Can This TV Show Be Saved?

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Paul Drinkwater / NBC

Scott Porter as Jason Street in Friday Night Lights

The only thing more frustrating to network television executives than a show critics love but viewers hate is a show that critics love and viewers won't even try watching. That's the situation NBC suits have been in ever since Friday Night Lights premiered in the 8 p.m. Tuesday time-slot in early October, without a strong lead-in and up against ABC's juggernaut Dancing With the Stars. Set in the rural fictional town of Dillon, Texas, where the local high school football team is tantamount to the community's church, the series was quick to garner praise from reviewers, including TIME's James Poniewozik, who cited its rich characters and excellent performances. But in that other realm, where advertising revenues dwell, the response to Friday Night Lights has been considerably less glowing. Since its debut the series has hovered between 69 and 72 in Nielsen's ratings of top 100 shows. "I'm enormously frustrated," concedes NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who's nonetheless so convinced of Lights' commercial potential that he committed to a full 22-episode season. "The passion of the people who watch the show is so disproportionate to the size of the audience."

The least of the show's problems is its title. Friday Night Lights was inspired by the 2004 movie and, before that, the best-selling book by journalist H.G. Bissinger — both of the same name and both highly praised — and producers wanted to keep the title. Nor could the network air the series on Fridays, which would have made things easy for viewers. But NBC marketers joke that they considered a new promotional slogan when they recently switched the show to Wednesdays: "Friday Night Lights — now one day closer to Friday."

Whatever day it airs, however, a more serious issue for the freshman drama is one of gender imbalance. Lights' core audience right now is young men drawn to the football. But that's precisely what turns off women, who saw the testosterone-driven football promos early on and ran the other way faster than a halfback outracing the defense. But the reality is that the show is a character-driven prime-time soap that happens to be set in the world of the high school football. "It's a show about young people under extraordinary pressure and the adults that are forced to deal with them," says David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, which developed the series. "We knew that the football might be a barrier for women." Reilly puts it more bluntly: "Women don't think the show's for them."

Determined to overcome the gender bias, the network has marshaled its marketing forces and mounted an aggressive campaign to save Friday Night Lights, which revolves around Dillon's new coach (Kyle Chandler) as he deals with the team and football-obsessed townsfolk. The first move was a schedule change to Wednesdays at 8 p.m. It's not Friday, but but it does take the series out of the path of American Idol, ABC's seemingly unbeatable hit that starts airing again Tuesdays starting Jan. 16. "This was definitely a defensive move," says NBC scheduling vice president Mitch Metcalf.

NBC's promotion department has also been working overtime to increase awareness of the show, airing episodes on Bravo, the network's little-sister cable channel, and streaming them free over Lights even has a new tag line — "It's About Life" — that airs at the end of each promo for the show. "That was the challenge going forward from November through February, to let people know it's about family," says NBC's in-house marketing president Vince Manze. "It's not about football."

A similar message is being drummed home in testimonials from fans recruited from Friday Night Lights websites. "We asked people to say what they liked about the series," says Manze. The result are short spots that started airing in November. The network even sprung for clearance to use My Chemical Romance's song "Welcome to the Black Parade" as background music in ads. Three-minute cast profiles have been mounted online, and during peak holiday season 30-second spots played in movie theaters around the country.

Will these marketing ploys save the fledgling freshman drama? NBC is betting on it, confident that eventually a larger audience of women will find its way to Lights before May, when the network announces whether the show makes it to season two. Already in its new Wednesday slot, the show delivered its highest ratings since the pilot. Good news for the passionate core of believers at NBC who are trying to keep the series from going the way of dozens of less praiseworthy shows. "It takes enough people shouting that this is a wonderful show," says former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, who is now producing under his own banner. Maybe in Burbank, as in Dillon, cheerleading is just what Friday Night Lights needs to score a touchdown among female viewers.