Reality Will Kill Cable’s Renaissance

Brian Stauffer

Too many choices, too many demos as competition squashes TV’s most creative era in 10 years.

It’s the equivalent of a star chef sitting in an empty restaurant while people across the street are pouring into a lousy fast-food joint.

These days, reality television is killing scripted fare.

It’s a little bit embarrassing and a big bowl of sad. And, if you look at it in a certain light, possibly even shameful. Because right in the midst of an unprecedented influx of smaller cable channels getting into the scripted game, a noble but expensive decision, the audience is looking elsewhere. And the toll it’s taking is a lot more painful than some coldly written blurb about ratings might lead you to believe.

Let us turn our brains off and watch Wipeout or Jersey Shore. This is an industrywide problem that plagues networks as well as cable channels. But the trend is worrisome — even if it turns out to be a phase — because it will not only lead to the loss of some very good series but also drive whole channels to ratchet down or eliminate scripted fare entirely.

See, it’s a great time to be a viewer — until it’s not. This notion of excess quality, almost unfathomable 10 years ago, is hard to fathom for people who run the networks and cable channels. If you pour money into quality and nobody shows up, it kills incentive. If nobody shows up, the best a programmer can hope for is a lucky rebound down the road (positive reviews, word-of-mouth, etc.).

On March 6, the space Western Firefly will make its off-network return/debut on the Science channel. In the pantheon of series that didn’t make it but should have, rabid fans often place Fox’s Firefly at the head of the list. That same night, A&E, a channel trying to re-establish a scripted presence, will premiere the drama Breakout Kings. Good luck with that. Not only do you have those Real Housewives of Orange County coming back for Season 6, but also the freak-tacular  incongruence of Mike Tyson on Animal Planet racing pigeons, all in the same time slot. Recent history suggests A&E’s newbie drama is in for a serious beatdown.

The network landscape is littered with series that couldn’t draw an audience. Here are five quick ones from recent times: Arrested Development, Better Off Ted, Lone Star, Party Down, Veronica Mars. And here are three current ones fans should be very worried about: Chuck, Human Target, Lie to Me.

Perhaps the cruelest fate has befallen FX most recently. Terriers was a critically acclaimed series with a rabid fan base — just not nearly enough of one, and “therefore it became a beloved 13-episode miniseries,” FX president John Landgraf told the nation’s TV critics in January. Sadly, FX has another of those on its hands with the boxing drama Lights Out, a similarly acclaimed series that has whiffed on finding an audience — leaving a palpable sense of sadness and disappointment among Landgraf and his FX colleagues (not to mention critics). “Maybe we should make a show about a zombie or a sexy vampire who’s trying to regain the heavyweight championship of the world,” he says.

“In January and February of this year, there were 18 new original series premiering on basic and premium cable, 18 original series that were returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth season in basic and premium cable, and 16 new and returning series premiering on broadcast,” Landgraf added. “So add all that up together, and that’s 52 original series premiering in January and February.”

An excess of choices? You bet.  

“On the night that we premiered Lights Out, The Game on BET did an absolutely historic number. Tosh.0 (Comedy Central) came back with a massive number with young men. So let’s say most of the African-American audience wasn’t available; they were at BET, and there was some obviously young Hispanic and white audience that watched that show. Tosh.0 had a massive number with young men. And 16 and Pregnant on MTV had a massive number with young women. So in a way, what the broadcast networks have been facing is that as they try to aggregate a large audience, they get picked apart demo by demo by other stronger shows that are the first choice of those demos. And frankly, large cable networks or any program can suffer that fate now, and I think that’s what happened with Lights Out.”

Can the series be revived, perhaps relaunched on the back of positive feelings for The Fighter? Nope. Two weeks ago, Lights Out lost about 100,000 viewers — a scary drop for a series that was only pulling in about 800,000.

Luckily, FX has enough successful shows on the bench that these two high-quality misses won’t deter it. But if cheap reality shows stay hot in the ratings, look for others to abandon scripted altogether.