Culture has nothing to do with it

by Paul William Tenny

lost.jpgAs I promised yesterday, this post is going to address the misgivings of an essay on Newsvine purporting to explain why TV shows lose their audience over time. Generally speaking, most television shows that find an audience don't lose it over time unless they experience an epic failure resulting from flaws that doomed them from the moment they were conceived. One only has to look to Lost to understand what I'm talking about. Here we have a show that generated a significant amount of buzz after its first season, pulling in something like 25 million viewers for the second season premier, only to lose over half of them by the third. This was the result of the inability or unwillingness of J. J. Abrams to accept that no show can survive without paying off at least some of the setup.
The writing staff didn't run out of new ideas, the show didn't fall out of sync with American culture, and the premise hasn't been run past its natural and obvious conclusion. Premise burnout is a myth in an industry that survives by thinking up new ideas and premises at a rate of thousands per year. What we're really talking about here is the insinuation that it's possible to run out of ideas and that themes only have a finite life, and that's simply not true. Law & Order and the Simpsons are great examples of shows that have been doing exactly the same thing for nearly two decades and have shown no signs of theme burnout or cultural disconnect. Shows don't reflect our lives as much as we think they do and there's nothing to prevent writers from changing their fake reality as ours changes right in front of our eyes.

The number one reason veteran shows come to an end is boredom. Not of the audience -- those change over time as well where old viewers find new shows and new viewers find old ones -- but the creators. Actors and writers don't want to spend half their careers doing the same thing over and over again, and networks realize sometimes it's just time to put a certain property to bed and move on.

Freshman shows are canceled for any number of reasons, but I'll get to that in a moment.

"Cyprah" writes that "reality shows like Big Brother and American Idol are the rage. In a few years time, something else will take their place when the public gets tired of them. As our values change, and what we seek to entertain us also changes, those programmes will lose their appeal" without understanding that what we're talking about with reality television is the ascendence of a genre that began during the 1988 writers' strike purely as a tactical move by the networks to get something -- anything really -- on the air. Idol is simply this generations version of Star Search and hasn't really changed that much. There are plenty of innovative reality shows on the air whose only disgusting attraction is human suffering, but they can't challenge the talent competitions anymore than they can challenge the top scripted programming such as House, which itself is really just a twist on your standard medical drama.

Virtually all of the top programming today is little different than that which we've had for the past 20 years and I've seen nothing that would indicate a change coming. To say that the shows replaced by House and Idol were out of date and not in sync with American culture -- which itself is a fallacy given how incredibly popular American drama is overseas in countries that are nothing like this one -- is to completely ignore what shows have been replaced and why they were successful in the first place.

Third is due to natural human evolution. As we evolve, the programmes that were very appealing when we were younger cease to be appealing as we get older because maturity brings a desire for different experiences to match our new state.

Most popular programs are geared towards the demographic that buys the most productions: young males. A show can be performing poorly overall but strongly in the demo and survive longer than a big show overall that skews older or female. That's well known and understood and just part of doing business in television. It's not the same thing as people growing out of their favorite programming. Once we've passed puberty, we tend to like what we like for the rest of our lives and mistake the discovery of new things for a personal change in taste. That kind of change just doesn't happen.

There are a lot of reasons a person can have a falling out with a program but we simply don't lose favor with genres or television in general.

With few exceptions, good shows stay on the air for years and years until the cast and screw get sick of it and want to do something else. Even then, some shows just rotate out the cast that inevitably walks off to become big film stars only to fade into total obscurity and just keep soldiering on, just like E.R. and Law & Order have been doing for over 18 years. Successful sitcoms and dramas often finish off their run with record high numbers, and are not canceled because they lost their base.

As for freshman shows, that scene is a little more complex. Anything that doesn't start off well becomes a tempting experiment for network executives to play games with when it comes to the showrunner. Bionic Woman had three or four before being shot down. The creator of Commander in Chief, Rod Lurie, was pushed out the door after just a couple of episodes had aired, and eventually crashed and burned quite spectacularly. Some networks have higher expectations than others and the reactions to a challenged start can vary wildly from cancellation after one airing (Fox, Anchorwoman) to dragging out a failure for three years (NBC, Friday Night Lights.)

Many shows are never given a fair shot when given a time slot at or after 10pm when half the country is in bed, only to be given a worse time slot when it doesn't debut well, only to lose even more viewers during a forced hiatus which always fails.

Politics, cost overruns, over inflated competition from high profit but low entertainment value reality, network interference, and plain old short fuses all contribute to shows having problems. Sometimes, the show just stinks.

Finally, there's this: "Nothing lasts forever. For television to retain its appeal, it has to be innovative, fresh, creative and relevant. If any of those elements are missing, audiences won't be impressed." The Simpsons, Law & Order, and CSI haven't innovated or been fresh for a long time, and that's not going to change. This kind of "wisdom" may apply to serial drama, but it has nothing to do with sitcoms or procedural programming. Things just aren't that simple.
in Feature, Television


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