The epitaphs for ABC's struggling new Elvis series, if they eventually are needed, are easy enough to come by: Don't Be Cruel. Heartbreak Hotel. Hound Dog. But ABC and co-executive producer Priscilla Presley, former wife of the late singer whose early years are portrayed in the show, are hoping that a more agreeable expression marks the program's future with TV audiences: Love Me Tender.
Alas, that relationship has not developed thus far. Despite huge expectations, a big media buildup, splendid production qualities, an attractive star (Michael St. Gerard), impressive reviews _ plus lead-ins from ABC's most popular series, Roseanne and America's Funniest Home Videos _ Elvis has turned in astonishingly mediocre ratings in its first two broadcasts.
What happened? Why have viewers made an apparently conscious decision to tune out Elvis _ as indicated by its 29 percent audience drop-off after Roseanne in a special preview and then its 41 percent plunge after America's Funniest Home Videos in the regular time slot for the rock star's biography? And what is ABC going to do now with Elvis, which many figured would draw a tremendous audience at least for its premiere, if only out of curiosity?
Well, both ABC and New World Entertainment, which produces Elvis, disclose that they are going the extra mile with the series, riding it out and even adding extra episodes this spring _ unless, as one spokesman acknowledges, its ratings should suddenly drop so precipitously that the network might bail out. The next test was Sunday night.
For the moment, anyway, ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger says of the series, "No, it won't be canceled, and it will not be moved." Both ABC and New World say that an agreement has been reached for four more episodes to go into production in March, in addition to the original order for nine.
Will Elvis hold out? Will it find an audience to assure that it continues? Does it have the potential to carry over for another season or more, especially since Priscilla Presley says that it will concentrate only on the years 1954-58, a relatively more innocent period of the singer's career as he rose to fame?
"Everyone's optimistic," Presley says. "We're waiting to see if we find that audience by word-of-mouth. All I can say is, we've done our job. It looks like a film. The quality is there. The story line is there. The kid (St. Gerard) is wonderful. We've had the greatest press. So I don't know what else to do, but we're not going to lose hope. Maybe, again, the show's searching for that audience.
"If the public thinks (the show) is slow, we're going into a buildup. Once we get into the concerts and show some problems on the road and the conflicts, maybe the public will change."
Jon Feltheimer, the president of New World Entertainment, concedes that he has been "absolutely" disappointed at the early ratings of the series: "Expectations were extremely high, and I think we did that to ourselves. When we sold the show, we sold it on Elvis hype. But now we've discovered that we've created something special, and I hope the audience will discover it."