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October 24, 2006

The Middle Ground Gets You Cancelled: The Plight of Moderate TV Successes

Last November, Grant McCracken wrote about long tails and fat middles, the discussion of the rise of indy films alongside the distribution of blockbusters, including the peril of being in the middle. He quoted what is called "the death valley problem":

"Big companies are flourishing. Small companies are flourishing. It's the one in between who struggle." This is an area he labels the "sour spot." However, Grant questioned "whether the death valley model is the right way to think about this problem."

Someone should have told this to CBS, apparently. As Edward Wyatt's piece in yesterday's New York Times points out, though, this can often have dangerous consequences for those who fall in the middle. He takes up the point of Smith, the recent CBS show that was a moderate success but was dropped after only a few episodes aired because it had dropped from 11 million in the first episode to a little more than 9 million in the third episode.

Wyatt writes, "The quick cancellation of 'Smith' elucidates how television, like the movie industry, has become a business where there is little room for modest success. Network executives might endlessly talk about how, in an era where the attention of audiences is ever more scattered, new shows need time to find themselves. But those same executives are often quick to pull the plug on an expensive production that does not immediately perform to expectations."

Wyatt goes into the details of Smith and other shows currently on the bubble, falling into this middle ground of less expensive niche programming and high-production blockbusters. While Wyatt points out that a show like Criminal Minds built into a hit last season after starting with more moderate success, the powers that be felt the storytelling was too convoluted in Smith. Instead, the rest of the episodes that have already been filmed are going to be distributed online, along with a synopsis explaining what would have happened in the rest of the season.

Wyatt writes:

"But with an average of nine million fans having tuned in, inevitably there were many disappointed viewers who were looking for the fourth episode of 'Smith,' only to find yet another episode of 'CSI.' Some of them took to Internet bulletin boards to express their outrage."

From the piece I wrote about a couple of weeks back by Jeremy Dauber from The Christian Science Monitory, Dauber writes about the change in cultural practice and viewer relationships with shows when more and more people are watching seasons on DVD. Dauber wrote that he "kind of liked Smith, and I'm pretty sure that a number of those aforementioned friends and family members (have I mentioned how wonderful they are?) would have loved the show when they watched it on DVD in 2008. But now we'll never know, since no show, no DVD."

Dauber's point is an important one, reflecting how TV shows that require a long build and may be more amenable to other forms of distribution are nevertheless still judged by the episodic nature of primetime programming that cancels shows after a few weeks, despite all the stories of television lore about many of the top shows taking some time to catch on with the audience.

But, to return to Grant McCracken for a minute and his desire to move beyond this view that the middle is a "sour spot," I think it is very applicable to the Smith example.

In this piece from a few months ago, McCracken writes about the success of Pirates of the Caribbean as a film that wasn't a guaranteed blockbuster nor an indy film but that did well at the box office, despite being "in the middle."

In that piece, he writes:

The "death of the middle" strategy is straight forward. It says, spend massively to guarantee hits at the top, and fund lots of little films to fill niches (and find sleepers) at the bottom. The middling films, the DOM stategy says, are too small for marketing muscle and too big to connect to anyone.

But what are we assuming here? We're assuming that the block busters are manufacturable, that the studios can manage their way to sensational numbers. Really? It looks like Disney came this close to refusing the essential ingredient of this summer's blockbuster. (Is he drunk? Is he gay? Please. It's called acting.) Were it not for Depp's refusal to rework his foppish Jack, this block buster might well have been a middle weight, and no block buster at all.

I wonder if it isn't time for Hollywood to get chunkier. Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground. A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free. (Freeish.) There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the "fear of falling" rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million.

In this case, what is said about Hollywood makes sense for television as well, and one has to wonder, as show after show falls off network lineups this fall, which of them could have gone on to be major successes in the long-term. But, until there is a monetized way to value the shows that take the middle ground, and until there is more economic incentive on the network's part to care about the success of shows long-term, then would-be fans of Smith and many other shows will have to just keep guessing what might have been.

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