Tuned In: CBS's 'Three Rivers' has likely run its course

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CBS's Pittsburgh-set medical drama "Three Rivers" has stopped flowing.

The network yanked the series from its December schedule late Monday and announced no plans for future air dates. "Cold Case" moves back to 9 p.m. beginning Sunday, and reruns of other CBS dramas will air at 10 p.m. for the next few weeks.

"No final decision on its future has been made," said a CBS spokeswoman of the show's fate. "Three Rivers" will complete production on the 13 episodes ordered.

Technically "Three Rivers" is on "hiatus," but the more likely reality is that the show is done, with the possibility of unaired episodes being burned off at a later date.

"Three Rivers" joins the ranks of previous filmed entertainment that made the city look good -- "Rivers" featured many new establishing exterior shots of Pittsburgh despite filming mostly in Los Angeles -- but wasn't great in execution (see also: "Striking Distance," "Inspector Gadget"). The same theory also holds that projects that make Pittsburgh look less attractive ("Wonder Boys," "The Road," CBS's "The Guardian") tend to be of higher quality.

"Three Rivers" starred fan-adored actor Alex O'Loughlin ("Moonlight") as a star transplant surgeon at the fictional Three Rivers Medical Center. Overall household ratings for the show were not awful: It ranked No. 42 among 245 prime-time series in household ratings and drew an average 8.4 million viewers.

But the demographic ratings used to set advertising rates skewed old: Its most recent telecast tied for No. 71 among adults 18-49, just below a Friday airing of the telenovela "Sortilegio" on Univision. Advertisers pay a premium to reach younger viewers, which makes younger-skewing shows more profitable for television networks.

"Three Rivers" was viewed as a troubled series from pretty early in its existence. Many critics disparaged the original pilot, which was shot in Western Pennsylvania and then scrapped. A later pilot, filmed on a new, large set in Hollywood, didn't fare much better, rating 48 (out of a possible 100) at Metacritic.com, a Web site that aggregates reviews of TV shows.

Producers and a small crew returned to Pittsburgh in August to film a rugby match scene for the new premiere episode that ended up getting cut and placed in a later episode. The scene included a nonsensical attempt at localism as a tough guy from Andy's (O'Loughlin's) old neighborhood (Mount Washington) hit him after a play was over.

"Mister Big Shot, you may work across the river now, but I know where you came from," the tough guy said, "and who you screwed over to get there."

Who knew "wrong side of the tracks" applied to Pittsburgh's rivers? And which river, since there are three, is considered the good side? Or does the tough guy mean no one from Mount Washington can become a successful transplant surgeon?

The episode order of the first two episodes was reversed at the last minute because network executives thought the second episode was stronger, but this introduced continuity errors into the story of a new transplant coordinator who was shown on his first day at the hospital in the second episode to air even though he was working at the hospital in the first episode that aired.

CBS's scheduling also did not help "Three Rivers." It premiered opposite a prime-time Steelers game, hurting ratings locally where TV shows with a Pittsburgh connection traditionally out-perform national averages. The show was also frequently delayed due to football overruns, making it difficult to find and/or to record.

Monday night on social media site Twitter, one fan tweeted, "Heart is broken + I need Dr. Andy to repair it. It's sad, show had promise. A Intelligent drama doesn't have a chance on TV."

There's plenty of evidence that intelligent dramas do have a chance to be successful on TV ("Lost," "House" and even "The Good Wife" are just a few examples among broadcast network series), but "Three Rivers" was not in that league.

Simply put, the show was a messy affair from the start, and scripts didn't improve as "Three Rivers" progressed. Writers did little to distinguish the assorted characters or give them much in the way of distinctive attributes; they were all just generic doctors trying to save patients' lives. That's a recipe for mediocrity, not success.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.


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