Roughed-Up Family Guy Producer Finds Himself on TV’s Ash-Heap

Thursday, June 15

A year and a half ago, a baby-faced animator from Connecticut named Seth MacFarlane was TV’s latest Next Big Thing. At 25, Mr. MacFarlane had a $2 million-plus, three-year production deal with the Fox network, and his first cartoon sitcom, Family Guy –for which he wrote and performed many of the voices–was given a post-Super Bowl launch and a Sunday night time slot after The Simpsons .

Family Guy was an immediate hit. Mr. MacFarlane found himself written about in dozens of newspapers and magazines; USA Today seemed to embody the general tone: “In person, MacFarlane comes across as a soft-spoken computer geek–a Bill Gates type before Microsoft success.”

Well, Bill Gates didn’t have such a great year either.

Today, a frustrated, prematurely graying Mr. MacFarlane finds his show being squeezed off television. Crippled by numerous schedule changes and hiatuses, Family Guy is a Dead Cartoon Walking. Fox recently began airing original episodes of the program for the summer, but the network has no intention of bringing it back in the fall. Like the manager of a baseball team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, Mr. MacFarlane still comes to work every day, but …

“It’s a show that emerged as a hit when it was on Sunday,” said Mr. MacFarlane on the telephone from Hollywood, “and really, without being too brutal, every possible wrong decision was made along the line as far as programming it.”

Mr. MacFarlane isn’t the first bright young star to become network roadkill, of course, but he feels flattened. First, there was the hype about Mr. MacFarlane himself, which sent shivers of envy down the spines of competitors. Then there was the Super Bowl premiere. Then came an odd controversy sparked by the former headmaster of the tony Kent School, Mr. MacFarlane’s alma mater.

Finally, there was Fox’s decision to yank Family Guy –a move that forced Mr. MacFarlane, just a few years removed from art school, to face the task of letting staff members go. “That,” Mr. MacFarlane said, “was the toughest thing.”

Still, Mr. MacFarlane said he has managed to keep an even keel. He’s still polishing up the remaining six episodes of Family Guy –though that, he admitted, can feel kind of futile. He maintained that the show has retained a strong and loyal fan following. “You know, despite all this, we made two seasons of what I think are going to be really lasting, enduring shows,” he said.

Mr. MacFarlane said he believes Fox failed to capitalize on the show’s early success, especially its popularity among young males. It is true that Family Guy had the kind of scheduling odyssey that might have sent Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to the ratings basement. First the show was moved from Sunday nights in order to make way for Futurama , Matt Groening’s Simpsons sequel. Family Guy was moved to Thursdays, against UPN’s WWF Smackdown! , which, like Family Guy , was popular among young males.

Mr. MacFarlane said that Doug Herzog, the former Fox Entertainment president, called and told him and his co-executive producer David Zuckerman “that the show was being moved to Thursdays, and that it was planned to really target a male demographic … and we said, ‘Well, you know, if that is Fox’s plan, what about wrestling? That’s the most popular thing on television for that demographic, and how are we supposed to compete with that?'” Then, according to Mr. MacFarlane, Mr. Herzog said, “Oh, is wrestling on Thursdays?” Mr. MacFarlane paused, as if he still can’t believe it, months later. “Network president! Heard it with my own damn ears. Make of it what you will. Our jaws dropped.”

[Contacted by The Observer , Mr. Herzog called Mr. MacFarlane’s recollection of that conversation “categorically untrue.” “We knew wrestling was on Thursdays,” he said. “Certainly, we didn’t know wrestling was going to be as popular on Thursdays as it turned out to be; I don’t think UPN did, either. But we certainly knew wrestling was on Thursdays.”]

Family Guy lasted just two Thursdays before being yanked off the air. It returned for a brief spell in December, finally being resettled on Tuesdays in March, but it never regained any of its momentum from the previous year when it was Fox’s highest rated new show.

There may be other reasons why Family Guy flopped so far so fast. It arrived at the peak of network TV’s animation wave, amid Dilbert , Home Movies and The PJs . Fox already had The Simpsons and King of the Hill , South Park was a big hit for Comedy Central and Futurama was on its way. There were, said Mr. MacFarlane, “a lot of animated shows that were not done right that I think it hurt the ones that were right.”

But it’s fair to say that Family Guy is not the Honeymooners . In it, a dysfunctional Rhode Island family, the Griffins, headed by potbellied patriarch Peter Griffin and a talking baby named Stewie, gave another crudely charming take on contemporary domestic life. But that describes almost every show from The Flintstones to Roseanne .

Littered with cutdowns and anti-P.C. humor, the show was almost gleeful in its willingness to offend and push the envelope–it made The Simpsons look as tame as an episode of Touched by an Angel . Sometimes, however, Family Guy ‘s youthful abandon teetered on tastelessness, including a notorious episode in which a boy blew the head off his J.F.K. Pez dispenser and remarked that at least he had his R.F.K. Pez dispenser to back it up. “When you are working this many hours,” said Mr. MacFarlane, “every once in a while, something will slip through that you go back and look at … and go, ‘Ugh, I kind of wish we hadn’t done that. The Pez dispenser joke was probably well, well over the line.”

But Mr. MacFarlane never could have anticipated that the biggest charge against his show would come from his former Kent School headmaster, Father Richardson Schell. Under the umbrella of an organization called ProudSponsorsUSA, Father Schell called for an advertising boycott of the show, citing its offensive content. Only later was it revealed that the headmaster may have had other motives for his protest–the Family Guy ‘s family shared a last name with Father Schell’s former assistant Elaine Griffin, something that Mr. MacFarlane insists was purely coincidental.

The Kent School dust-up led to another round of publicity, including a feature in Vanity Fair , which pleased Mr. MacFarlane. But he calls Father Schell’s protest “childish” and said he still feels too uncomfortable to set foot on his old prep school campus. “It kind of sucks,” he said. “I’m hoping that at some point I’ll be able to go back there and not be nervous about getting shot.”

But what Mr. MacFarlane regrets most is not being able to rally Fox brass to support the show. As Family Guy began to move around the schedule, Mr. MacFarlane said he had numerous conversations with Fox executives, but he never went fully into attack mode.

“We had some conversations with Doug Herzog where we urged him to please get behind the show, please, you know, stop screwing around with it, but there was never a time where I outright called up and said, ‘Goddamn it, this is fucking ridiculous!'” Mr. MacFarlane said. “I wanted to. I wanted to so badly, but you know … that will age you faster than anything.”

Technically, Mr. MacFarlane still has some time left on his Fox deal. Technically, when Family Guy is pronounced dead, he could start work on a new show for the network. But he said, “I’m a little, you know, disillusioned because of the way this show has been handled,” Mr. MacFarlane said. “It’s the kind of thing, like, ‘What’s to stop this from happening again with that network?’ I don’t know. It’s a little disheartening in that respect. I mean, the frustrating thing is that the difficult thing is to make a good show, and once you have that, it’s not brain surgery to put it where somebody can see it.”

Tonight on Fox, it’s another abandoned Fox star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, in her ill-fated spinoff, Time of Your Life . Hey, Jennifer, why don’t you call Seth MacFarlane up? He could make you a cartoon! [ FOX, 5, 9 p.m. ]

Thursday, June 15

All hail Sherwood Schwartz! Nickelodeon, capitalizing on Survivor mania, has become the all- Gilligan’s-Island -all-the-time cable network. Did you ever notice how Alan Hale Jr. looks right at the camera, like Oliver Hardy? [ NICK, 6, 9 p.m. ]

Friday, June 16

Tonight, ABC airs two straight episodes of the back-from-hiatus reality show Making the Band . By the time they actually get around to making this freakin’ band, they’ll be as old as the Monkees. Come on guys, get on with it! [ WABC, 7, 9 p.m. ]

Saturday, June 17

The only thing more tiresome than the relentless hype for CBS’s voyeur-TV castaway adventure Survivor is the endless op-ed pundit head-scratching about What It All Means.

While we’re at it, enough with everyone babbling about how Survivor has the terminally creaky CBS “skewing young.” Yes, the show is a hit; yes, its viewers are younger than the Diagnosis Murder gang; but it doesn’t mean that CBS isn’t still the Metamucil Network. Survivor ‘s median viewer age for its first two episodes is about 48. “They [CBS] are still going to stay with their core strategy,” says BBDO broadcast research analyst Mike Greco, meaning they aren’t going to abandon the old folks. “I don’t think you’ll have CBS going after the WB’s audience.”

What is network TV’s youngest skewing prime-time show? The WB’s Popular , which skews in at a median age of 22.

Tonight on the WB, remember Xena ? She’s running for senator from upstate Athens. [ WPIX, 11, 7 p.m. ]

Sunday, June 18

Tonight on The Wonderful World of Disney: Kazaam , starring Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O’Neal as a rapping genie. [ WABC, 7, 7 p.m. ]

Monday, June 19

Most ethnic minorities get the shaft in prime time; perhaps no one does as much as Mexican-Americans. Tonight, New York Public Television tries to offer a more lasting portrayal with The Mexican Americans , featuring Paul Rodriguez. [ WLIW, 21, 8 p.m. ]

Tuesday, June 20

Tonight, on Biography , Mary Magdalene. [ A&E, 16, 8 p.m. ]