Has the faux-Lamb been led to slaughter? Search the bean counters for a bloody knife.
Fortunes in network television being as tied to numbers (the ratings variety) as any spin of the wheel or deal of the cards in this town, the fate of CBS’ freshman drama Vegas—starring Dennis Quaid doing a fictionalized take on ex-Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb—is a pair of airborne dice about to skid across the green felt.
Indicators suggest they could very well turn up resembling … what’s that dice-game expression? Right: the peepers of fanged, limbless reptiles.
Behold the kick in the ass: Over its 15-episode run so far, Vegas is knotted up with fellow CBS dramas Elementary and Blue Bloods as the 16th most popular show overall on the broadcast networks. Ranking as a top-20 series is a coup on the surface. Therein lies the network’s press-release peg should they advance it to Year Two.
Yet in what’s rumored to be a prelude to Vegas getting dumped in a hole in the TV desert, CBS yanked the newcomer from its Tuesdays-at-10 home and handed it to newer-comer Golden Boy, then docked Vegas for three straight weeks, finally letting it resurface April 5 in the Friday-at-9 slot. Preemptions and schedule hopscotch—particularly, reassignment to a night that’s a ratings dead zone—are nearly always a ticket to Cancellationville.
You like Vegas, and you’re over 50? Blame the kiddies (relatively speaking), whose eyeballs—lusted after by advertisers—are elsewhere. Whether Vegas is labeled a losing hand by CBS will be announced in May, when the networks unveil their next-season lineups—also notable for what isn’t on them. (Caveat: Occasionally, a network reveals its renewals earlier, and saves May for trumpeting the newbies exclusively.) Vegas initially seemed a strong bet, backed by solid buzz and expected double-barreled charisma from its headliners: a veteran movie star in Quaid and an established TV star in Michael Chiklis, late of The Shield and The Commish.
More advantages? Compelling setup: tense face-offs between rugged lawman Lamb (toothy/scowly Quaid) and mob-connected casino operator Vincent Savino (chrome-domed Chiklis in understated-menace mode). Seductive setting: 1960s Vegas, at its classy, tuxedos-and-gowns best (as opposed to today’s glitz-blitzed Strip and its fanny-packed throngs). Plus both stars—and ace mob chronicler Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino)—among the producers, invested in a quality product.
Packin’ that showbiz heat, Vegas debuted on September 25 opposite NBC’s Parenthood and ABC’s Private Practice, capturing 15 million viewers, topping its competitors combined. Eventually, Vegas leveled off to a weekly average of 12 million viewers, a still-decent performance.
That could mean exactly zip.
It’s the demos, stupid.
You’d imagine baby boomers, who are turning seniors into the dominant age demo in the United States, and can flash way more cash than their offspring, would be ardently courted by advertisers, whose patronage fuels network TV.
You’re 18 to 49 years old? Uncle Ad Man wants YOU. You spend money and you’re prone to changing buying habits and switching brands, rendering you susceptible to their come-ons. You’re 50-plus? Catch the early-bird special, Granny and Gramps. You save your money, your spending patterns have calcified (why buy Crest when you’ve been scrubbing the pearlies with Colgate for decades?), and you’ve already made your major purchases in life.
Under that rubric, Vegas is foundering. Those 12 million viewers? Only a piddly 2.7 million come from the jackpot demo. That 16th-tie ranking overall? Reverse it for demo standings: Vegas places 61st.
Let’s backtrack into the math-nerd calculations of Nielsen Media Research—at whose stats-obsessed altar networks worship—and their demo grading system.
Formula: A demo rating represents the percentage of the 126.5 million adults ages 18 to 49 who live in a U.S. household with a television—and are watching a particular program.
On that scale, NBC’s Sunday Night Football, with a 7.8 rating in the 18-49 demo, occupies the tippy-top rung this season. However, given that sports is event programming, a fairer comparison is the weekly-series category, in which CBS’ The Big Bang Theory rules with a 4.9.
Now consider Vegas’ trajectory: Bowing with an already-low 2.5 in the 18-49 demo, it dropped to 2.0 in week two, and by week four had tumbled to 1.6. Over one month—an alarming 40 percent plunge.
Gauged over 15 episodes so far, Vegas averages 1.7. Comparatively, in the same Tuesday-at-10 slot on CBS last season, Unforgettable scored a 2.3—and got canned. (CBS has since revived it for a summer run.) Should Vegas’ time-slot competitor, Parenthood, earn renewal from NBC despite attracting fewer overall eyeballs than Quaid and Company, remember that its paltry 1.9 demo still trumped Vegas.
Perhaps on sinking NBC—which placed a humiliating fifth, behind Univision, in the 18-49 demo for all prime-time programming during February sweeps—Vegas’ numbers wouldn’t sound the cancellation alarm. Bottom-dwelling already, the Peacock net wouldn’t have much to lose by nurturing a show like Vegas, heavily promoting it and taking time to add more youthful elements. (Patience proved fruitful to NBC decades ago, when it wouldn’t abandon initially low-rated Cheers and Seinfeld.) On CBS—the leader in overall viewers that also took the 18-49 crown in February—Vegas’ prospects are considerably iffier as the Tiffany network is less inclined to let a demo loser drag down its stellar ratings.
Ironically, this Nielsen quagmire might’ve been avoided (and more creative freedom granted) had Vegas landed on less pressurized cable—say, HBO, where it would’ve made a cozy companion to Atlantic City-themed Boardwalk Empire.
Yes, it’s the demos, plus …
Budget-busting issues will also factor into CBS’ verdict. Vegas is reportedly an expensive little prime-time bauble. Trade publications note that Quaid and Chiklis earn salaries befitting their status, and re-creating earlier-era Vegas—the series is not filmed here, but on sets in New Mexico and California—represents a sizable expense.
Placing Vegas in the early ’60s might also cost it viewers. Despite the era’s vivid history, successful series set in the ’60s, or arcing into them from the ’50s, are fairly rare. Among around 40 in prime-time history, you could only call a handful—China Beach, Crime Story, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Wonder Years and Mad Men—bona fide hits. Excepting Mad Men, they were Nielsen champs when boomers dominated the coveted demo, supporting series centered around themselves.
Baby-boomer nostalgia—dig those Kennedy-era cars with the fins, and those dorky fedoras!—likely isn’t destination viewing for their kids and grandkids.
Yet in February, Chiklis told a fan on Twitter: “No [it won’t be canceled]. Vegas is a powerful show with a huge audience that will continue to grow. … We need a run of shows without so many preemptions. CBS is very smart. They have a plan.”
Actors are complimentary to their network overlords. Until they’re thrown overboard. What about, ya know, the show?
Creatively, Vegas is a good-but-not-as-good-as-it-could-be series hobbled by inexplicable lethargy from a surprising source: Quaid. On the big screen, he’s a compelling presence. On the small screen, not so much. Drawling to excess as Lamb—our take-no-shit sheriff from 1961 to 1979—he never seems to own a scene.
Famously, Marshall McLuhan labeled film a “hot medium” and TV a “cool medium.” Dialing down his intense persona, James Caan, another macho movie dude, fit the small screen snugly but still tossed off sparks on NBC’s former Las Vegas. Quaid’s setting, at least when he isn’t shooting or clobbering some baddie, is set several notches too low.
Ripple effect: Chiklis, so memorably intimidating as good-cop/bad-cop-in-one Vic Mackey in The Shield, doesn’t have enough to bounce off of in their few shared scenes. Wisely, Chiklis turns down the heat on Savino—the casino kingpin can’t afford unbridled ruthlessness, caught between pleasing his Chi-town mob overseers and sidestepping Vegas law enforcers—but he may be victimized by his own skill.
So burned into our psyches is the brutish Mackey that it’s tough not to superimpose it over everything Chiklis does.
Plots have been decent, though creakily familiar, juxtaposing what one could call The CBS Murder Mystery of the Night for the hero to solve (yaaaawn) against the more intriguing machinations at the Savoy, the resort run by Savino.
Breakout performer? Radiating the slinky carnality of a classic Hitchcock blonde, Sarah Jones dazzles as count-room manager/skimmer Mia Rizzo, whose cool, cat-like sexiness makes the screen purr. Portraying her dad, wiseguy Johnny Rizzo, menacing Michael Wiseman was a tripwire ever ready to explode. You couldn’t turn away when he was on, but he was sacrificed too early for a short-term plot point when Lamb’s younger brother, Deputy Jack Lamb (Jason O’Mara) killed him in self-defense, even as he dated his daughter.
Disappointingly, while Pileggi reportedly punches up dialogue, he hasn’t penned an episode since the pilot. Encouragingly, though, recent outings have introduced an extra element of glamour. Hollywood characters have surfaced in Vegas, widening the plotlines—a hook that just might reel in younger viewers.
What if Vegas still bites the desert dust? CSI, our network iron man, has already been green-lighted for Season 14.
Vegas might not survive on TV. Vegas always will.