Friday, August 21, 2009

With TV, you are not the customer and art is math

I love TV but the people who are running TV stations really annoy me.

A very high proportion of the shows that I like get canceled too early. Rather than being angry at what gets canceled too early, we can try to appreciate the fact that some shows lasted as long as they did. The fact that relative to other shows, Arrested Development, My Name is Earl, News Radio, Boston Public, 8 Simple Rules, Joan of Arcadia and Pushing Daisies lasted multiple seasons is great news to me. That shows like Aliens in America and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got full season pickups is good as well. In absolute best-case scenarios, Family Guy and Futurama returning gives me hope for a better tomorrow (Futurama, in particular).

The problem is I have to look at the downside here. These shows get canceled too early. It's not something I think I can let slide until I realize that there's virtually nothing I can do, so I begrudgingly find new shows to get and just hope that they don't suffer the same fate.

Why do I feel so powerless? Is the same case as in the movies? No, it’s actually not.

In movies, the consumer pays directly for the content and the value of that content is measured very accurately. Studios and the Hollywood industry on the whole can very easily trace how many people are viewing the content through box office receipts.

In TV, they are beholden to advertisers who look at one thing only: ratings. Since the number of people watching the show is only affected through Nielsen ratings, there's nothing that I can do about it if I don't have a box. I feel powerless in that regard. At the same time, the advertisers miss a lot of things by only looking at ratings:
1) Cultural appeal/Name Recognition: Star Trek was cancelled after only three seasons but it became a cultural phenomenon and a recognizable name brand. After it became popular enough, Star Trek standed to benefit on merchandise sales, tickets to conventions, the potential for more movies. If you're show is well-known and loved by people and it's not showing in the ratings, there are other ways to make money off the show.
2) Syndication potential: My Name is Earl got cancelled just before the 100 episode mark. At two seasons, a show like Sports Night really has very little to offer in terms of syndication even though fans could grow to appreciate it. Syndications is where shows would make the most money and if the show is quality television, there is no reason for a network to pass up on the show's syndication potential and no reason for people not to watch it.
3) An enthusiastic fan base-Josh Wheedon's Firefly and Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies both were low in the ratings but had a group of hardcore fans who would follow the show enthusiastically. In the digital age and in Web 2.0, the ad revenue to be made off of online networking alone should have been significant enough for the network to realize the potential in connecting to that core fan base (especially in the latter case since Firefly predates Web 2.0). Instead, the networks alienated them by cancelling the show. Another good thing about an enthusiastic fan base is that they'll keep spreading the word about the show to others, so odds are the ratings will go up.
4) Critical Success-Arrested Development got cancelled even though it won the Emmy for best comedy. Movie studios are willing to go in the red on Oscar-winning films because it gives them more positive attention and helps give a boost to all their other shows. Why don't TV studios work the same way? I believe this is because everybody knows where NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox are on the dial so they don't need more attention. Upon closer examination, it seems like cable networks work hard to get their shows shows critical recognition and stick with them when they do so. Cable, in fact, is a better creative breeding ground these days.

Why doesn't it work for TV shows if it works for networks with the Oscars?

critical success, name recognition, fan base.

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