Thursday, September 13, 2007

Networks’ Lack of Patience Makes People Wary About Watching New Shows

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

You can feel the new television season coming. With the on-air promos, billboards, print and Web site ads, newspaper and magazine features, and actors on talk shows discussing their new shows, you can’t escape the publicity blitz.

But here is a dirty little fact that the networks don’t want you to focus on about their new programs: A vast majority of them won’t be around by the end of the season. Some won’t survive the first month, falling victim to the shockingly quick hook of television executives. The days of letting writers and producers settle in, find a voice, and solidify an audience are long gone. Success has to be instantaneous now. There is no adjustment period.

The industry is in a full-on panic, trying to retain ad revenues in the face of the declining audience for network television. Faced with competition from cable, the Web, cell phones, and other modern content-delivery methods that were not significant factors 10 years ago, the networks are under tremendous pressure to maintain and bolster revenues. So, you can see why programmers would think that they need to jettison any program that is not pulling its financial weight.

At the same time, maybe the networks should take a look at the possibility that their lack of patience with new offerings is actually helping to fuel the decline of traditional television.

As recently as ten years ago, choosing whether or not to watch one of the cavalcade of new programs from the networks was as simple as asking yourself, “Does this look like a show I may like?” There was no real down side to taking a chance and watching some of the new programs. The worst thing that could happen was that you hated what you saw, so you just stopped watching.

That point of view on the new season seems quite naïve in 2007. Now, if you decide to watch a new program, you run the risk that you will invest in the storyline and characters, only to have the show pulled off the air before the major issues in the show are resolved. This is especially true for serials that feature an overriding plot arc that is supposed to stretch over the length of an entire season. Just ask fans of last year’s “The Nine,” who were mid-story when the hostage drama was shown the door by ABC after less than two months.

Would you go to a movie if you knew there was a chance that 30 minutes into it, the distributor would shut down the projector and throw you out of the theater? Of course not. And yet, that is exactly what network programmers do with their new shows on a regular basis. The effect is that viewers are wary of emotionally investing in new programs.

In fact, potential fans know that episodes will be available online (legally and illegally), and will also probably eventually be released on DVD. The thinking is, “I’ll wait and see if the show catches on. If it does, I’ll catch up. But why watch now, when the show might be gone in a few weeks, anyway?”

See if any of these titles ring a bell: “The Class,” “Runaway,” “Standoff,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Help Me Help You,” “Smith,” “Kidnapped,” “20 Good Years,” “Big Day,” “Six Degrees,” “Happy Hour,” “The Black Donnelys,” and the aptly named “Vanished.” All of these shows were hyped by the networks as new offerings last season, only to die early deaths. I know I felt left cold when NBC abandoned “Studio 60” halfway through its run. History says that most of the new programs being heavily promoted now will be gone when the season is over.

Television history is filled with late bloomers, with shows like “Seinfeld” taking time before finding an audience. If “Seinfeld” was a new show this year and generated the same relative ratings (more people watched primetime television back then) in its first four post-pilot episodes as it did back in 1990 (the pilot ran in 1989), it would be canceled. The same would apply to many other hit shows from the last 20 years.

Don’t get me wrong: Some shows reveal themselves to be dogs, with no hope of redemption. I’m not arguing that no shows should be canceled. Instead, what if fewer of them were? What if canceling a show before it has gone at least half a season was something that was considered unusual? I have to believe that there is at least a chance that if the networks were to commit to staying with shows that exhibit promise, more viewers would be willing to take a chance on getting hooked.

The quick trigger finger of network executives has led to a gun-shy audience. I look forward to the new shows premiering in the next few weeks, but when I watch a program, instead of just asking myself, “Do I like this?”, I will also be wondering, “Will it be successful enough to stay on the air?” And I’m sure I’m not the only one.