A nutty campaign brings ‘Jericho’ back for season two

By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

LOS ANGELES – Carol Barbee won’t soon forget May 15, 2007 – the day she received the call that “Jericho” had been canceled. But it was the days that followed, while the show’s executive producer was on vacation, that would become TV lore.

“It was getting phone calls telling me that something was up and that the fans were angry, and it was like, ‘Oh that’s nice – that makes me feel good that the fans are angry,'” Barbee said. “My brother was following it on the Internet, and he kept saying, ‘No, no Carol, this is like a thing … they’re sending nuts!'”

Make that 40,000 pounds of peanuts. “Three days into my trip, I got an e-mail from (CBS Entertainment president) Nina Tassler saying, ‘When you’re back in town, we really need to sit down and talk because this is a huge fan revolt, and we want to figure out a way to make them happy.'”

About two weeks later, a second, albeit abbreviated, season of the small town post-apocalyptic drama got the green light. The first of the show’s seven new episodes premieres Tuesday, Feb. 12 (10 p.m. ET).

“I don’t think CBS really grasped that the show had a worldwide appeal,” said blogtalkradio.com host Shaun Daily of Las Vegas, who is credited with initiating the nuts campaign, an idea he derived from star Skeet Ulrich’s often-used expression – the one-word lament: “Nuts.” – in the season finale.

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“I meant for people to send the little packets of peanuts that they have on the airlines, but then it just blew up,” he said.

Fan protest is nothing new to TV executives, nor was this the first time CBS resurrected a show from the dead. In the spring of 1984, the network renewed “Cagney and Lacey” after a summer letter-writing campaign (and a series Emmy win in September 1983).

The nuts campaign, however, was unique. “It was the first time we were able to see an immediate and very engaged and very specific response to a show being canceled,” Tassler said. “‘Jericho’ was on the crest of what the Internet has come to show us is that you have an audience, the use of viral campaigns and how effective they are.”

While numerous fans concede they TiVo “Jericho” or watch online, Tassler said loyalty counts on-air. “We certainly expressed to the fans our need to bring more eyeballs to the broadcast of the show.”

“Jericho” did well when it premiered in the fall of 2006 but ratings slipped. Then CBS put it on a three-month hiatus, and “it kinda killed us,” Barbee said.

But with these episodes, it became about more than ratings or securing another season.

“It was incumbent upon us to tell a great story for these people who saved the show,” Barbee said.

A humility evident even among the cast on the Burbank set during a taping last September.

“The only reason most of us came back was for the fans,” Ulrich said. “We wanted to make episodes for them because they certainly deserved it after all the effort they put in. I couldn’t imaging turning tail on them after everything they’d done.”

“We got to see the faces behind the forest,” said co-star Ashley Scott, who has made appearances with the cast at Comic-Con and chats with devotees on message boards. “‘Jericho’ is about people fighting for their lives, people fighting for what they believe in, and that’s what the fans did. That’s really exciting for me, and (the work) matters a little bit more.”

Sacrifices were also made.

“It was different for different people, depending on what their initial contracts were,” noted co-star Lennie James, “But everybody, in one way, shape or form, took a pay cut in order to come back to ‘Jericho.'”

Not that he’s complaining: “Everybody says it, and I’ve said it before, and it’s not been true, but it is really true now – this is a fantastic place to go to work.”

In the season opener, the drama picks up where it left off with Jake (Ulrich) and Hawkins (James) in a clash against rival town, New Bern. The story then moves ahead four weeks after the fracas as a new national government is being established.

“There is also a visible change to the town, physically – power has been restored, water and electricity are running. There’s a brighter, more hopeful look, at least for the first couple of episodes,” said co-executive producer Karim Zreik, touring the Main Street back lot that was minutes from being demolished after the initial cancellation.

Sci Fi Channel will run a four-episode marathon from season one of “Jericho” the day before its second season premiere on CBS. If ratings are good, “Jericho” could be in a unique position for season three, what with the ongoing writer’s strike putting the broadcast pilot season in limbo and fewer new developments in the pipeline.

Daily’s not taking any chances.

“I’ve been all over the Internet and on my show trying to keep the fans interested,” he said. “If we’re going to get a third season, the fans have got to pull it through. It’s up to us.”

And lots more nuts.