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Chicago Tribune: Closing the file on 'X'; Ratings tell the tale: Nine years is enough

Chicago Tribune
Closing the file on ‘X’; Ratings tell the tale: Nine years is enough
Allan Johnson

When is it time for a television show to go away? In the case of Fox’s “The X-Files,” after about nine seasons. And as industry observers note, the time frame may vary, but the signs of impending doom often remain the same.

Chris Carter, executive producer of the Fox paranormal series, still insists “we can tell stories now for a long time.” But Mediaweek magazine television analyst Marc Berman responds: “It should have ended last year.” “The X-Files” (8 p.m. Sundays, WFLD-Ch. 32), which follows two government agents in their quest to uncover cases of the paranormal and supernatural, has been a key component for Fox thanks to its appeal among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

However, it has taken several hits this season, which makes Carter’s announcement that the show would end its nine-year run in May almost anticlimatic:

– Ratings have taken a huge dip — last season it averaged about 13 million to 14 million viewers; this season that average has fallen to 8.7 million.

– It is facing stiff competition on Sundays from ABC’s “Alias” and NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

“Part of our audience went somewhere else and they didn’t show up and they weren’t coming back,” says Carter, 45.

– It has relegated star Gillian Anderson to co-starring status to work in new actors Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish.

Carter says the plan was to bring Gish and Patrick along slowly as new agents Monica Reyes and John Doggett (Patrick started at the beginning of last season; Gish came along near its conclusion) so as not to force-feed them to fans.

– It lost one of its key co-stars this season in David Duchovny, who has played passionate, wisecracking FBI agent Fox Mulder since the show’s premiere in 1993.

“When a show ages, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep the quality up,” Berman says. “It’s difficult for the writers to come up with new story lines and new twists.”

Carter notes that possible fan resistance to Patrick and Gish was a risk when you’re dealing with “the life of a TV show that is nine years old — what people expect from it, and will they reinvest in brand new characters and in a relationship the same way they would for a new show.”

Barbara Corday, professor and chair of film and television production at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema- Television, thinks a series has a “natural life span” that dictates its time on the air.

“It starts slowly, it peters on the brink of being canceled, suddenly maybe it gets a couple of awards or people start writing about it, or for some reason or other it begins building an audience,” Corday says.

“It has usually two, three, four years of real high visibility, and it’s very successful. And then it begins to peter out as those fans either get older or move on, or their tastes change or new shows have come along or whatever.”

Another tried-and-true practice that sometimes delays the demise of a series is a network keeping the show around to wring every possible ratings point.

Berman argues networks sometimes like to “milk” an aging show “to the very last second” to get maximum ratings exposure, rather than invest in a new series.

“They can do better with a seventh or eighth season of a failing program than they can with the first season of something that’s going to flop after 10 episodes anyway,” adds Lawrence Lichty, a Northwestern University professor of radio, television and film.

Carter says the series will conclude with a two-parter in May that could include Duchovny — and may or may not answer many of the lingering questions of alien invasion and government coverups. Rather than continue producing a show that had lost some of its audience, he said, he will spend time gearing up for a logical conclusion.

“My feeling was we were doing great work and it was less appreciated than it might be,” Carter says. “I wanted to refocus the energy, and show people what great work we’re doing by wrapping it up this season.”

Carter “had been thinking provisionally about ending the show for a couple of years” because of several “business” reasons, including uchovny’s desire to leave, and Carter’s own contract expiring (he signed a new one for this season).

“This is actually a creative choice,” he adds. “I think it’s really he best one for the fans, as well as the people I work with.”

“The X-Files” isn’t totally dead: Plans are in the works for a second “X-Files” film to star Duchovny and Anderson.

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