Back in the ’60s, when television viewers still had attention spans, one drama captured more Americans than any other at the time. Over its four-year run, they followed The Fugitive on ABC as assiduously as the show’s hero, accused murderer Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), tracked his wife’s real killer, the mysterious one-armed man. This was no trivial pursuit: The Aug. 29, 1967, finale was the highest-rated series episode in broadcast history until the ”Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas in 1980. And when the franchise moved to the big screen in 1993, with Harrison Ford playing Dr. Kimble, The Fugitive scored all over again, grossing $183 million at the domestic box office.
Which seems to suggest: You can’t keep a good man down, right? Well, not exactly. In its new incarnation on CBS, The Fugitive’s Dr. Kimble has a foe even deadlier than his one-armed quarry: Nielsen.
It wasn’t supposed to be a show that had to chase ratings. Despite an audience-challenged Friday-at-8 slot and TV’s abysmal track record for revamped franchises (remember Love Boat?), The Fugitive had so impressed advertisers they voted it the fall show most likely to succeed. CBS promoted its costliest new drama in prime real estate (during Survivor), and critics applauded star Tim Daly and the pilot’s film-quality production values (achieved with a hefty $3-4 million price tag). Yet by its second airing, it was clear that CSI, Fugitive’s unheralded 9 p.m. follow-up, had become the runaway hit. ”The Fugitive was on Friday night, so it’s not like anyone thought it was going to do big midweek numbers,” says Tim Spengler, an executive vice president at Initiative Media North America. ”But it’s a disappointment from a ratings standpoint.”
Nine espisodes later, CBS is sticking by its man, arguing that Fugitive — ranked 65 out of 133 shows — has helped solidify Friday night. ”Even with a number not quite where we’d like it to be, we’ve got millions watching each week, and those people are leading into CSI,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior VP of scheduling. ”If you look at the night as a whole, we’re up on about every measure. The Fugitive is ahead of where we were last year, and it helps CSI, which in turn helps Nash Bridges. And when the night’s working, it allows us the luxury of letting The Fugitive sit there and build an audience.”
Exec producer John McNamara places some blame on the 8 p.m. slot. ”It’s like being stuck on Normandy beach,” he jokes. ”I’ve been there before with a really good show [The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.] and it’s brutal. You’re fighting for numbers because not a lot of people are watching TV.” But he also acknowledges a more critical dilemma: ”I think viewers have a sense of ‘Oh, the Fugitive, I know that story.’ People feel it’s too familiar.”
It’s an issue the producers took pains to address: how to capitalize on the show’s familiarity while completely revamping it for a more sophisticated audience — one that knows from DNA sampling (thank you, O.J.), MTV-style pacing, and big-budget realism. ”We were very clear that we wouldn’t make this show unless it could be shot like a movie,” says exec producer Arnold Kopelson, who also produced the film version. ”And it was a prerequisite that we wouldn’t do it unless we could take it on the road and actually show this guy on the run.”