Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Television is Broken
Once more, it's that fateful time of year when the major TV networks are preparing to announce their new programming lineups for the Fall season. As a number of my favorite shows sit tentatively perched “on the bubble,” as they say—facing the Logan's Run-style crap shoot between renewal and oblivion—it seems an appropriate time to ask:
What the hell is wrong with the networks? Why is it that they just don't seem to 'get it'?
This outstanding 3-part article from The Futon Critic explains the elements that go into a network's decision-making process, so I'm not going to re-hash that here. I know that speaking for myself, I am increasingly frustrated by the continuing abandonment of quality scripted series in favor of the reality TV series du jour.
I make no secret of my disdain for reality TV—I think it exploits the most base aspects of human behavior, and retards the evolution of human morality and decency for the entertainment of chicklet brains. Despite this animosity, however, I can see why the networks continue to abandon scripted series for reality TV offerings: they're cheap and profitable. Remember the 80's, when every other show was either a game show or a sitcom? Same thing. Why have to spend big bucks on fancy sets, location shooting, screenwriters, and actors' salaries when you can throw up a cheap set and recruit eager participants from the viewing public for nothing? From a purely business perspective--and let's not forget, the networks are businesses that need to earn revenue to survive just like any other--it makes perfect sense. On paper, at least.
In reality, though--pardon the pun--this practice is ultimately short-sighted, for three reasons.
First, every new series needs time to find its stride. It takes time and practice for actors and writers to really nail down characters and find the rhythm of the show. This is difficult enough to do during an entire first season, and damn near impossible in just a handful of episodes. Expecting a show to earn its keep by being an immediate hit right out of the gate is completely unrealistic, and yet, this is what the networks are doing more and more often. Some of the most popular and enduring programs in recent television history (like “Family Guy” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) would never have survived to become part of the American lexicon had they been subjected to the selection practices of today.
Second, by killing these shows "in the crib" (after just a few episodes), the networks actually encourage the very behavior that virtually ensures the failure of most new series. A growing number of people now take a "wait and see" attitude with fledgling shows, preferring to wait until a new series has established itself more firmly with a second season, rather than risk becoming attached to a new show only to have it pulled immediately. This results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy for the networks: people don't watch a show for fear that it'll fail in the ratings and be pulled, so the show fails in the ratings and gets pulled because people aren't watching it. It's madness, and it's a recipe for failure.
Third, just like the game shows and sitcoms mentioned above, reality TV will eventually run its course. People will get burned out on it. One day, the networks will go to rub the reality TV lamp for the umpteenth time, only the genie will not appear to grant their wishes, leaving them in a serious jam.
We saw a similar scenario unfold in the 80's, as the advent of cable TV nearly decimated the networks. The message couldn't have been more clear: people were burned out, they wanted more sophisticated programming, and were willing to pay to get it. We are on the cusp of a similar revolution with regard to the Internet and online content.
More and more artists are realizing the tremendous power and flexibility of publishing content online. As broadband access becomes ubiquitous, the Internet is becoming the place to go for artists of all stripes to share their creations with not only the viewing audience of a given network, but the entire world. If the networks don't abandon the archaic business model under which they currently operate and evolve one that embraces all media, the like newspapers before them, they will ultimately be doomed. It's just too bad that a lot of great shows will meet their end until then.