March 13, 2013 12:31pm PT by Tim Goodman
A Simple Solution for a Huge Network Issue of Trust: 'We Won't Kill This Show'
I happen to love, and thus frequently partake in, the concept of “failure analysis.” If you write about the television industry beyond reviews, this is an essential part of the job.
And as I noted Monday in a detailed piece about what ails network television in particular, it needs its own version of Steve Jobs in the worst way.
But as I wrote that piece -- and, trust me, it could have been four times longer with more detailed problems -- it gave me the same sense of overwhelming hopelessness that many entertainment presidents much face daily. There is so much to fix in this broken industry. Every day new ratings woes get delivered. Every day the task of turning things around must seem insurmountable.
But something simple struck me after the piece ran. If network executives are going to salvage their industry, it’s going to take small steps for starters. Sweeping reform and brilliant, revolutionary ideas are wonderful, but you push the rock with that first exasperated lean forward.
And here’s an idea that seems so completely obvious I’m stunned it hasn’t been used before. In fact, to my knowledge, it’s never, ever been used. I welcome any corrections or proof otherwise but not nearly as much as I welcome one of the network heads to try this: Pick one or two series (or more, if you’re that brave) before they air and as you’re promoting them, and go on your own air -- you control it, why not use it? -- and tell viewers that you won’t cancel it until the full season has aired.
Yes. Make them a promise. I know that in this town, promises are basically lies told through handshakes or back-slaps, but in the real world you’ll have to stick to it. And really, what’s the harm in that? You paid for it. The costs are sunk and you’re going to eat them anyway and then burn off the damned show in the summer, so why not roll the dice and discover what could very well be true: If viewers know you’re not going to waste their time, they will be more interested in watching and more patient when they do.
Now, here’s the thing: This campaign of truth, as it were, should be directed mostly at serialized dramas. Why? People love them on cable (see: Dead, Walking). They are loyal. They talk about them. They get hooked and come back each week, often watching them on the same day and the same hour you air them. Crazy, right? Listen, CBS owns the procedural game (though the Law & Order addiction does continue admirably at NBC). But we’re talking the future here -- new shows for next season. Serialized dramas build loyalty. They allow you to milk the dedication (see: Dead, Talking), they drive your online traffic and comment sections and light up Twitter, etc.
But as I said in Monday’s column on network woes, it is a distinct and damaging reputation that broadcast networks have of killing shows before they finish, annoying viewers and causing them not to commit or trust you again.
Thus, you go on camera in a nice, serious manner -- without irony or humor -- and tell viewers that you love this show, believe in it and will run it in its entirety.
Yes, I know the pitfalls. But before addressing those, why hasn’t this been done? I mean, the television industry has done the worst job imaginable in keeping its viewers (essentially its “customers”) informed on anything. “Hey, we pulled Show X for this reason; don’t worry, it will return on this date.” “Oh, hey, this week we renewed Show Y for another season. Thank you for your loyalty, and you can expect to see it again come September.”
Listen, CEOs have been putting themselves in commercials for ages. Why? Well, more than ego, research tells their companies that people believe that if the guy in charge is willing to go on television and support that company with some positive approaches and maybe some vague promises, the people will find a human connection and support said company.
Cheesy? Sometimes. But if they didn’t work, they’d vanish. And they haven’t.
OK, let’s say Paul Lee of ABC appears in a promotional spot or two and tells you a little backstory and then you see a clip of a coming show. He then reappears and tells you how amazing it is and how in love with it the network is and how supportive the network is. (That’s what they tell us all the time.) But the twist is the promise. Lee then says, “We love Show Z so much, I’m going to guarantee you that it will run the full 13 or 22 episodes and not be canceled. We appreciate your time and support.”
Something like that but better.
Now, the cynical among you will say, “Well, if Paul Lee doesn’t say that about every new show, does it mean they’re not supporting them or hedging their bets?” Or, “Why play favorites?”
The truth is, networks already play favorites and always have. Some series are going to get more on-air promotion than others. They are going to get more print advertising or a special online concept. Some shows are going to get the best time slots, behind the most popular shows on the network. That’s playing favorites. And people who make television know it. They also know when they get a half-assed promotion that’s all wrong about the tone or intent of the show. They also know that Friday night is not a good place to be. They also know that getting slotted against something massively popular is not exactly a ringing endorsement.
So don’t kid yourselves. There’s favoritism. It’s inherent and historic.
Maybe you cut down a bit on the promotion for the show that’s getting all the initial buzz and will air in a safe zone between two established hits. That show doesn’t need the help. That show doesn’t need “The Promise.”
Is this idea foolproof? No. It has flaws. But I ask you: What do the broadcast networks have to lose? They’ve been doing it their way since before most of you were born.
How’s that working out these days, everybody but CBS? The times have changed. What’s wrong with promising to keep one or two or three shows on and not cancel them? It’s a tremendous public service. You’d get a ton of free ink. And it would engender feelings of warmth, support and trust from your viewing public.
Noted: You don’t have any such thing right now.
And by the way, this public endorsement can work beyond the place it’s most needed (serialized dramas). A network president could come on air and say (two seasons ago), “Hello Community/Raising Hope fans. Thank you for your unbelievable dedication. We know that this series hasn’t been a home run for us, but we think it’s funny. And we believe in it. We love it. And we’re sticking with it. Spread the word.”
For added benefit, and if you’re a real showman, this would be a nice touch: “As a matter of fact, I’ve just renewed it for another season!”
But I have a feeling that a no-cancellation promise would work best for a serialized drama or three that the network really believes in. Stuck in the clutter and overkill of a fall launch -- another stupid historical problem outlined in the Monday column -- a show of faith might work miracles.
Why not? I mean, how long are you going to let Duck Dynasty kick your ass?