'West Wing' creator's latest show fails to win the people's vote

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What was meant to be the best hour of quality entertainment on American television this autumn - a new comedy drama about writers, producers and actors churning out a fictional late-night sketch show - is proving instead to be the season's biggest let-down.

Indeed, critics and assorted media gossip hounds have opened a less than discreet death-watch for the programme, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. When a columnist reported on Monday that NBC had decided to cancel it forthwith, there was a general rush to believe it.

The report - from the rival TV network Fox - was faulty, however, and NBC officials were quoted yesterday that all post-mortems on Studio 60 were premature. The network also confirmed that three more scripts had been ordered from the man who created the show in the first place, Aaron Sorkin.

It was partly the Sorkin parentage of Studio 60 that ensured such high hopes when it debuted in September. Mr Sorkin was the creator of The West Wing, the White House drama that introduced audiences around the world to the trials of President Jed Bartlett. His new show also boasted a strong cast including Matthew Perry of Friends, Amanda Peet and Britain's Lucy Davis, who found fame in The Office.

Just as The West Wing took viewers deep inside the machinations of a fictional but thoroughly plausible Democrat White House, so this show offers an insider's perspective. The variety show in question is unabashedly similarly to NBC's own Saturday Night Live.

In spite of its impeccable pedigree and enormously expensive look - indeed Warner Brothers, the studio that makes it, has spent an average of $3m per episode - critics began to carp that the insider feel was the main problem. They branded it as pompous media navel-gazing.

US viewers seem to be in agreement. Studio 60 airs on Monday nights and last week it attracted an unimpressive 7.7 million viewers, a slump of 33 per cent compared with its first episode. This week, NBC chose not to air it at all, instead showing the baseball film Friday Night Lights. If that turns out to have increased NBC's audience, it could be the final nail in the coffin for Studio 60.

Ditching a Sorkin show would be a painful cut for NBC, which may also be consoling itself with data showing that those who are tuning into Studio 60 at least count as the most educated and desirable viewers for advertisers, with median incomes of $60,000 a year. Keeping the show in spite of its ratings tumble also fits with the network's efforts to brand itself as the network of intelligent dramas. "I'm sitting here right now with some very good television shows that I think have a lot of promise that need to be nurtured a little bit," NBC's entertainment president Kevin Reilly told the Los Angeles Times yesterday in reference to Studio 60.

But NBC can do nothing if the critics continue to grumble and predict the programme's demise. Among them is Aaron Barnhardt of the Kansas Star. "If NBC were so eager to have Sorkin back," he wrote in his column yesterday, "it should have renewed The West Wing."