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The DVR – formerly a gigantic worry for people in the television industry – has given a lot of second chances to series. Now that Nielsen tracks live same-day, three day and seven day DVR usage, the uptick in viewers for a lot of shows is truly impressive (and since the industry can – wait for it – “monetize” those late viewers, the DVR is now seen as friend, not foe).
And yet, does any series really get much of a second chance in the current, super-crowded environment?
The fact is, it’s getting harder and harder to cultivate a hit series on television and keep the numbers steady. Already the mythological 500-channel universe is rapidly becoming a reality, diluting the available audience. It’s a wider, not deeper world now. Consequently, the definition of a hit, particularly for network television, continues to nosedive. Any series above 10 million total viewers is a massive hit – when, in the not-too-distant past, that was a number that could get you canceled. Now niche cable channels are sometimes pulling in more viewers than networks and Spanish-language outlets are routinely outperforming series on the five American broadcast networks.
Which means that holding on for dear life and avoiding even the slightest downturn in viewers is the new world order in television.
Time-shifted viewing – that’s using your DVR – can help some shows move up in a couple of the main demos. But the bigger question here is whether, in the current environment, viewers will be patient and nurturing with series. Do they have too many options to wait for brilliance to blossom?
If so, it’s clear that cable shows are the primary beneficiary of that generosity of time. Recently, Showtime’s excellent freshman drama Homeland saw continued weekly increases in its ratings – the Oct. 30 episode was up 18 percent from the Oct. 2 premiere. FX’s American Horror Story has benefited greatly from DVR spikes and viewers appear to be settling into the new drama, boosting its numbers.
Meanwhile, over at the networks, fall-offs of 15 percent or greater (sometimes much greater) are common in the first few weeks. And even series tabbed as breakouts – like New Girl on Fox – can suffer the whims of viewer loyalty and attention spans. New Girl fell nearly 20 percent after being off the air for a month, thanks to post-season baseball on Fox.
At least for pay cable channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz, patience is a buy-product of viewers wanting to experience what they’re paying for. They are more likely to hang on to a slower developing series partly because, unlike networks and ad-supported cable channels such as AMC and FX, viewers are paying extra for the privilege. You can make a pretty good argument that for a channel like HBO, part of the allure of creative producers and writers to do work there is that the channel is not shy about letting a complicated, intellectual (and for lack of a better description, “grown-up”) drama unfold slowly, without much worry about ratings.
That’s a luxury that’s not going to happen on the network level. If you play in the big tent, you need to fill it to keep the shows on the air. You can’t have the fourth or fifth episode be the best one of the series. There’s very little evidence that viewers are willing to let a show hit its stride that late in the run. In some instances, a series that’s left on the air despite unimpressive ratings – ABC’s Happy Endings comedy comes to mind – will eventually blossom into a hit (which it has). But that’s such a rare occurrence these days. Only NBC, out of necessity of being the fourth place network in a four-network race (nobody’s really taking the CW that seriously), can buy into the now-defunct concept of “patience.” If NBC were CBS or Fox, it would have a lot less patience.
(There’s a popular belief among many television critics that NBC’s woeful performance in the ratings through the years has left excellent series like Community, Parks and Recreation and even 30 Rock on the air, when they might not have been given the chance to develop and find an audience if the Peacock was more successful.)
And yet, take Community as an example of how second chances are limited in their impact. It’s a great sitcom – period. But the show is now in Season 3 and unless it does an all-nude show, is not likely to see any audience gain. It has peaked. Once viewers decide what they want to watch, they very rarely try something that’s already been on and they’ve skipped. Plus, networks don’t believe in relaunches. So most shows make it or they don’t based on freshman season sampling.
And yet, that’s not a theory that applies to cable (you’re seeing how lucky cable shows have it, right?). If you were only to take three of the most high-profile and greatest cable series in recent memory as an example, you’d know that people are still discovering The Wire and both Breaking Bad and Mad Men had ratings gains as they grew. Why is that? Maybe because a good portion of all cable series see Season 2 gains; also because cable channels almost never cancel a series before a full season airs, thus giving viewers the confidence that they can catch up to it later on DVD (or Netflix) if all the chatter surrounding such shows grows into a cacophony (which might explain AMC’s The Walking Dead going from a hit to an even bigger hit in Season 2).
Certainly pay cable series have the benefit of attracting viewers after the fact who weren’t subscribers, but who then found the DVDs from earlier seasons and now want on board. I would suggest that happens a lot less frequently for a network show, because if nobody’s watching it in Season 1, there won’t be a Season 1 DVD and certainly not a green-light for Season 2, except in very rare occurrences. Lastly, a really great cable series may also benefit from the very fact that it’s of rare quality. It’s harder to sell people on disposable network dramas but investing in the first few seasons of the Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Dexter boxed sets has an allure, like collecting literature.
But don’t feel too bad about the broadcast networks as they ply their trade in the ruthless big-tent environment. They may be the most affected by the explosion of channel options. They may be unable to change old habits (let’s all five networks launch the majority of our shows in a two-week window!). In their mainstream efforts, they may not get much critical respect or have their shelves bow from the weight of endless Emmys.
But, damn. When they start making hits – big, popular, everybody’s-watching hits — those networks not only feel superior to their smaller cable cousins, they print more money than cable channels can even dream about.
And hasn’t it always been about selling soap?
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