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From the Archives: Why Nobody Knows What Will Be a Hit

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The cast of Bette, the biggest hit sitcom of the 2000s. / CBS

After I posted a link to my Fall TV Preview post, a reader on Twitter asked me to predict what the highest-rated new shows of the fall would be. My answer: This is something that I do not do, on account of sucking at it. But fine, I finally decided to play along: I think Hawaii Five-0 will do well, because it’s a cinematic remake of a recognizable franchise that fits CBS’s brand perfectly.

And then I thought of 2000. No one in 2000 was predicting that a new show called CSI would do anything. CBS’s big hit, everyone knew, would be The Fugitive, because it was a cinematic remake of a recognizable franchise that fit CBS’s brand perfectly.

And CBS’s big comedy hit? That was going to be Bette, a much-hyped though God-awful star vehicle for Bette Midler. When it was canceled that same season, I wrote a piece on how it became the beneficiary of self-reinforcing hype. The references are old, but the point is still worth making:

Increasingly, TV critics, like all other entertainment journalists, are expected not to be tastemakers but taste anticipators: to decide what will be hot and make sure they cover it, even if they end up panning it.

That’s what we did with “Bette” come fall. The reviews ranged from raves to pans, but the total amount of column inches was huge, the headlines predictably corny (“Simply Divine!” “A Sure Bette!”). Why did we give “Bette” big writeups? Because it was going to be hot. Why was it going to be hot? Because everybody was going to write about it.

So I can’t say I’m even confident about my Hawaii Five-0 prediction. Which I guess means: bet on it! Bet big!

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