June 5, 2006
Dudes in suits, ratings games, scheduling dances — all of the real drama happens...
Behind the Screens
Visions of Fall 2006 Dance In My Head
Final Exam: Thoughts on the TV Year That Was
Every year at this time, after a long TV season of tough decisions (Lost or Veronica Mars?), heartbreaking cancellations (Arrested Development, how we miss you), and unforgettable moments (Jim and Pam finally kissed!), I like to sit down and reflect on what has transpired. To that end, here are a few of the lessons learned on the business side of TV, some things that those in charge should keep in mind for next year.
The relevancy of sweeps periods has been questioned for some time now, but this season they proved exactly why they exist. After years of having stunts steal their thunder for three months out of every TV season, regular series stormed the networks' castles and finally took charge. Shows like Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, the CSIs, and American Idol are just too strong to be put on the sidelines for a miniseries or special. And, unlike in the past, when the networks do preempt their regularly scheduled programming, they normally experience a drop in ratings. "Events" like Category 7: Day of Destruction and Stephen King's Desperation, which would have been met with much more viewer interest just a few seasons ago, are now shrugged off as nuisances, obstacles in the way of getting a weekly fix of our favorite shows. Even the Winter Olympics suffered serious ratings decreases in the face of stiff competition from regular series. Instead of basing ad rates on special programming, this year's reliance on series allows the networks and local stations to set rates that more accurately reflect how many viewers are tuning in to a particular show on any given week. As a result, it would stand to reason that advertisers themselves are also happy with this turnaround. They weren't forced to pay higher rates because more people may have watched the American Music Awards in the time slot normally reserved for According to Jim.
|The simple fact is that viewers will not go out of their way to watch a show simply because of its pedigree.|
Back in September, I asked whether having a big-name producer attached to a TV show makes any difference when it comes to a show's success. Using TV's most prolific producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, as an example, this season provided us with an unequivocal answer: "no." No amount of ads touting The WB's Just Legal as coming from the producer of CSI was ever going to get more people to watch this show, which was cancelled after three airings. Likewise NBC's E-Ring and the WB "comedy" Modern Men. Of Bruckheimer's new shows this season, only CBS's Close to Home managed to find its way to a second season, and only after barely surviving a deadly start. (It's worth noting that Bruckheimer has just one new show on next season's fall schedule, Fox's Justice.) The simple fact is that viewers will not go out of their way to watch a show simply because of its pedigree. It's doubtful that many people who bought a ticket for Mission: Impossible III were there because it was directed by J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost and Alias. Along the same lines, few bothered to watch Abrams's latest TV show, What About Brian, which ABC somehow decided was worthy of renewal. Meanwhile, a show like Grey's Anatomy, produced by a TV virgin, balloons into one of TV's biggest hits based solely on the strength of its ability to tell compelling stories. And isn't that what entertainment should be about? It shouldn't matter who tells the tale, but how well the tale is told. Viewers have known it for years; networks are finally starting to come around.
When the announcement of a WB-UPN merger was made in January, I was filled with excitement and hoped that these struggling networks might finally be able to reach a level of success that eluded them for more than 11 years. Now, mere weeks after The CW's first upfront presentation, I can't help but feel that this new venture already seems tired and stale. Instead of Everwood, we'll be treated to the return of shrug-worthy shows like One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven. The most-watched comedy between the two networks, Everybody Hates Chris got buried in the Sunday lead-off slot. And somehow, with a combined 23 hours of current programming to choose from and half a dozen shows in development, The CW still found room for an encore of America's Next Top Model! At this rate, the long-awaited return of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer may actually come to fruition.
As much as it pains me to say it, I don't think this new network has a chance at making any more headway that The WB and UPN ever did. Many of its shows are on their last legs, with just a season or two left in them. And the network will be forced to launch after a summer filled with low-rated repeats of shows that few people watch to begin with. Combine that with the fact that, compared to last year, both UPN and The WB suffered a 22% drop in household ratings for the just-completed May sweep, and what you end up with is a network that will be lacking in identity and audience alike.
For better or worse, this year has seen several networks come to terms with the fact that decisions made need not be final. This was most obvious in ABC's treatment of Commander-in-Chief, a show that went from huge hit to huge disaster in six months flat. Unable to deliver episodes on the network's timetable, series creator Rod Lurie (whose wonderful Line of Fire was also mishandled by ABC two years ago) was replaced by veteran Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue) as executive producer. Bochco, who had never before taken a series of someone else's creation, quickly proved that he was not the right man for the job, shifting the focus away from the First Family and onto more crisis-of-the-week stories (sound familiar, cop show fans?). Bochco soon left to develop his own new pilot, turning the reins over to Dee Johnson, but by the time Johnson tried to excise Bochco's handiwork, it was already too late. After long hiatuses, viewers lost interest and the show was cancelled. However, at ABC's upfront, chief Stephen McPherson revealed that he is in discussions with Lurie to write a two-hour movie version of Commander, with the possibility that the show could be put back into production if the movie is well-received. While the potential for the show to be a seasons-long hit was certainly squandered, ABC never backed down from criticism of the way it was handled, fully admitting to the mistakes that were made in keeping the show off the schedule for long stretches and alienating viewers with tonal shifts. Inviting Lurie back to try to fix what went wrong is a classy move; most networks would have washed their hands of the problem and never looked back. There's no guarantee that a Commander resurrection will ever see the light of day, but it's good to know that there's a network out there that isn't so ready to give up on something that it believes in.
On the flip side of that is NBC's decision to bring back Last Comic Standing. After rushing a third edition into production two years ago, the network yanked the show's finale, sending it off to Comedy Central with little fanfare. NBC now expects people to invest in a show that the network once regarded with blatant disrespect. The sad part is, viewers probably will watch, if for no other reason than the show is returning during the barren summer months. But NBC should consider any ratings success the show garners the result of forgiveness rather than forgetfulness.
|It's one thing for ABC to say they didn't give Commander in Chief a fair shot. It's another thing altogether for a network to exhume the corpse of a dead show just because they have nothing better to put on the air. Viewers deserve better.|
How Much Is That Alien in the Window?
Science fiction programming may bring in a relatively large audience for the Sci-Fi Channel with their original Friday block of Stargate series' and Battlestar Galactica, but the key word in this sentence is "relatively." When it comes to the big leagues, sci-fi is still a niche market. But what about Lost? you ask. To which I respond, Lost is 95% character development, 5% sci-fi/fantasy. It isn't filled with attempts at guessing what outer-space creatures might look like, nor does it have a plot that revolves around total world domination. Of the four new science fiction shows that premiered in the fall, only one of them (The WB's Supernatural) made it to a second season. NBC's Surface, ABC's Invasion, and CBS's Threshold all started out pulling fairly decent numbers, but audiences soon tired of their extraterrestrial shenanigans and moved on to something else.
|Unlike the movies, where it's more acceptable to have larger-than-life scenarios play out on a larger-than-life canvas, TV is much more intimate, and viewers seem to want an overall sense of believability if they're expected to come back again and again.|
As another TV season is put to bed, it's best to keep in mind that those in TV have incredibly selective memories. The slippery nature of the business means that some successes will be repeated, but so will some failures. Some advice will be heeded and some will go ignored. Some viewers will be respected, while others will be met with disregard. Come September, we will once again experience elation, anger, apathy, and enthrallment. It is the way television works. And it is exactly why we love it so.
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