Unlike the past two seasons, when HBO announced renewal of The Wire before the critically acclaimed, Baltimore-based drama even finished filming, this year's lackluster ratings mean a decision will go right down to, well, the wire in coming weeks.
David Simon's Peabody Award-winning drama will conclude its third season Sunday night on the premium cable channel, and he acknowledged that it could be the end of the series - a development that would mean $17.5 million less for the Baltimore economy in 2005, by the most conservative estimates.
"Nobody's guaranteed anything in this business," Simon said in an interview this week. "My sense is that there won't be a decision by HBO until mid-January. They have reasons that they might not go forward, and reasons that they might. If I had to put a percentage on it right now, I'd say it's 50-50."
Simon will meet with HBO brass during the second week of January to discuss the future of the series. He said he has been told that rather than trying to explain the low ratings, he should go prepared to map out "where the show would go creatively" if there is a fourth season. In other words, he needs to give HBO a reason to believe in the dramatic future of the series before the cable channel will ante up $35 million for another season of 12 episodes.
"Either they're going to be comfortable with where the show is going, or they won't," the former Sun police reporter said. "The bottom line is that they gave us complete creative control to tell the story exactly as we wanted to tell it. If this is the end, we did 37 strong epsiodes, and I could not be more proud of what we did. I wouldn't change a word."
Diego Aldana, a spokesman for HBO, confirmed the January meeting, saying, "There is not going to be a decision on the show until sometime in January." Simon and Aldana also confirmed that the audience this season for The Wire fell off by almost 50 percent from last year - from about 3 million viewers to about 1.6 million viewers a week.
But there are reasons for the loss of audience that are beyond the control of any executive producer - particularly in scheduling. After airing during the summer its first two seasons, The Wire this year was placed in head-to-head competition with new fall series on the major networks. Furthermore, it ran in what has become one of the most competitive time periods in television, Sunday nights at 9 - opposite Desperate Housewives, the hit ABC drama about the private lives of four suburban women, and National Football League games on cable channel ESPN.
"We became a fall show, and we didn't hold our own," Simon acknowledged. "But, ultimately, the question they [HBO officials] have to ask themselves - and I'm sure they are - is whether anything on HBO outside of The Sopranos could have held its own against that tandem of Desperate Housewives and football. Desperate Housewives just caught something in the zeitgeist."
Even though Housewives attracts an audience of more than 20 million viewers a week and is the most talked about new show of the year, it is football that probably hurt The Wire more, since both appeal to the same male viewers.
The Nielsen news got a little better this week with 2 million viewers tuning in for Sunday's episode that included the dramatic shooting of drug dealer Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), one of the series' leading characters. Bell was gunned down in an ambush Sunday night, and HBO's Web site has been hopping with reaction from shocked viewers ever since.
There are more surpises in store for Sunday's finale. If it is the end, no one will say The Wire went gently into cancellation. Its place in television history is already assured based on its depiction of life in urban America.
"The main character in The Wire is Baltimore," Simon said. "And I believe The Wire is the most elaborate depiction of a city ever done in American television."
But that's cold comfort for a local economy that could be $17.5 million poorer next year if the series is canceled. Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, confirmed that the series spends at least half its $35 million budget locally.
"So, first and foremost, yes, there would be a huge economic impact if it were not renewed," Gerbes said yesterday.
"But, with The Wire, the impact extends even beyond the normal spending on production, because they have given so much to local schools and charities - like 500 backpacks to an inner-city school last week and after-school bus service to another school that couldn't afford buses. How do you measure that? I don't even want to think of this series getting canceled. Let's just keep our fingers crossed and hope."