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Barbee on New Life for 'Jericho'

Thousands of e-mails—and enough mixed nuts—were sent to CBS' executive offices to convince entertainment chief Nina Tassler that Jericho needed at least seven more episodes to satisfy fans of the apocalyptic drama. (Fans co-opted a lead character's response—“Nuts!”—when surrender was suggested in a scene.) The network will begin rerunning the last 11 episodes of the first season on July 6 at 9 p.m. ET. The first-season DVD will be released in September. And “with any luck,” says Executive Producer Carol Barbee, those seven new episodes will be on the air next fall. Barbee talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about online TV shows, Jericho's fanatical fan base and her controversial series for CBS, Swingtown.

Were you surprised by the fans' reaction to CBS' cancellation of Jericho?

I knew we had a very loyal and engaged audience. I was surprised by the volume and incredible pressure that they kept up, the way it snowballed and the scope of it. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. And it was so gratifying.

Was CBS surprised as well?

They were surprised. I was talking to them from time to time through all of this. The people who were the strongest voices to cancel Jericho were not the people who were very involved in Jericho. We have the good fortune/bad fortune of being on the most stable network. There's not a lot of room on the schedule. They look at their shows and say, where shall we cut our losses? I think they just said, “Yeah, they lost 2 million viewers [during the winter hiatus], no show has ever come back from that. Let it go.”

Do you think this has awakened the network to the significance of online viewers?

I really do think that Jericho and what just happened is a sea change in television. The networks are really taking notice of the fact that you can't just count on traditional viewers anymore. They need people on all those different platforms, and, most importantly, they need a way to count those viewers.

Certainly, we're not looking to just exist on the Internet. I think every show will be a hybrid show. I think you can't just exist on traditional television. You have to have a Web presence, and, on the Web, you tell different types of stories than you have on traditional television.

Do you think the traditional television model will become obsolete?

When television came along, they thought it was a great way to advertise radio. The Internet is where the 18-49 [demographic] is getting a lot of their news and entertainment.

I don't foresee a moment where there isn't still that traditional television viewer. This is a moment in history where you realize, wait a minute, we really have stepped into that new world.

Will Jericho live beyond the seven episodes?

We are not closing this story out. We have a story to tell. It's a really rich story, and we've got it mapped out for quite a while. The network suggested doing a two-hour movie to wrap up this story. We weren't in any way interested in closing it down.

When CBS came back to us, they said, “We only have time and space on our sound stage for you to do a limited number of episodes.” So we'll do those with the intention that we'll be back.

The “fall finale” trend, which was just another term for “long hiatus,” hurt numerous shows last season, including Heroes and Lost. Did you know at the time that it was a bad idea?

Yes, it's never good to be off the air. But the network said, we don't want to put repeats in the middle of it, and we don't want to preempt you [during basketball]. We were going to get interrupted by the Christmas break anyway. Their first instinct was, “We need to carve out two sections of 11 weeks.” Here's where I think we learned a little something. They had said they were going to rerun our show with some repeats, so that the break would have been enough to get new viewers up to speed. But they didn't do that. And they ceased to advertise or show us on the traditional network. For it to work, it had to be a two-pronged advertising strategy: You have to keep advertising to the traditional viewers, and that means television spots; and you have to have a presence online. They took us off the air for, I think, good intentions.

The 24 model, running a show uninterrupted for half the season, will be something we'll see more of. CBS will run Swingtown that way.

I agree. Swingtown is a serialized show. It will run straight through without repeats. I think that, had CBS not cancelled us this year, that's probably what they would have done with Jericho.

Swingtown is a departure for CBS. It's about couple-swapping, and that might turn off advertisers and some viewers. But is there any such thing as bad attention?

It's a little buzzy. It's a big risk for [CBS]. [Series Executive Producer/creator] Mike Kelley is a great writer, and it's a story that's very near and dear to his heart. He wrote a great pilot for cable, and CBS read it and said, “We want it.” There was a concern that they'll pull punches. It's a risqué pilot. I think what will be interesting to watch with Swingtown is if people are turned off. The hope with that show is that regular people like you and me watch and we start to understand how these people think and what they will experiment with. I gotta tell you, I don't understand the psychology of a swinger, but what I find so fascinating about it is, it's all about human nature.

As a producer, how do you balance your creative concerns with your obligation to give the network something it can sell?

I'm still more of an artist. But as a showrunner, I do have to take those business concerns under consideration. I think CBS or any network has to exist on those two planes: They are in the business of entertainment and art, in a way. [Nina Tassler] understands that she has to bring in something more exciting creatively. CBS has to appeal to artists. Artists are not going to stay where the only thing they get to write is one type of show.

And controversy can be good for a show.

Yes, I think so. As a viewer, I'm drawn to those shows that cause that kind of controversy. Weirdly enough, I think it's good business because those are the shows that burn most brightly.

Some affiliates refused to run NYPD Blue. Some may also shy away from Swingtown.

They might. But you know what? That will be a story in itself. I am from a small town in North Carolina, and I gotta say this kind of behavior is fascinating to me. I think it's fascinating to people in general, whether they admit it or not.

Did you get any nuts at your office?

I did not. They didn't send them to us. The only thing we got was incredibly lovely thank-you notes.