CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
Volume I, No. 6
This season John Thaw stars in Inspector Morse's last case
Ron Miller Why TV Cheats Mystery Fans
TV Advertisers Ignore Mystery Because It Lures Older Viewers
By RON MILLER
Though millions of mystery novels are sold to eager fans each year, there really isn't a very brisk trade in selling the TV rights to all those popular books. Why? Well, the answer, my friends, is blowing in the demos.
Television today is ruled by demographics or "demos" because that's what advertisers are buying. And the sad truth is that the mystery genre, in advertising jargon, "skews old." Translation: Put a mystery program on TV and it will draw mainly older viewers, age 50-plus.
No point in arguing with them about that. It's true. You've probably heard all about the example of CBS' "Murder, She Wrote" with Angela Lansbury. It was the top-rated weekly program on Sunday nights for nearly a decade, but CBS finally had to get rid of it. The reason: It was earning less money from advertising spots than the youth-oriented shows it was burying in the ratings -- shows like ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and NBC's "seaQuest DSV."
How can that be when "Murder, She Wrote" had twice as many people watching each Sunday night? Simple. Most of the people watching were older and advertisers have this silly notion that older viewers aren't "impulse" shoppers the way younger viewers are. That's crucial to advertisers, who count on people rushing right out to buy the products they saw in the commercials last Sunday night. Older viewers may have more disposable income, but they don't dispose of it like lemmings rushing over the edge of an economic cliff.
That's why you'll find no new shows like "Murder, She Wrote" being promoted by the commercial networks this fall. That's also why other older-skewing mystery programs like "Diagnosis Murder" with Dick Van Dyke have limped along for years, getting half-season orders or "backup" status and virtually no publicity campaigns, despite large, loyal followings of older viewers.
This is almost entirely an American television phenomenon, although it seems to be spreading through western civilization. Still, there are glaring examples of the exact reverse in other countries. Case in point: Japan. One of the reasons why the British resumed production of the Hercule Poirot detective series last year was the enormous demand for it among Japanese mystery fans.
David Suchet will return in two more new 'POIROT" movies this TV season.
The result of this Madison Avenue advertising tyranny is that the American mystery genre virtually has been relegated to "fringe market" status in the U.S. Only a handful of modern American detective characters ever reach TV. Most of the ones we see are British detectives in British productions, shown almost entirely on PBS or cable in the U.S., where the ad business has considerably less impact.
Early in September, for instance, the A&E network will premiere "Thin Air," the second of its all-new "Spenser" mysteries, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker. You may recall that ABC tried to break the Madison Avenue trend in the early 1980s when it brought Parker's Boston P.I. to weekly prime time with "Spenser: For Hire" starring Robert Urich as Spenser. It even took Spenser's sidekick, Hawk, and gave him a series, "A Man Called Hawk" starring Avery Brooks.
But the demographic ratings for both weekly shows tanked. Consider that for a moment: Spenser is a very modern private eye with extremely liberated attitudes toward women, minorities, gays and practically everything else. If young people couldn't relate to a hip guy like Spenser, who were they going to relate to anyway?
In the 1980s, NBC also jumped on an obvious coming attraction in the mystery world when it filmed Jonathan Kellerman's "When the Bough Breaks" as a TV movie, starring "Cheers" comic Ted Danson as Dr. Alex Delaware, the child psychologist who partners with a gay police detective to solve bizarre crimes in Los Angeles. That was Kellerman's first mystery and he's now one of the publishing world's most reliable producer of best selling novels, all but two of them about Dr. Delaware.
But nothing came of that attempt. When the movie earned so-so ratings, NBC and other TV networks lost interest. ABC also has tried to hop on other mystery genre trends -- it made a TV movie from one of John Sandford's best-selling "Prey" novels, starring Louis Gossett, Jr., and, rather whimsically, turned one of lesbian author Rita Mae Brown's "cat" mysteries into a "Wide World of Disney" movie starring Ricki Lake. These were one-shots that did nothing to curb the hunger among U.S. mystery fans for seeing some of their favorite literary detectives on television.
Like westerns, weekly mystery shows once were a standard ingredient of almost every network schedule. At one point, TV even started turning out original detective characters that seemed destined to become the hottest commodities in the entire mystery genre. Three great ones come to mind: Theo Kojak, Jim Rockford and Lt. Columbo. All three finally ran their course as weekly series detectives -- and all three later were resurrected for some two-hour TV movies.
But today's younger viewers no longer are much interested in private eyes like Rockford or old-fashioned police detectives like Kojak or Columbo. Grim police procedurals like "NYPD Blue" dominated the 1990s. That trend even spread to tradition-loving Great Britain where the painfully real "Prime Suspect" and "Cracker" were the great "mystery" shows of the 1990s.
Today the traditional mystery or detective series is clearly a minority happening on American television. There are only two great remaining venues: PBS, where the venerable "Mystery!" is about to start its 21st season, and the A&E cable network, which is slowly expanding its inventory of mostly British imports by producing its own budget-conscious collection of classic-style American mysteries, filmed largely in Canada.
In addition to the new series of "Spenser" movies, A&E has launched two other series -- "Nero Wolfe," with Canadian Maury Chaykin as the obese "armchair detective" created by Rex Stout in the early 1930s and Oscar-winner Tim Hutton as his sidekick, Archie Goodwin; and the original series featuring ex-Broadway director "Cash" Carter (Gene Wilder) as a 1930s-style amateur sleuth in a small Connecticut town. (Wilder's battle with cancer has put that series on hold for the time being.)
Meanwhile, A&E continues to offer some of the best new British mystery shows, especially the richly-flavored "Inspector Frost" series, based on the novels of R.D. Wingfield, and the "Midsomer Murders" mysteries, featuring Caroline Graham's Inspector Barnaby.
For diehard fans of classic mysteries, the best news for the new season has to be the resumption of production on new "Poirot" movies starring the incomparable David Suchet as Agatha Christie's fussy little Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The first two new Poirot movies were telecast this year on A&E. Now in production are new versions of "Evil Under the Sun" and "Murder in Mesopotamia."
There are never any American mysteries from the other major TV mystery venue: PBS' "Mystery!" But the great British mystery showcase that first brought us Suchet as Poirot, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Joan Hixson as Miss Marple, Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh, Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael, Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole and Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect" this season will bring us the most eagerly-anticipated mystery show of the year: John Thaw and Kevin Whately reunited for the final time as Chief Inspector Morse and Sgt. Lewis in "The Remorseful Day," the last case for Morse.
In the arena of detective drama, there has been nobody better than Inspector Morse during his long run on PBS -- and, in repeat telecasts, on A&E. Adapted from the novel by Colin Dexter, "The Remorseful Day" is to the Morse canon what "Curtain" is for the Poirot canon of Agatha Christie. Nobody else has ever played Morse but the marvelous John Thaw, so this last hurrah for the troubled -- and troublesome -- old Thames Valley police detective is definitely the TV event of the season for mystery fans.
Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton is well aware that many of the classic British detective characters have run their course with the current generation of mystery fans, so she has gradually turned the series toward two new goals: To root out and develop some heretofore overlooked classic detectives for the legion of traditional mystery fans while developing a new batch of contemporary detectives aimed at pleasing younger viewers whose appetites call for grimmer, darker, more realistic mysteries.
Clive Owen will be back for a second season in PBS' 'SECOOND SIGHT,' playing a modern police detective who's slowly going blind.
"Mystery!" will start the season Oct. 12 with a two-part gothic classic, "The Wyvern Mystery," from the novel by Sheridan le Fanu, a 19th century master of horror stories, whose earlier work adapted for the PBS series was "The Dark Angel" (1991), starring Peter O'Toole as the diabolical Uncle Silas. It will star Derek Jacobi ("Cadfael") as Squire Fairfield.
Returning for a fourth season starting Oct. 26 will be "Hetty Wainthropp Investigates" starring the delightful Patricia Routledge as the whimsical middle-aged private eye, who ought to please all those who miss Jessica Fletcher of "Murder, She Wrote" and Miss Jane Marple.
Then the modern era takes over with the third season of "Touching Evil," the searing and often graphic series starring Robson Green ("Reckless") as haunted detective Dave Creegan of London's Organized and Serial Crime police unit. Following will be a second contemporary series, "Second Sight," bringing back Detective Chief Inspector Ross Tanner (Clive Owen), who's slowly going blind. Helping him through his second season will be Claire Skinner as D.I. Catherine Tully.
Next up, in early 2001, will be Inspector Morse's last case, "The Remorseful Day," followed by four new episodes of "The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries," starring "Mystery!" host Diana Rigg as the 1920s-era jazz age sleuth Adela Bradley, adapted from the novels of Gladys Mitchell.
With both Poirot and Morse back on the scene, it ought to be a good mystery season, even though there are virtually no contemporary American detectives coming to TV at all during the year. It may not be long before we'll at least see one contemporary Canadian detective appearing on our screens: Gail Bowen's amateur detective Joanne Kilbourn, who's played by Wendy Crewson in a new series of two-hour movies. I've seen the first, "Deadly Appearances," and it's a winner, so look for it to turn up soon on American television.
Is there any hope that the tyranny of Madison Avenue will be overturned some day and TV will start filming some of the rich and diverse mystery best-sellers readers enjoy so much? I think there is. As TV grows more like radio with hundreds of channels hungry for programming, advertisers will have to start catering to niche markets the way A&E has learned to do with its "Mysteries to Die For" movies, which are ad-supported.
In the meantime, the mystery world is fragmenting anyway. Though there's still a large, mainly female audience out there for the traditional mysteries, which avoid graphic violence and gratuitous sex, TV already is interested in the "woman in jeopardy thrillers" that have grown out of the old mystery genre and the "police procedurals" that have brought more realism to the traditional cops and robbers yarns.
TV will go after writers like Tami Hoag, whose "Night Sins" became a huge TV miniseries; James Patterson, whose "Kiss the Girls" was a major hit in movie theaters a year ago, inspiring a second movie, "Along Came A Spider," and Thomas Harris, whose "Hannibal" is now being filmed as the sequel to "Silence of the Lambs." Their books may be sex-choked and violence-prone, but they do have mysteries at their core.
If that means young people will flock to see them, you can bet TV will at least start making those kinds of mystery programs again.
© 2000 by Ron Miller. The photo of John Thaw is © Carlton; the photo of David Suchet is © London Weekend Television and Mystery!; the photo of Clive Owen is © Stephen F. Morley-BBC Worldwide & Mystery!
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