overthinking the idiot box

March 13, 2006

Dudes in suits, ratings games, scheduling dances — all of the real drama happens...

Behind the Screens
The Times They Are A'Changin'...and A'Changin' Again

by Michael Adams

There was a time when TV Guide could be held up as a sacrosanct commodity for a TV lover. Its listings were almost unwaveringly reliable — clear, concise, and accurate. The magazine used to be able to alert its readers to upcoming schedule changes by inserting bracketed comments within an episode description: "Last show of the series" or "Next week, this series moves to (blank)day at (blank)time" or "The series is going on hiatus." Nowadays, networks make adjustments to their schedules with such reckless abandon that there is simply no time to put these kinds of warnings in a magazine anymore. True TV zealots are more likely than most to keep up on last-minute changes and time period shifts, but more often than not, the average viewer is caught unawares when a network makes a schedule change one or two days before a show goes on the air, well past press time for most print publications. What makes this process even more infuriating is the apparent glee with which the networks make these changes, like the Wicked Witch of the West (the networks) looking out her window, cackling as her flying monkeys (us) kowtow to her every whim.

This year, ABC takes the cake for perhaps the most confusing midseason schedule ever assembled. The Alphabet promoted Emily's Reasons Why Not and the return of Jake in Progress incessantly, only to pull the pair after one low-rated Monday showing. They returned Commander in Chief to the schedule after a six-week hiatus, then sent the show packing again two weeks later. What was put in Commander's suddenly vacant time slot? "Bonus episodes" of According to Jim and George Lopez. But only until the first week of March, when Sons & Daughters took over to keep the time period warm for Commander's April return, when it will ostensibly get to finish out its abbreviated season. ABC is employing a similarly puzzling strategy on Monday, airing four episodes of new feel-good reality hour Miracle Workers before question-mark-free drama What About Brian, whose debut has already been pushed back two weeks from its originally announced start date, subs in. All this is on top of yanking Hope & Faith for a bloated Dancing with the Stars results show, and twice scheduling episodes of Crumbs that were ultimately preempted for Grey's Anatomy encores. Completely baffled yet? Believe it or not, that's not even the whole of ABC's schedule changes; there are many more to come between now and the end of the season in May.

If a sports broadcast has the rare luxury of being put together in advance, shouldn't it be capable of ending on time?
If ABC is television's worst scheduling offender, NBC stands proudly as the runner-up. Most weeks, it feels as though the programming executives decide what they'll air by throwing darts at a board while blindfolded. Voilą, instant schedule and a fun game at the same time! Nary a week goes by when NBC doesn't make some kind of change to their schedule, whether it be pulling a low-rated new series in favor of a repeat of the ubiquitous Law & Order, swapping a new episode for a rerun of the same show, or switching time slots with little advance notice. Even the tape-delayed Olympic Winter Games were not immune to these types of adjustments, with weather delays causing the network to add hours to its coverage and the primetime broadcast running a few minutes long on more than one occasion. If a sports broadcast has the rare luxury of being put together in advance, shouldn't it be capable of ending on time? It's just another example of networks taking advantage of their audience.

With changes being made every day across six broadcast networks, are viewers really expected to be able to make heads or tails of any of this nonsense? Episode changes, time period shifts, new shows premiering on a weekly basis — what exactly are viewers supposed to do with all of this information? Television is an industry predicated on viewer loyalty, but it's almost impossible for a viewer to be loyal in a climate that constantly preempts or shuffles favorite shows (I could do with a lot less American Idol and a lot more House, thank you very much) and doesn't allow new shows to gain a foothold before being yanked unceremoniously. One look at Fox's scheduling of The Bernie Mac Show over the years and it would appear that the network actually wants the show to die, bumping it around on five different nights over the same number of seasons; NBC has gone to similar lengths to kill off Scrubs; ABC finally got better-than average numbers from Alias last year, then signed its death warrant by shipping it off to Thursday for the first half of this season; and NBC has made The West Wing, which for years was one of its biggest hits, suffer through its final year in an ignominious Sunday slot. It's hard to be loyal when you can't even figure out where a show has been placed on the schedule.

Networks will sometimes split up a block of hit shows in order to increase viewership on another night (just a few months ago, I suggested that ABC use this technique and move Grey's Anatomy to Thursday opposite CSI). This is an excusable and logical schedule adjustment. After all, a network can't be blamed for wanting to be competitive and successful in as many time slots as possible. But there comes a time when an attempt to have too big a piece of the pie is more detrimental — and off-putting — than accepting the fact that a smaller piece can be just as good. Look at CBS: most of their biggest shows have been in the same time slot for several seasons. CBS knows where its successes lie and, while they don't exactly play dead in time slots they know they won't win, they certainly don't put a strain on the rest of their schedule (and, in turn, viewers) by constantly moving shows around to see what might work better elsewhere. Given this, it doesn't really come as a surprise that CBS is poised to win its fourth season in a row. (It should be noted that CBS has given early renewals to 14 series, including most of its crime dramas, How I Met Your Mother, and Two and a Half Men, indicating that there is more consistency to come next season.)

Any increase in viewership when these changes are made sends the networks the message that it is all right for them to treat their audience with such tenuous regard and continues the descent down an incredibly slippery slope.
While CBS's stability is both appreciated and rewarded, the sad truth is that last-minute changes generally do not have a negative impact on a network's ratings. Fox can pull an episode of Arrested Development and get higher numbers from an installment of Nanny 911 that was put in its place with little or no time for promotion; NBC got similar results when it replaced The Book of Daniel with whatever episode of the Law & Order franchise they pulled out of a hat that day. Any increase in viewership when these changes are made sends the networks the message that it is all right for them to treat their audience with such tenuous regard and continues the descent down an incredibly slippery slope. And last-minute changes aren't the only problem plaguing viewers these days. How about those odd start and end times that are becoming more and more common? Viewers shouldn't be forced to miss any part of a program just so more commercial time can be added to a higher-rated show. And I would wait patiently through longer stretches of repeats of a show like Lost if I could get more than three first-run episodes at a time. The increasingly cutthroat nature of the business is making these types of maneuvers almost unavoidable. As frustrating as they can be for viewers, these tactics make small strides in adding to a network's bottom line, where every tenth of a ratings point converts to dollars and cents.

A recent AP study shows that 77% of the country has either digital cable or satellite service, meaning that these viewers have access to updated listings grids through their TVs. But over 20% of the country still relies on analog signals for their TV reception. This 20% translates to approximately 22 million households, a sizable amount of the population that does not have access to the latest listings information at their fingertips, and a large enough number to have a noticeable impact on the ratings. This fact seems to have eluded the networks' programming execs as of late. Print publications are almost guaranteed to be outdated by the time they hit newsstands, but changes are being made with such swift frequency these days that even satellite and Internet listings cannot always be entirely accurate. (I've seen instances of a press release going out the day after a show aired, as if this information were somehow still useful.) So what can a viewer do? Unfortunately, when it comes to network scheduling, absolutely nothing. Think of the relationship between the network and the viewer as analogous to that between an awards show director and the award winner. The network has taken the time to deliver a prize directly to the viewer's living room. When the viewer attempts to thank the network by offering up his viewing loyalty, the band starts to play and his attention is quickly diverted elsewhere. In other words, it's the networks' way of telling you to quiet down and take your seat; they know what's best for you.

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