Published May 31, 2005
Even God is vulnerable to low television ratings. CBS' decision this month to cancel the drama "Joan of Arcadia (search)" after two seasons has baffled and angered its fans. Many are peppering CBS and anyone who will listen with e-mails trying to find some way to keep the series alive.
It's a long shot, at best. The series where God appeared to Amber Tamblyn's title character in the guise of average people won critical praise and an Emmy nomination, but couldn't reach beyond a dwindling cult of supporters.
Fans said they appreciated a drama that talked about spirituality without being preachy, that included God but didn't take religious sides. Several parents wrote that it was one of the few quality shows on television they felt comfortable watching with their children.
"I liked that it gave my daughter and I ethical things to talk about without having to bring them up, things like premarital sex and spirituality," said Dawn Richards, 44, who watched regularly with her 14-year-old daughter at home in Boca Raton, Fla. "It's a great springboard."
Angela Williams, who works at a domestic violence shelter and lives in Boody, Ill., organized an e-mail and telephone campaign to support the show. The 24-year-old scheduled her Friday nights around the series and said a lot of her friends did, too.
We feel your pain, say the folks at CBS (search).
"It was one of the toughest programming decisions we have had to make in the last couple of years because qualitatively, everyone here loved the show and was proud of the show," said Chris Ender, CBS entertainment spokesman.
But they couldn't ignore its ratings decline, he said. During its first season, "Joan of Arcadia" averaged 10.1 million viewers, respectable numbers for Friday, a quiet night for television. This year, viewership sank to 8 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
That was lower than "Father of the Pride," "Dr. Vegas" and "Hawaii" — all series that went to their graveyards long ago.
The most important number may be this one: 53.9.
That's the median age of the "Joan of Arcadia" viewer, nearly three years older than the typical CBS viewer.
There was a time CBS was more accepting of its older audience. Not now. CBS narrowly missed being the most popular network among 18-to-49-year-old viewers this year, an achievement once unthinkable, and its executives hunger for that victory. Four of its five programs with the oldest-skewing audience, including "Joan," were canceled.
It's not a stretch to think that in another year, "Joan of Arcadia" might have gotten a reprieve.
"Up until the very last minute I just felt that there was no way that we'd be canceled," said Barbara Hall, the series' creator. "The response to our season finale had been really big. I really didn't understand how much demographics played into this, more so than ratings."
CBS is replacing "Joan" with "Ghost Whisperer (search)," featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a young wife who communicates with the dead.
A much-publicized quip by CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves — "I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God" — really riled the "Joan of Arcadia" fans. Liana Hix, 36, of Antioch, Calif., called it blasphemy and "really, really thoughtless."
"I talk to a lot of moms," Hix said, "so it's not good to disappoint people like me."
The ratings slump baffled both CBS and Hall, who struggled to turn it around. CBS wanted more scenes with God, so Hall complied. Partly at the network's request, she introduced the evil character Ryan. The third season was to see Joan and this devilish character face off.
"She was going to be engaged in all these metaphysical battles," Hall said. "She would get to know God on a whole new level."
Hall said she wished CBS had promoted the series more, and didn't take it off the air so frequently. Ender said CBS tried, hiring a firm to promote "Joan" in churches. It sent people into cities to do good deeds — buying a cold person coffee, for instance, and handing them a card saying the random act of kindness was "brought to you by `Joan of Arcadia.'"
In the end, Hall said she understands the business and doesn't hold a grudge against CBS. She's also read many of the messages of support from the audience and found them very moving.
And frustrating. Viewers don't realize the important role they play, she said.
"Yeah, I hear how much the audience loves it," she said. "Prove it by turning on the television Friday at 8 (p.m.). A lot of people ask me, `What can I do?' Nothing now."
There's a better chance of seeing Los Angeles paralyzed by a July snowstorm than CBS changing its mind. There's still a slim hope that Sony Pictures Entertainment can sell "Joan of Arcadia" to another network, and it is trying. With the actors' contracts expiring June 15, the window of opportunity is tiny.
Tamblyn, who said on "The View" Thursday that she was "very shocked" by the cancellation, sounded like she was already moving on in a statement given to The Associated Press.
"I am so grateful to CBS and Barbara Hall for the opportunity to have played this character for two seasons," she said. "I will miss everyone but I am looking forward to the next adventure."
Hall had planned to be in New York two weeks ago for CBS's announcement of its fall schedule. She went anyway, despite learning of the cancellation the day before from Sony. She has an apartment near Carnegie Hall, where Moonves presented the schedule to thousands of advertisers.
Hall went downtown to shop for shoes.
"I didn't want to be in that part of town," she said.