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Fox Cancels Lone Star, But Will Axing a Critically Beloved Show So Quickly Hurt the Network?

Fox

Lone Star has met its maker: After two disastrously rated airings, Fox just confirmed that it has canceled what was arguably the most critically acclaimed new show of the season. (It will be replaced by new episodes of the returning Lie to Me; no word yet on whether the remaining four episodes of Lone Star will ever air.) Quick deaths happen almost every season in TV, with many barely registering on the cultural radar screen: Nobody noticed, let alone complained, when Viva Laughlin, The Beautiful Life, and Emily’s Reasons Why Not were axed after just a couple of airings. The instant demise of Lone Star, however, represents a rare example of a show that was both a media darling and a big network hope crashing and burning at launch. So will Fox be burned more by such a high-quality misfire?

In a perverse way, the fact that Lone Star dropped more than 20 percent in its second airing was actually good news for Fox. Before the numbers came in, the network’s execs’s worst fear was that the show would inch up just a bit in the ratings, making it more difficult to decide whether to tough it out a few more weeks in the hopes that an audience would slowly come to the show. Nonetheless, you can’t accuse Fox of giving up on it: It actually hyped Lone Star a great deal during last night's lead-in episode of House, going so far as to air an extended promo for the show around 8 p.m., all in the hopes that some of the House audience would stay tuned. The exodus at nine o'clock made it hard to dispute the idea that viewers simply didn't want to watch this show, and made cancellation a no-brainer.

This clear-cut viewer verdict should also shield Fox from any viewer or media backlash about its decision to snuff out Lone Star. The fact that the network gave the show one more shot, and even stepped up its on-air marketing, "makes it clear that the network didn't just back away from the show. They tried," one industry insider says. What's more, it's unlikely that Fox will soon be inundated with ten-gallon hats from viewers peeved at the execution, the way Roswell diehards flooded the WB with bottles of Tabasco sauce. "The types of show that invite that sort of fan response usually have some sort of supernatural or sci-fi element to them," a network insider notes.

Fox also has a reservoir of goodwill built up among the media that should help cushion the blow a bit. After all, it's the network that nurtured Glee into a hit, hasn't given up on Fringe, and actually gave Joss Whedon's Dollhouse two seasons to (not) find an audience. There's also no Jeff Zucker or Ben Silverman type to serve as a lightning rod for viewer and/or media frustration with the network — just the opposite, in fact. The network's entertainment president, Kevin Reilly, is well-respected as an advocate of quality shows: Before championing Glee, he nurtured The Office, My Name Is Earl and Friday Night Lights at NBC.

Reilly might face some internal blowback over the Lone Star nightmare, however. He was a fierce advocate for the show, even when others within his company — both the Fox network and sister studio 20th Century Fox TV — wondered whether the series was "too cable" for a broadcast network such as Fox. The success of Glee gave Reilly a strong lobbying point to argue in favor of Fox taking a risk with a show as distinct as Lone Star. Come next May, it wouldn't be surprising to see the network veer back toward slightly less bold fare — a show like Bones, for example, which marries a conventional procedural format with well-drawn characters and a smidgen of continuing story lines.

What happens the rest of this season may also color the long-term assessment of the Lone Star misfire. New comedy Raising Hope had a decent debut last week; if it — or the mid-season Fox drama Ride Along — can manage to break out, Fox's 2010–11 season won't be seen as a total wash. The apparent sophomore success of Glee should also cushion the blow of Lone Star. But even if none of Fox's newcomers catch fire, or if Glee fades a bit, the network is still in a strong position to win the season: Not only does it have the Super Bowl this February, but it also boasts what one rival calls "the ultimate insurance policy" — a.k.a. American Idol. "It can erase an embarrassing sin in seconds," says a rival network exec. "They'll be fine this year as long as [Idol] still serves as even a mini–Death Star."