”’s opening night — 4.9/14). Still, some reviewers have noted that Alba’s beautiful but brain challenged character, Max, is more a male fantasy than a female role model, which doesn’t bode well for Fox’s goal of enticing loyal women viewers. In fact, Alba’s hunky costar, Michael Weatherly, who plays a wheelchair bound cyberjournalist, appears to possess the smarts behind their crime fighting operation. By contrast, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character on ”Buffy” has managed to combine brains, brawn, and believable adolescent turmoil with a sense of humor — which all add to its cross gender appeal.

In the end, Schulman predicts that Fox will keep ”Dark Angel” on its roster as long as the series retains about half the viewers who tuned in last week. Yet even those numbers won’t be easy to maintain. Last week’s ratings were exaggerated, he says, because the show aired against the stodgy Gore – Bush debate: ”Against ‘normal’ competition” — such as original network programming — ”’Dark Angel’ will have problems.” In other words, Fox had better hope that Max’s ”Like I even care” attitude doesn’t rub off on her audience.

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