Patience: What Viewers Can't Afford To Give TV Shows In These Hyper-Competitive Times
The TV universe is so cluttered with quality that viewers are likely to be less tolerant of slow creative growth.
As FX—one of the most successful cable channels, and a purveyor of high-end content—spent Monday with critics at the Television Critics Association, it put a spotlight on one of the most intriguing challenges facing viewers.
As someone who consumes a borderline-unwatchable amount of television, and in turn gets loads of anecdotal evidence that viewers are drowning in the number of shows they want to watch because the quality is so high, I know that the x-factor between success and failure is some kind of insane equation that quantifies patience and time, first impressions and the track record of the channel the show appears on.
That's not very good news for the networks, emerging niche cable channels who want into the scripted game and more established cable channels with uneven quality on their roster.
I happen to be a believer that if the first episode is terrible, then no second chance should be given. There's just too much great stuff out there to sample. And for many viewers, that has nothing to do with the present season—they still want to catch up on all the word-of-mouth stuff they missed out on. Life tends to rob us all of free time, and not everybody can consume endlessly. That's why the time-shifted viewing pattern has taken over television and made overnight ratings a relic of a past era.
Does a show deserve a second chance? I keep exploring this idea and finding that it's too amorphous to be set in stone. I have to be fluid in my judgments.
Pilots are often bad. They're used as sales tools. Conversely, sometimes they are the best episode that particular show ever does, as it tumbles in quality. Comedies often grow into their voices. That first season of Parks and Recreation was not very good, while the second season was flat-out excellent. The first five or seven episodes of 30 Rock were bad, only to become one of the great sitcoms of all time.
But 30 Rock started in 2006; Parks in 2009. That's ancient in our current TV universe—so harkening back to something like the early struggles of Seinfeld is too archaic to even be relevant.
The question facing creators and channels making television in the last few years and going forward is how to stand out immediately in such a crowded field, how to capture the attention of the audience and ensure they'll come back again (and again), if not live then via time-shifting.
This is relevant to FX, as some of its creators have talked about the need to get noticed amid the competition in this amazing TV time we're all living in. Some of its shows can still use a boost. FX has a drama in The Bridge that certainly deserves more viewers, just launched another in Tyrant that absolutely needs support and also premiered two comedies—Married and You're the Worst—that have prompted those at the channel to preach patience not just about ratings but an eventual rise in overall quality.
You don't have to be in a hotel for two weeks soaking in hundreds of new shows coming up across the spectrum—network, cable, streaming—to be a little dubious about the notion of patience. I mean, we're not even talking about returning shows, which are the ones that people already have a relationship with and have locked into their DVRs. The general population can only watch so much television, no matter how often you tell them Show X is brilliant or beg and plead with them to not forget the magnificence of shows Y and Z.
So once they decide your show is not for them—too familiar, too dark, too slow, whatever—what are the odds of them ever coming back?
I would say low. Very low.
But there are certainly, even in these intensely competitive times, shows that people give a second chance—sometimes the very next week, sometimes five or so episodes later when chatter in the ether has swayed them. But I would posit that those people are very much in the minority. (And it could be that a lot of people are not grappling at all with the issue of being overwhelmed—they're just sticking to the shows they know, which is equally disheartening).
Personally, I will lean heavily on track record. Meaning: I'll give HBO a lot of leeway on a show (though I also believe viewers are more forgiving for something they're paying for every month—they want to get their money's worth from the subscription, so if The Leftovers is creeping along or is too mysterious, they may invest four episodes in it just to see where it's going, whereas they'd have given up instantly if it were on NBC).
The same is true with FX. I'll give Tyrant a few more episodes (at most). I will stick with The Bridge because I like it a lot, even though it hasn't fully lived up to its potential. As far as Married and You're the Worst—that's FX cashing in some historic goodwill. Any other channel and I wouldn't watch another minute of either. They didn't earn it. But because they are on FX, I'll spend the time seeing if the trickiness of tone and style in a comedy will work itself out to my liking and convert me.
This patience is basically unavailable for network television, except in certain cases of comedies. But the network track record of lower-bar quality and a history of canceling series mid-run does not breed confidence or loyalty.
I reviewed WGN America's upcoming Manhattan positively, but I have no idea if I even get the channel on my system. I liked the two episodes sent to critics. But to sustain that devotion, the show will have to be very good and return the investment I make in hunting it down. It's hard enough for people to watch shows on channels they know intimately, much less have to track down a channel hiding amidst the clutter.
This idea that if you make a good show people will come—well, yeah, not so much anymore.
Lastly—and this is just slightly off of the main topic here, but pertains to FX directly—the beauty and pitfall of making television, a continually evolving, living, breathing art form, is that really good shows can go off the rails and lose viewers along the way. There are no guarantees that someone's favorite series will remain that over time. I used to love Sons of Anarchy but eventually stopped watching it, as I've done for many other dramas. Making television is incredibly difficult and sustaining quality year after year perhaps more so. I may circle back and watch this final season of Sons of Anarchy, but only with the knowledge that it might waste my most sacred resource—time—just like Showtime's Dexter and others have done.
Or I may start watching and just give up. Second acts in America are hard to come by.