Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Times (and TV) Have Changed

by Chris McGinty (AccordingToWhim.com)

This is something I’ve thought about for a while. I can’t remember if I ever wrote about it on the ATW blog or not, so here goes. I think sometimes the entertainment industry, for instance, the folks who pull together focus groups to make sure that they don’t release a movie that won’t appeal to absolutely everybody, is completely out of touch with what it is that people want; you know, in spite of the focus groups. Ok, completely might be a little harsh, but sometimes I feel like they’re behind the curve.

We saw how long it took for the music industry to realize that music downloading could be a great source of revenue. We saw how long it took for the movie industry to figure out that we’re sick of franchise rebooting… wait, we moviegoers haven’t figured that out yet, so how could they? We say we’re sick of it, but we keep going to see the movies? It’s like we’re dumb. And I think TV is behind the curve on a few things, and I’d like to just spout off my opinion on that matter, because it’s too early for me to go see a matinee of the latest Sherlock Holmes movie.

Canceling Shows – I read this interview with David Cross, and he was speaking about two things that I found very striking. The first one was the canceling of shows, specifically “Arrested Development.” I haven’t seen “Arrested Development,” but I understand that it’s really good. Apparently, NetFlix is funding a new season of the show because the show is so popular on their service. This means that I will be breaking into people’s houses and switching their NetFlix to “Lie To Me” while they’re out watching the latest “Planet of the Apes,” unless you want to just put it on while you’re asleep for me. Thanks. The point is that I think there is an inherent flaw in how the networks make their decisions. Yes, yes, flipping a coin can be a good way to decide what to have for dinner, but… The second was the way IFC chose to end a show when it was right to end it, as opposed to dragging it out, but I’ll deal with that later.

Ratings Systems – Remember the Nielsen ratings? Somehow, they caused “Police Squad!” to get cancelled. I honestly don’t know whether they still use that rating system, and it’s easier to admit to my ignorance than look it up. I know they use a rating system though. The problem is that we no longer have only three major networks, and a few knock-off networks. There are more channels than we can keep up with, and the nice thing is that we don’t have to keep up with them. We have NetFlix, YouTube, and various other websites that a viewer can be entertained for hours on. The internet is a direct competitor to TV. How are you gauging that, Miss Nielsen if you’re nasty?

Home Market – David Cross specifically says that Fox was shortsighted about “Arrested Development,” given how well the show did on DVD. That’s the crazy thing. It really does feel like TV is ignoring the existence of Phase Two of the plan. What would John “Hannibal” Smith say? The one from the TV show. The networks are like B.A. They hate breaking Murdock out of the loony bin, because the man is insane, and makes them fly in planes. But Murdock is always integral to Hannibal’s plan. Thus, in my really terrible analogy, Murdock is the DVD market. I think.

What this creates is a system where the networks are just producing shows with no intention of keeping them around if they don’t immediately do well. In the past, this sometimes caused great shows to be cancelled while really bad shows went on way too long. In a time of episodic shows where one show had little, if any, bearing on the next show, this was ok. In a time when people were going to watch one of the TV stations they could count on their fingers; thus, not having a wide range of choices, this was ok. In a time where the only way you were going to see a show again is if you videotaped it, this was ok. Now, this isn’t really ok.

Now, TV producers need to look with an eye to create a lasting relationship with their viewers, otherwise, there are plenty of other hotties in the club. This means that the shows produced should be better developed, so that lots of money isn’t wasted on shooting a few episodes, and then just firing everybody, because it didn’t have an overnight following. This is probably very daunting, so allow me to discuss what I think would work.

Ease Up On Schedules – Strict viewing schedules are not quite so necessary anymore. People have DVR. People have DVD. People have the internet. I’m not saying abandon schedules altogether. I’m just saying that they are somewhat antiquated. Recognize that people will watch your crap when they get to it, which means that if they catch up three seasons into your show, it’s still ok. Further, there is no specific reason why a season has to start at a certain time, or that a show that is planned to have multiple seasons has to be shown in consecutive years. Free your actors up to work on other things for a year with the promise to come back when it’s time to work on the show again. If you think people will lose interest in a show the moment it’s been off for a year or more, let me just point you back at the “Arrested Development” bit. There is no reason you can make a show that has six episode storylines every eight months, or any other crazy timeline you can come up with.

Commit to a Full Run – This is the most important bit to me. I’m really irritated… at Fox no less, for canceling “Lie To Me” without so much as an arbitrary last show. Why would the concept of a midseason cancellation even make sense to a network now? At the very least, commit to a few more shows to properly finish the series. At best, plan your shows to run for a specified number of seasons. If you have a show that you’re really not sure about, start with a single storyline that can run for either a few episodes, or a whole season. Wrap it up well enough that, if it doesn’t come back, no one feels too cheated.

Don’t Rely on Advertisers as Much – This is one that is probably hard to imagine, but if you plan a show for so many episodes, and set aside a budget that will pay for that much, then the advertising becomes secondary for the continuation of the show. It’s only important for the next show you produce, like when a movie does well and you make a sequel. If a show doesn’t bring in a lot of money during its run, then the next show gets a smaller budget, or fewer episodes. At least you always know that the one you’re working on is paid for. You can tell me that it’s not practical for TV, but I don’t really believe that. Maybe I’m wrong. I just know that businesses that are grown by what they make, rather than what they hope to make, seem to do pretty well. TV doesn’t have to be any different.

The fact is that while the information age has seemed to have sped everything up, it has slowed down the frantic pace by which TV needs to be produced and watched. I don’t know what shows I missed while I was watching “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” and “Night Court.” It didn’t matter to me either, because I couldn’t watch all three stations. Now I can. Now, if I find out that Thursday night of every major network is great, I can watch them all. Gone are the days of throwaway shows because you know that you can’t compete with Norm and Cliff. It’s time to start thinking that way.

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