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When do TV shows `jump the shark'?

The new fall TV season is just around the corner, which is as good an excuse as any to check out an entertaining Web site called Jump The The name derives from a scene in an old Happy Days episode in which Fonzie, wearing water skis, actually leaped over a shark. The phrase applies to the instant when the story line of a given TV program “jumps the shark” - the defining moment when the story line reaches its peak and then takes a subtle or sudden slide downhill, leading to its ultimate demise.

“Jumping the shark” has nothing to do with Nielsen ratings and everything to do with viewers' intuition about when a show takes a noticeable tumble that sooner or later - weeks, months, or perhaps years afterward - results in cancellation.

The site has won a load of press attention since its 1997 Web debut, and is about to capitalize on its Internet success with a book due out Sept. 16. The book will go beyond TV series to also include jump-the-shark moments in music, celebrities, sports, and politics. The site has also spawned a TV show, currently in development.

What makes Jump The so novel is that the creators themselves, a couple of ex-college roommates from Ann Arbor, Mich., leave the decision-making up to site visitors - loyal TV fans who decide the single episode, scene, or change of cast that reversed a program's throttle and threw it into a fatal spin.

There are examples aplenty why a show might jump the shark, all documented painstakingly on the site. It might have to do with a change of actors playing the same character; the introduction of “special” guest stars in an attempt to bolster ratings; the screen death of one of the main characters; nonsinging cast members abruptly breaking into song; cute children reaching not-so-cute puberty, and so on.

As for examples: According to some of the TV buffs weighing in with their votes, The Andy Griffith Show lost its footing when Barney Fife was replaced with a dork named Howard; E.R. when George Clooney left the cast; Bewitched when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York; Cheers when Shelley Long took a powder; M*A*S*H when Colonel Blake was killed or, alternately, when Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr) stopped dressing in drag; All in the Family when Archie moved to Archie Bunker's Place; Seinfeld for its disappointing finale, and hilariously, any show in which the character actor Ted McGinley was added to the cast.

Naturally, you can expect to see lots of disagreement here. There are some viewers who think that Seinfeld never jumped the shark. Likewise The Simpsons, The X-Files, Friends, and a few more shows. Debate is the site's stock-in-trade, and it's fun to throw in your own two cents' worth about what shows suffered the kiss of death and when.

A trip back in time

According to the 1910 census, Toledo's population numbered 131,822, 1,710 of whom were Negroes; 27,822 were foreign-born, including 12,373 Germans and 2,449 “English Canadians.” In flour and grist mill products, Toledo was the most important city in Ohio. Notable public buildings were the county courthouse, Soldiers' Memorial Building, Toledo Club, Toledo Hospital, and the Toledo Museum of Art. The city was home to Toledo University and Toledo Medical College, and the public library possessed about 85,000 volumes.

All this information comes from a rare Web site that reproduces the 29 volumes and more than 44 million words that make up the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It has been called the best encyclopedia ever published, with articles written by more than 1,500 authors regarded as experts in their field.

“Imagine the faint scent of old leather books as you browse through the treasured material,” writes Byron Reese, a young man who put the encyclopedia online as a labor of love.

The 29 volumes can be clicked on alphabetically, and the amount of information contained therein is staggering, touching on almost any subject that comes to mind. The language is straightforward and, by 1911 standards, concisely written. What can be particularly gleaned from the entries is a sense of the social mores and attitudes of the times. According to a preface:

“The age was Edwardian, but Victorian mores prevailed. The man was the undisputed head of the home. Old-fashioned patriotism was flaunted publicly with flag-waving and parades. The sanctity of home and hearth was ingrained deeply in every person. And nearly everyone belonged to some sort of church.”

The editors hope to add a search function, and are trying to correct broken text in many of the 30,000 entries. They ask not only for patience but help, and welcome volunteers who might be able to lend a hand by e-mailing them at the site.

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