After spending all summer hyping up the Fox series as if it were going to be the next biggest thing since Lost, perhaps the blame for Lone Stars cancellation rests primarily on the television critics shoulders.
The critics are the ones privy to advance screenings of television pilots and they use the power of the pen to hype television shows to the point that viewers either are frothing at the bit to see the show, and then subject to massive disappointment because the show failed to live up to the hype, or viewers are sick of hearing about the show even before it airs. In Lone Stars case, there were many factors going against it.
Critics Loved It (Series Too Serialized)
If there is anything that the mass viewing audience has learned, it is that they need to be wary of television shows that critics love. For one, critics are looking for something that the average viewer is not. Critics want shows that are cutting-edge, outside-the-box, original, different.
Viewers want something that is appealing and easy to watch -- meaning, they do not have to commit to it over a long period of time. Some of the biggest shows on television are easy - - a viewer can tune-in or tune-out at any point and not worry they are missing anything.
Serialized television is still a hard-sell to the mass viewing audience. They like reality TV shows because they are low commitment. They only have to tune-in for a short period of time and then the show resets with a new cast, so to speak. Dancing With the Stars, Survivor, American Idol and The Biggest Loser all garner massive ratings. But they only last 10-12 episodes per season, and the viewers do not feel like they have to watch every single episode.
No Built-In Fan Base (No Surprise Factor)
Shows like The Good Wife are an anomaly. It is a heavily serialized series that requires viewer commitment in order to follow the complex stories running throughout each episode. But with Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth starring, it is no surprise that their massive fan-bases would follow them from their prior long-running television series, ER and Sex in the City, respectively. With a built-in, passionate and loyal fan bases, The Good Wife was predestined to succeed. Then add in the fact that it provides great drama with a very attractive and appealing ensemble cast, it was a sure-fire hit. And best of all, the critics were barely talking about it before it aired. The mystery of it -- because it was virtually unheard of -- meant that the viewers were intrigued and not worn out by the constant bombardment of advertising or critics telling them to watch it. Viewers like to discover television shows all on their own. They do not want to be told what to watch, like they could not possibly know a good show when they saw one. Therefore, The Good Wife was a delightful surprise.
Not Designed To Draw In Women
The Good Wife also knew exactly which audience it was trying to reach: women. It did not matter that it had a name that was likely to alienate its primary audience; the show had a hook for which women were intrigued. Women wanted to find out why Alicia Florrick would stand by her man after he publicly humiliated her and was being prosecuted for legal misconduct. The hook was not about a woman being walked over and being submissive, it was about a strong woman making an unpopular decision for the right reasons. It was about a woman surviving a massive scandal, facing it defiantly and standing on her own to support her family. The female television fans were intrigued and tuned in -- and kept tuning in.
Lone Star, on the other hand, was not really aimed at the female audience. It sought to portray two beautiful women as being foolish enough to marry a man and stay with him without having a clue that he had another life. Women viewers were put off by this concept. Add that to the billboard ads with both women scantily dressed straddling a young hot con-man from behind on a bed, and women were immediately thinking: this show is not for me. The advertising was directed at men, and the concept was designed to draw in male viewers. It was not a show that was catering towards a female audience. Where was the hook for women? While a handsome young man may be easy on the eyes, eye-candy is not enough to sell a television show. What women are looking for is more than a physical reaction; they want an emotional reaction - - something that stimulates them on multiple levels. They want to be drawn into the story both with their head and heart.
In The Good Wife, we empathize with a woman who was forced back out into the work force to support her family and who holds her head high in the face of public humiliation; and we are intrigued to find out how she does it. In Lone Star, women were being asked to be humiliated along with the women on the show. We were made a participant to their fraudulent relationships - - and we were being asked to play stupid along with them. This just rubs women the wrong way. We do not empathize, nor are we curious about how they are duped. What we really want to see is them finding out and getting their revenge. So asking women viewers to be a party to such a despicable con-game and to put ourselves in a mans shoes - - it is just not a place we choose to be.
Cutting-Edge Does Not Equal High Ratings
So when a television critic announces to the world that a television show like Lone Star is going to be the next biggest thing, you have to wonder what kind of shows they watch. Do they watch popular television shows, or only shows that draw less than 5 million viewers? While shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Big Love, Dexter, are all big Emmy-nominated type shows, and critics love them, their ratings say something else entirely: no one is watching them. Mad Men boasts an average audience of 2.9 million, Breaking Bad has an average of 2 million viewers, Big Love averages 1.7 million and Dexter averages 2.6 million. These are the shows that critics love and sing the praises. They rarely, if ever, rave about popular shows like NCIS, The Mentalist or even Law & Order. Shows that pull in over 15 million viewers tend to be shows that critics rarely if ever mention, let alone write rave reviews about. Yet those are the shows that people are watching - - that and reality television.
No Heart, Hero Or Hook
I know that one who lives in a glass house should not throw stones. I am a television critic, reviewer and I am one of the few who got to see Lone Star months before it aired on television. I liked it, but I was dubious that it would land an audience. The premise was too male-dominated to appeal to women -- and it was not going to appeal to average Americans. The average American viewer is more conservative in viewing patterns. Shows depicting bigamy, defrauding hard working people and marginalizing the intelligence of women are not going to appeal to the average viewer. These outrageous elements will only appeal to those who enjoy fringe television shows. What the average American wants is: someone to root for -- a hero; someone to care about -- a heart; and a story that is compelling to tune in for -- a hook.
In case you are wondering what I wrote about Lone Star before the show premiered, I refer you to my article, Lone Star EP Amy Lippman & Star James Wolk Talk Texas, where I wrote: One of this falls most anticipated new series ... [a] series about a con man living two lives with two different women and attempting to pull-off a double con is set to captivate the imagination of the television audience. Yet in that same article I cautiously noted: The ultimate challenge of the series is not keeping Bob/Roberts lives separate, but how can James portray him in a compelling and appealing way that will not alienate viewers. What Bob is doing, conning everyday people, may rub people the wrong way - - if not delicately handled. It is thus up to James to make the character sympathetic and interesting enough that the viewers want to see how it all works out. To keep the audience engaged and entertained enough to tune in each week.
It is easy enough to like a series before it is rejected by the American viewing audience, but, as honestly admitted by an anonymous Fox Television executive known as Masked Scheduler: This year's batch of shows just felt sort of lame and generic ... to the critics ... so 'Lone Star,' to some extent by default, became the twitics' darling : So expectations started to far exceed the reality of the show's potential : Network executives actually start to believe the critic quotes and even love to put them in promos for the show : We have evidence and data up the wazoo that critic's quotes don't matter and, in fact, are a turn-off to the audience and yet we do them ... more for ourselves than for any increase in viewer interest.
Fox had high hopes and wanted to believe that the critics may be right and that the television audience would embrace such a potentially difficult-to-sell show. But drinking the cool-aid of the praise of television critics who are simply not in-tune with the mass television audience is not going to guarantee a success.
No matter if someone says a television show is bad or good, ultimately television viewers will decide for themselves if they think a new show is worth their time. There really is no guaranteed way to assess whether a show will actually be watched. Network executives, publicists and critics will all do their best to promote a new show, and then everyone collectively holds their breath to see if viewers tune-in and stick around.
Television shows cannot be sold on just great writing and fantastic casting. A show must appeal to the average viewer who has too much going on in their personal lives to want to waste an hour of it watching a show that does not fit into their lives. Time is a precious commodity. The viewer wants to be entertained. They want someone to root for and identify with. They want something that invites them to laugh a little and swoon a little, with maybe a mystery in between -- something that ties the laughter and heart-warming moments together.
If television shows are being made for niche audiences, then that is all they are going to attract; and as any cable programmer will verify, niche audiences rarely reach above 5 million viewers. The American viewing audience is simply more mainstream, and they want something easy, engaging and entertaining. It is time for television programmers to learn the triple E formula for success -- otherwise, be more realistic about the number of people who are going to watch their shows.
It is also time to stop letting television critics be the voice of the average American viewer. That is not their job. Critics can only speak to what they know and what they like. The true test is always whether the average viewer will watch the show. What does the average viewer like? What appeals to them?
I hazard to say that when predicting the viability of a television show, a criteria should be considered. 1. Is the show too serialized? 2. Is there a built-in audience that follows a lead actor or actress? 3. Is it going to appeal to both men and women? 4. Does it have the magic ingredients: hero, heart and hook?
If a show meets these criteria, then it is much more likely to be a success. But, even then, people will watch what they want to watch.
"Lone Star" was ambitious. It just was not the right fit with what mass viewers wanted to watch -- and no amount of critical praise was going to convince viewers to tune-in and watch.
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