NBC's 'West Wing' is still a show to be reckoned with

Sunday, November 3, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Three consecutive best-drama Emmys. A Peabody Award. One of TV's most affluent audiences. All that, and "The West Wing" still must account for losing viewers to "The Bachelor."

In the bottom-line world of television, series that deliver a young crowd are the fondest desire of advertisers and networks -- and ABC's dating game is among the new competitors sapping youthful strength from "The West Wing" on NBC.

It's not a national crisis that people are being lured away from a finely crafted White House drama by the antics of marriage-hungry singles, although the reverse might gladden a concerned citizenry.

It may not even be a crucial problem for "The West Wing," which is a stronger candidate than early ratings indicate.

Granted, any audience shrinkage comes at a difficult time for the show's producers and studio. Warner Bros. Television and NBC will begin hard bargaining over a new contract early next year and diminished ratings would hurt Warner's cause.

The studio now gets about $2 million per episode from NBC, according to an executive familiar with the contract who spoke on condition of anonymity. Warner may seek up to $8 million per episode next season.

There's more than money at stake for "The West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin and his fellow executive producers.

After being emotionally knocked off balance by the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, Sorkin feels he has regained the perspective needed to craft a drama that examines political machinations and partisan clashes.

"When I came back at the beginning of this year ... I was suddenly comfortable in my chair. The show was a lot of fun to write and was being written with a certain spirit," Sorkin said. "So we're back."

"Creatively, we're off to the strongest start we've ever been," added Wells.

"The West Wing" has carefully etched a campaign between the liberal President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and a conservative Republican nominee (played by James Brolin), which culminated in their debate last Wednesday. Election results roll in on this week's episode.

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