Friday, February 20, 2009

Is the Future Bleak for Scripted TV Programs?

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

Is scripted television dying?

You might think my question is pure hyperbole, but I'm not so sure. I'm not suggesting that non-reality TV is on its death bed, but I fear it has been given a terminal diagnosis and is just fading towards an eventual demise.

A number of things have made me pessimistic lately about the future of programs that are written by professional writers and performed by professional actors. For one thing, most of the successful ones have been around a while. Other than CBS (more on that later), none of the networks have been able to launch a new hit this season. And there have been precious few successful launches over the past several seasons. Yes, some scripted shows continue to bring in viewers, but as the programs grow older, if they are not replaced, what will happen then? We already know that the networks are very quick to replace middling scripted series with middling reality programs, because they cost so much less to produce (even if they have less value in the long run, which I discussed last February).

If you think I'm exaggerating, the first bullet in this war has already been fired. NBC, which hasn't established a highly rated new scripted series in years, essentially decided to stop even trying, at least for one hour a night. It has handed the weekday 10 p.m. slot over to Jay Leno. (In December, I wrote about the implications of the Leno move to prime time.)

NBC is the canary in the coal mine. In fact, when you look at the prime time Nielsen ratings for the broadcast networks last week, you can gain some interesting insights into where television currently stands. For starters, of the top 20 top entries (in total viewers), only one, "Dateline," was on NBC. Think about that for a second. The network that brought us ratings juggernauts like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "ER" did not place a single scripted program in the top 20.

Then again, there were only 13 non-reality shows in the top 20. Three of the leaders were news magazines, and the other four consisted of the two days of "American Idol," "Survivor" and "The Bachelor." And it's not just reality shows that are clogging the top 20: Eight of the 13 slots were filled by CBS police procedurals. (Yes, fully 40 percent of the 20 top-rated programs were of one genre offered by one network.) That left only five places, which were filled by three ABC nighttime soaps ("Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Grey's" spin-off "Private Practice," which was boosted by a cross-over episode with "Grey's") and two CBS sitcoms ("Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory"). If you're keeping score at home, 12 of the 20 top-rated offerings (60 percent!) were from CBS.

And of the 20 top-rated shows last week, only two were introduced this season: the CBS crime dramas "The Mentalist" and "Eleventh Hour." Most of the rest were in -- or past -- their primes: "Without a Trace" is in its seventh season, "NCIS" and "Two and a Half Men" are in their sixth, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" are in their fifth, "Criminal Minds" is in its fourth, and "Big Bang" and "Private Practice" are in their second, while the "CSI" franchises are in their ninth (Vegas), seventh (Miami) and fifth (New York) campaigns. Even buzzy programs like "Lost" (season five) and "24" (season seven) are long in the tooth and nearing the end of their runs.

So why can't we just say that CBS is doing a better job than its rivals, and that the Tiffany Network will be providing us with the future of great scripted television programming? Well, in short, because most of CBS's viewers are eligible for AARP membership. Which is fine, except for two things: advertisers are more interested in viewers in the group aged 18 to 49, and if you want to be relevant going forward, roping in the grandmas and grandpas isn't the way to do it. Each of the eight CBS police procedurals that scored in the top 20 in total viewers had a lower ranking in the 18-49 demographic, usually by a wide margin. All but one of the eight didn't make it into the top 10 with the younger set. Consider, just as an example, that "NCIS" was the fourth-highest-rated show in total numbers last week, but only 19th in the 18-49 group.

I know I've been throwing a lot of numbers around, but I think the bottom line is that television, like any industry, needs to develop a new generation of products that its customers want to consume, or its business will decline, or even die. And based on what has gone on over the last few years, and how the networks are reacting to the trends, to me, it seems like if something doesn't change, and fairly drastically, television could become a niche medium for old-timers. Younger people are already indifferent to the highest rated programs. Not to mention that network television has already lost the special cultural relationship it used to have with American families. It used to be that people had little choice but to watch something on ABC, CBS or NBC. Now, viewers can choose from a vast array of entertainment options, including cable and the Internet.

Can the networks fix the problem? Here is where it gets dicey. As I wrote last February, television executives seem to have developed a short-term, this-quarter's-bottom-line view of doing business. Patience is nonexistent. But I think it's going to take a big-picture, long-term approach to save scripted television (assuming, that is, that the networks are even interested in preserving the format). I'm a little surprised that more attention hasn't been paid to the surge in ratings experienced this season by two CBS Monday night sitcoms, "The Big Bang Theory," which debuted last season, and "How I Met Your Mother," which is in its fourth year. The renewal of "Mother" was in question at the end of its first three seasons, and "Big Bang" was equally undistinguished in the ratings last term. But this season, both have seen audience increases. And they have brought a younger audience to geriatric-skewing CBS. ("Big Bang" not only finished 14th over all last week, but was ninth in the key 18-49 demographic.) I'm sure there are myriad factors that helped the recent success of the two comedies, but the network's decision to keep faith with the quirky, critically acclaimed, quality programs and let them develop an audience was essential to their ultimate success.

Unfortunately, when I look at the new shows that debuted this season that I liked, it feels to me like they never got the same love "Big Bang" and "Mother" benefited from. CBS drove executive producer Diane Ruggiero from her one-hour dramedy, "The Ex-List," before the first episode hit the air. As Ruggiero explained the network's behavior: "It's like someone comes to you with a little black dress and says, 'You can do anything you want with it, anything at all,' and you go, 'Oh, great,' and then they come back and say, 'But you need to wear this belt, and these shoes, and...'" Not surprisingly, "The Ex-List" didn't make it out of its first month.

Similarly, the CW launched "Privileged" as the Tuesday night companion to the new "90210." I was enthusiastic about "Privileged" when it launched, spending a big portion of the review talking about the writing ambitions of the lead character (Megan, played by Joanna Garcia) and her interest in helping the wealthy twins she was hired to tutor. Four months later, I almost don't recognize the "Privileged" I wrote about. Faced with less-than-stellar ratings, the program began focusing almost exclusively on the love lives of Megan and the twins, as well as on the melodrama of Megan's broken family, with Megan's ambitions virtually nonexistent (disappearing along with Megan's boss, Laurel, played by Anne Archer, who has been absent more than she's been present). Essentially, "Privileged" was made more conventional, with the qualities that made it unique pushed to the back.

Which is the same fate that seems to have befallen the U.S. adaptation of "Life on Mars." When it hit the air, I lauded the program for injecting life into the run-of-the-mill police procedural by adding a science fiction element, mysteriously sending it's lead detective back in time to 1973. But when the ratings for "Life on Mars" were less than ideal, the network seemed to put the squeeze on the sci-fi elements of the program, reducing it to more of a typical police procedural and dropping much of the "how did he get there and how does he get back?" material. It's still an entertaining program, but the life has been sucked out of it a little. ("Life on Mars" used to be must viewing for me, but I have the last three episodes sitting on my TiVo. I haven't felt the urgency to watch, although I'm sure I'll get to them eventually.)

I am not suggesting that the networks' treatment of "The Ex-List," "Privileged" and "Life on Mars" is the all-encompassing problem facing scripted programs. I see them more as case studies in how the networks are struggling to create hit shows, and how little patience they are display in doing so. And it all makes me worry that we will look back on the end of this decade as the period in which scripted programming on network television started to all but go away, remaining only as niche programming (like CBS and its older audience) that lacks cultural relevance.

Yeah, maybe I'm being exceedingly negative here. But whether you want to buy into my death simile (or is it a metaphor? I think it's a simile) or not, there is something going on with television right now, and if you like scripted programming (at least if you would like to see more than just police procedurals on the airwaves), that something is not a good thing.

So is scripted television dying? Maybe, maybe not, but I think we can agree that it's feeling under the weather and is in need of some medical attention.