How the Death of Viewer Patience Is Killing off Freshman Shows
Recently, I received three e-mails of note. Two were from producers of series I had just panned pretty thoroughly, asking me to keep watching and reconsider. The other was from the head of a cable channel pointing out, with all due respect, why I was wrong about a certain show and should stick with it.
This is not out of the ordinary. I get a lot of e-mails and calls from series creators, producers, writers and TV executives. But in these three situations, the responses that came immediately to mind were, "Why should I?" and, "Why would anyone expect that?"
Honestly, I was taken aback by it all. The television industry in the modern world is not big on second chances. I don't say that dismissively or without compassion about the situation: Because a 500-channel universe is closer to being true than to being a myth, the TV viewer is bombarded with choices.
That means patience is dead.
And at this point in the evolution of television, except in a few very specific situations, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Competition to get it right the first time, to be creative and relevant and interesting, is a prime motivator. It's certainly something people in the business should already know.
Now you might expect a television critic to plead for patience, to side with the notion that creativity often needs to be nurtured and that any number of great series took a while to get there.
My response to that is: Get your head in the game before someone like me tries to chop it off. Have you -- and by you, I mean everybody in the business of making television -- taken the time to painstakingly scroll through all of the channels you get on your system, be it cable or satellite? Because if you haven't, you're slacking on your due diligence. And if you have, the first thought you should have had upon concluding that lengthy process is, "Holy shit, how am I going to compete in this insanity?"
The solution is pretty simple: Make better shows. And make them strong from the start. That fourth- or fifth-episode stride you're talking about? That's a fantasy. Chances are you're dead by then, and you don't even know it.
I say this specifically for those people creating series for the big tent of network television. I just killed these freshman network shows from my DVR, forever: Last Man Standing, Once Upon a Time, Pan Am and Man Up! from ABC; 2 Broke Girls, Unforgettable and A Gifted Man from CBS; Hart of Dixie, Ringer and The Secret Circle from the CW; Whitney and Prime Suspect from NBC; and Allen Gregory from Fox. That doesn't count nixing the already-canceled series.
Kind of a bloodbath. Those series are not very good, and they don't deserve any more of my time. For me, it's not an issue of whether they become hits or whether they've been renewed. But trust me, this is a numbers game a vast majority of shows are not winning. Remember when 80 percent of freshman series failed? We're going to think of those as the good old days soon enough.
Last season, ABC offered up 10 new scripted series (including Combat Hospital from Canada). This season, it brought back two of those.
Last season, CBS had eight new scripted series. This season, it brought back three.
Fox had seven new scripted series. It also brought back three (though it did cancel one of them, Breaking In, before apparently changing its mind. I'll believe it when I see it on my TV screen).
NBC had 12 new scripted series. It brought back one.
With all of the added competition this year, what will the failure rate look like when we calculate it next time?
The great mechanical hope here -- the second chance, of sorts -- is the DVR. Live-plus-same-day, -three-day and -seven-day results can breathe new life into a series when Nielsen tallies the time-shifted viewers. But if your show is lousy, it will still get deleted.
On cable, there has been a pattern of patience that the broadcast networks aren't allowed. Part of it comes from people who pay for HBO or Showtime or Starz -- they're going to be more willing to keep biting at the bait until you hook them -- and another part comes from ad-supported cable channels like FX and AMC churning out the types of series that float around in the zeitgeist longer. But don't get cocky. Patience in that medium does not take away from the realities of competition and cost analysis. FX canceled Terriers and Lights Out. AMC canceled Rubicon. TNT canceled Men of a Certain Age.
What I wanted to tell the three people who sent those e-mails mentioned above, asking for second chances, was: "Pretend you're not in the business -- you work a regular job. Maybe you've got a family. You have real-world problems, stresses, time issues. At night, you have a window to watch some television and sit back and be entertained. With all the options in front of you, how patient are you going to be?"
Not very, is my guess.