By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — “Friday Night Lights” is one of those shows, one hears, that you gotta see. Really, you just don’t know what you’re missing.
Like “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock” and “The Wire” were, “Friday Night Lights” has been thoroughly stamped with that label of “critically adored, low-rated.”
When executive producer and head writer Jason Katims tells people what he does for a living, people usually say: “Oh yeah. I hear that’s a great show.”
“I get that response all the time,” he says. “There are people that have heard it’s a great show but don’t watch.”
But there is hope for “Friday Night Lights” and other excellent but low-rated programs. Shows with passionate, niche audiences are proving to be more valuable than they once were.
The third season of “Friday Night Lights” premiered Friday on NBC after the network struck an unusual partnership with DirecTV that has kept the show alive. The satellite service aired the full season ahead of the broadcast premiere for its 17 million subscribers.
“If this model works for our show, then it could work for other shows,” said Katims. “That would be a great thing to be a part of.”
“Friday Night Lights” is originally based on the 1990 book by H.G. Bissinger and focuses on a high school football team in Dillon, Texas. It’s not your typical hourlong drama, though.
There are no sets; It’s shot throughout a real Texas town with three cameras always rolling. Actors and cameramen typically aren’t under strict orders, giving the show a realistic feel.
“Friday Night Lights” is ultimately about community — a community that lives through football, centered on the nucleus of the team coach (Kyle Chandler) and his wife (Connie Britton). The fluid approach allows the show to follow its many characters into their homes, into their lives.
After the writers strike abruptly ended the second season, the fate of “FNL” hung in the balance. Fans mobilized and mailed plastic footballs to NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman.
Silverman, though, was already a fan. When he attended last year’s Sundance Film Festival, he met with his friend Eric Shanks, executive vice president for entertainment at DirecTV, and floated the idea of partnering on “Friday Night Lights,” which NBC also produces.
“It just felt like a jewel and that it was a show that really had so many people passionate about it,” said Silverman. “I only get yelled at, but we love these great shows.”
Neither side will discuss how much DirecTV paid for the first rights to the third season, but Silverman calls it a “real, meaningful partnership” that has given the network “a larger tolerance” for low ratings from the show.
The first half of this experiment over, Shanks says DirecTV is very pleased. DirecTV has other exclusive agreements with several sports leagues, and had been thinking about exclusive entertainment programming, too. They contemplated saving “Arrested Development” when Fox canceled it in 2006.
“For us, it has blown away our expectations as far as how it’s performed from a ratings perspective,” said Shanks. For the premiere episode, the show ranked seventh for DirecTV customers among all basic cable. (It was second among 18- to 49-year-old women.)
Shanks said the company has not yet researched how “Friday Night Lights” has affected subscriber numbers.
Silverman hopes “Friday Night Lights” on NBC will capitalize on the buzz from the DirecTV deal and the usual critical acclaim. (A critic for The New York Times has written: “I love ‘Friday Night Lights.’”)
Skeptics wonder if the show’s core audience has already seen season three, either on DirecTV or illegally online through BitTorrent.
“Our expectation is the show should not be in any way hurt from this experiment in terms of absolute ratings,” said Silverman. “But we’ll have to see. I don’t know yet.”
Whether “Friday Night Lights” survives to a fourth season or not, it’s clear shows like it have more opportunities now.
DirecTV is also now offering all eight episodes of “Wonderland,” the acclaimed ABC series that was canceled in 2000 after just two episodes.
The satellite service could become a veritable Noah’s Ark for endangered, cultish programs.