It used to be that the fall season of television was the most highly anticipated time of year. It was the time when favorite television series returned with fan-fare to conclude their spring season cliffhangers and when all the networks unveiled the best and brightest of the new shows. It was appointment television, and everyone tuned in to see what would be the next big thing that everyone would be talking about.
But, this year, that all changed. As My Generations creator Noah Hawley noted in his Oct. 13 blog post that this is the year that television died. It is not just genre television shows that are suffering, it is all shows. Can you name one new show that knocked everyones socks off and skyrocketed in the ratings? Sure, there were the flash-in-the-pan shows that came out of the gate strong and then quickly faded (The Event, Hawaii Five-O, No Ordinary Family). So far, virtually none of the new series launched this fall have held the television audiences attention. The first series to be given a full season pick-up was Foxs Raising Hope, which started off with 6.9 million viewers and has stabilized at 6.1 million viewers -- not exactly numbers that indicate that the mass viewing audience is tuning in.
It has been a brutal year to be a new television show. Lone Star, My Generation and Outlaw have already been canceled, with Running Wilde and The Whole Truth looking to be next in line for the ax. Even critically-acclaimed new series such as Terriers have barely even registered on the viewing radar, which is a shame because it is a show that should be seen by more than a handful of viewers.
So what happened? Why are television viewers tuning in and then quickly tuning out -- or worse yet, avoiding the new shows like the plague?
Quite simply put: there is too much from which to choose. Looking at todays television broadcast schedule, it is nearly incomprehensible to figure out what is on -- and when. No longer limited to five dominant networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW), original programming is now being offered by BBC America, Showtime, HBO, Syfy, USA Network, TNT, FX, A&E, AMC, Cartoon Network, SOApNET and a zillion other broadcasters. As a television critic and reviewer, I can barely keep track of the shows I am interested in watching; thus, it is understandable that the average viewer is simply overwhelmed. They do not know what is on and -- if they are looking for a particular show -- they have no idea when it is on.
Additionally, there are not only 15 major broadcasters to choose from, but the standard television season has gone through dramatic changes as well. It is no longer a fall through spring television season. Now there are winter season, mid-season and summer season. Therefore, viewers do not understand why a show that premieres in August and concludes in mid-October, and then does not return until some time the following summer. The same goes for shows that have split seasons. Shows that launch in summer frequently come back either in November or January to conclude their season. This confuses the hell out of viewers taught from infancy that television shows run September through May. It simply does not make sense to them that a show may debut in March and run through May, and then not come back until October and run through December.
With the advent of TiVo and the DVR, most viewers have learned that they can simply mark a show for a season pass -- that way they do not have to even think about when a specific show is on. However, at this time, DVR-recorded shows do not count towards ratings. Sure, the networks are obtaining DVR playback numbers, but that data shows up weeks later and is not used to calculate ratings for ad revenue, which is a television shows life-blood. Thus, viewers who have given up trying to navigate the increasingly complex labyrinth of time schedules are drop-out viewers whose DVR-watching habits do not count towards a television shows viewership. They are the uncounted viewers.
As announced last week, Hawaii Five-O became the most DVR-recorded in recent history with over 3 million viewers watching it on DVR versus live when it is broadcast. The Hawaii Five-O showrunners must be beating their heads against the walls at the loss of all that ad revenue. It is money they probably desperately need to pay for such an expensive show filled with explosions, big name stars and the pricey expense of filming in Hawaii.
TOO MUCH COMPETITION
Another aspect that has viewers worn out is the networksinsistence on stacking the deck -- they put all their top shows up against other networks in the exact same time slot. It is their thinking that putting an A-ranked show up against another A-ranked show will help them win their ratings boxing match. However, for viewers, this is just a nightmare. We are not watching a boxing match; we can only watch one show at a time and then record maybe one or two other shows simultaneously -- and that is assuming that the average viewer can even record other shows. Most viewers must simply chose between shows. This is frankly upsetting to viewers. We do not watch television by being loyal to only one network. We like what we like and we want to watch it. So pitting shows like CSI and Greys Anatomy up against one another did not mean that one won their boxing match -- they both lost huge numbers of viewers by that stunt. Similarly, pitting House up against Chuck has not helped either in their time slot -- House has lot over 50 percent of its audience and Chuck is fighting to pull in the bare minimum amount of viewers.
Another prime example was launching Hawaii Five-O in the same time slot as Castle and the new Jerry Bruckheimer series Chase. Already viewers are resorting to the DVR to bail them out of that programming fiasco.
It was also the death-knell for Foxs new series Lone Star, which debuted the same night as NBCs The Event in the same time slot. When asked to choose, viewers opted to check out The Event (hyped as the next Lost). Lone Star was dead in the water simply because viewers wanted to see what The Event was all about. But three weeks later, Lone Star is dead and The Event is hemorrhaging viewers.
Then there is the David-versus-Goliath strategy that is a sure-fire way to kill off any new promising television series. A good example of that was sandwiching No Ordinary Family in between the mighty NCIS and fan-favorite Glee on Tuesday nights. No Ordinary Family managed to pull in a good number of viewers for its first episode, but as the competition got more stiff, it too started losing viewers rapidly.
Viewer fatigue and too much competition accounts for a large portion of what is killing television.
Another problem with modern television is that advertising is not as effective as it used to be. Both Lone Star and My Generation alienated viewers with offensive ad campaigns before they were even aired. The average viewer did not want to tune in and root for characters that were cheaters, frauds and living otherwise despicable lives.
As mentioned in my article Did TV Critics Kill Lone Star, the image of a young man straddled by two semi-naked women was not just risquÃ©, it guaranteed female viewers would not watch Lone Star.
Similarly, the billboard ads for My Generation had off-putting tag lines, such as: You know this ring comes off, right? and When Im with him, Im thinking of you. CultureMob.com wrote a great article listing all the offensive tag lines.
With advertising like that, is it any wonder that viewers did not bother watching these shows?
Overhyping a show can also hurt its chance at success. I know I was one of the many who listened to the hype and could not wait to see new shows such as Undercovers, Nikita, No Ordinary Family and The Event. While decent shows, they simply did not live up to the hype. Undercovers and Nikita were not the next Alias. No Ordinary Family was not a combination of Heroes meets The Incredibles. And The Event was not the next Lost. Using comparisons such as those only inflated expectations, and when no one tuned in, it was dismaying to find out that these shows did not resemble the shows they were compared to. If anything all these new shows were safe, watered down versions of their predecessors.
In addition, by aiming to please everyone, these shows lacked a certain creative edge needed to grip viewer attention and keep them glued to their television sets. Viewers simply did not feel like they were being offered anything new.
It is unfortunate that shows that did have a creative edge have not been able to lure in viewers. The best example of this is FXs new private investigator series Terriers. With some of the strongest writing on television, viewers have either avoided or missed this fascinating show. Blaming the name alone does not explain the resistance. Shows like Cougar Town and even The Good Wife have managed to rise above their mismonikered titles and attracted an audience.
So why are viewers missing out on Terriers if it is not the inadequate title? Perhaps being on a less obvious network like FX means that viewers are simply not aware that the show is on. FX may have been the network that launched Damages, but it is doubtful that viewers are aware that it carries other shows like Justified, Rescue Me and now Terriers.
There are undoubtedly a lot of different factors that contribute to various television shows failing to connect with an audience. In addition to viewer fatigue, too much competition, ineffective advertising and false promises, there are other issues to be taken into consideration such as: not appealing to men and women equally, too serialized, too cutting-edge, no built-in audience, and its missing the magic ingredients: no heart, hero or hook (See again my prior article Did TV Critics Kill Lone Star.
Until Hollywood learns to reconcile all these factors, viewer disinterest, discontent and desertion will continue, and more and more television studios will become modern day ghost towns.
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