As the fall season has already claimed several casualties across the television landscape, the popular outcry from outraged fans is that that the networks are to blame for failing to adequately promote various television shows.
From "Lone Star" to "My Generation, from "Undercovers" to "Caprica," the number one complaint has been that studios and networks did not support their shows -- that there was not enough billboards, not enough magazine ads, and not enough prime-time advertisements during other popular shows.
Yet as an avid TV watcher, I had no difficultly knowing exactly when these shows were on and which new shows to keep an eye out for. If anything, I was inundated with an overdose of advertising for each of the shows that have recently fallen under the cancellation guillotine.
So it makes me wonder what was really going on. Low ratings do not necessarily reflect poor advertising. What low ratings do reflect is a lack of interest -- or a lack of television viewing priority. A show has low ratings for a variety of reasons, but predominantly it is because no one is watching.
In the case of "Lone Star," viewers did not tune in to check out this groundbreaking show because they were turned off by the premise and because it was placed in a time slot where it was in direct competition with another new television show "The Event" -- which held more appeal to viewers. (For further analysis on the failure of "Lone Star" to hook an audience, see my article "Did TV Critics Kill 'Lone Star'?")
"My Generation" was similarly challenged. The concept and advertising did not appeal to the mass viewing audience, and it was also in direct competition with more popular television shows, such as "Bones" and "The Vampire Diaries."
Alas, in "Undercovers" case, it was not as challenged by the competition as much as it was handicapped by heightened expectations. Being branded as a J.J. Abrams show was not exactly helpful as, when viewers did tune in to check out "Undercovers," they were startled to find that the signature hallmarks of a his show were missing. Viewers wondered: where was the mythos, the mythology, the adrenaline rush of excitement? The show simply did not feel like the show that fans expected it to be.
As for Caprica, what happened? It is not a new fall show. It was a returning series with an established fan base. It should have been a sure-fire lock for being secure for the remainder of the television season. Yet it too was canceled within weeks of its return. In Capricas case, it was a combination of the overemphasis of an unpopular story line and the deadly strategic move to a new night that killed off this beloved sci-fi series. (For more discussion on "Caprica's" downfall, see my articles "Is Religion Killing Off Good Sci-Fi Shows" and "The Tuesday Night Death Slot.")
As these examples account for just a few of the television shows recently canceled, one wonders: What is going to happen to the rest of the canceled shows? Fan favorite "Life Unexpected" and ABC's legal drama "The Whole Truth" lost viewers to more popular shows, and shows like "Outlaw" and "Running Wilde" stumbled creatively from the outset and could not regain their footing fast enough to sustain viewers.
After looking at how viewer retention, stiff time slot competition and creative missteps led to declining ratings, it is unfair to blame television studios and networks for lack of promotion -- especially when there were several other factors that contributed to and were perhaps more wholly responsible for the failure of various shows to secure an audience.
The fact remains that low ratings mean that no one is watching the show. Viewership of less than 5 million viewers for a major television network is not enough to sustain the production costs, and for non-major networks, viewers less than 1 million can just about guarantee that a show will be quickly canceled. While fans are quick to point fingers at the lack of promotion for new shows, they should be asking themselves if there were not other factors that led to the early demise.
Even just asking a few coworkers and family members what they are watching on television, I am always appalled to hear that it is not the shows that I wished they were watching. As much as I may fervently hope that they would be television connoisseurs and forsake reality television shows or outrageous social commentary shows, I cannot control the remote in each of their homes.
This is the curse of the television viewer -- we are required to suffer at the hands of the masses. The mass television audience determines what the rest of us are required to watch. If they chose not to watch the niche shows or the shows we love, then our shows are doomed. And, as any actor or producer knows passion projects are akin to playing roulette -- you just do not know if luck will strike and the gamble will win out.
Over the years, many such niche shows were caught in such snares, such as: Firefly, Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Wonderfalls, Keen Eddie, Eli Stone, Pushing Daisies and Moonlight. It does not matter how much the devoted fans wailed over cancellation and the lack of faith of the networks to allow such shows to develop an audience, the reality hurts even more -- people were just not watching.
Or worse yet, not enough people were watching. Nearly every one of these shows suffered not from no one even checking out these shows, but because people did tune in and then tuned out. The best example was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It premiered to nearly 18 million viewers and then slid to less than 4 million viewers over the course of the next 18 months. It was not that Fox failed to promote the show, it was that viewers were not interested in sticking around. Based on one of the most iconic sci-fi films in history, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles should have been a guaranteed lock with audiences. But for whatever menagerie of reasons, viewers did not stick around. It was their loss.
Even the Emmy winning Pushing Daisies could not lock its audience. For it does not matter if a show wins awards, has the cutest couple,or has the best writing to grace a television screen, viewer retention was problematic for it as well.
There is no guarantee as to what makes a television show a ratings hit. But it is a guarantee that if no one watches, or a show sheds viewers too rapidly, it will be canceled. Studios and networks just cannot justify paying for shows that do not draw a sufficient audience. Dramas and sci-fi shows are expensive. They are not as cheap to make as comedies and reality shows, so the bar is set even higher for them. And as painful as it is, unless enough people watch, those expensive shows cannot be sustained. Actors, writers, directors, producers and everyone else who work on a television show do not work for free - - and we should not ask them to.
Blame allocation is a funny thing. It is so easy to point fingers at studios and networks. But truly the blame lies with the viewers. Each one of us has a voice, and if we find ourselves in the minority, we must accept that we live in a majority-rules society. If the majority of viewers are watching something else, then we are stuck. Our minority tastes will not win. We will not save shows that are not economically viable. Like any losing party in a popular election knows, once the winning vote is decided, we all have to live with the decision.
So as I watch my favorite shows, I try to remember that perhaps the rest of the viewing world is not watching what I watch. Just because I love Terriers, Stargate Universe and Fringe, does not mean that they have guaranteed longevity. I am but one voice amongst the masses. So treasure the time we are given with each show and know that at any time it too could be struck down simply because the mass viewing audience dictates it. They turned the channel.
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