November 1, 2006
Is Cancellation of Complex Shows Inevitable: Drop-Happy Networks Run Off Would-Be Fans

Here's an important concept to explain the failure of a lot of complex shows this fall: the cancel-happy networks are making a lot of people afraid to develop a deep investment with new shows that they are afraid aren't going to make it.

I don't know if Bill Carter is aware of it, but the most interesting insight of his piece in Sunday's edition of The New York Times was buried somewhere in the middle.

His essay was about how audiences were not taking to a lot of very developed and highly serialized shows that were being launched this fall, which he sees as proof that people already have enough deep and developed shows. In the first paragraph, for instance, he writes, "This season's lesson was clear within the first weeks of the fall: you can ask people to commit only so many hours to intense, dark, intricately constructed serialized dramas, to sign huge chunks of their lives away to follow every minuscule plot development and character tic both on the air and on Internet sites crowded with similarly addicted fanatics."

I was a little dubious to this claim that America just doesn't have more times for more well-developed television shows than are already on the air, although I think there is an argument that an audience can only follow so many of these series at a time. And one of the problems may be that the majority of these series are all trying to apply the serialized format and intricate plots into action-based scenarios, basically using this television format only chiefly to attract interest from action/adventure addicts.

But I thought Carter hit on an interesting point halfway through, when he writes that "the prospect of devoting time and passion to a show only to see it cut off, like a movie snapping in half in midprojection, has made a lot of viewers feel commitment-phobic this season." The article's continued claimed that only a few serialized shows can be on television at any one time, a perspective I'm definitely not convinced of, is balanced against this much more interesting argument, that viewers do not want to invest because they are afraid to...

I have to agree with Bill on this aspect of his article because that's the primary reason that I've not committed to very many of these shows this season. While my wife has watched several of them, The Nine is one of the only new shows of this sort that I've watched. Part of it is indeed the time crunch, but my major fear is investing in a story that gets pulled out from me a few episodes in, like those poor viewers of Smith who now won't know anything about how their story ends, other than a short summary of what was going to happen the rest of the season.

For more on the cancellation of Smith, see my former point about these issues in The Middle Ground Gets You Cancelled and Jeremy Dauber Feels Like He's Living in 2004.

Be sure to read the rest of Carter's article, in which he discusses how DVD sales are changing the way networks make money off of series but cause major questions about the current distribution model. Which brings me to my concluding point.

If people aren't willing to devote themselves to a series while it's on the air because they are afraid the cancel-happy networks are just going to pull the rug out from under them, does this mean that the need for a new model is developing for these types of shows? It seems that this current system, where networks want to push shows that are more involved and have a longer shelf-life, is contradicting with the older form of throwing on self-contained shows at the beginning of a season and quickly canceling many of the series.

As of now, there are a lot of shows that likely would have eventually turned a profit through DVD sales that will never make it to DVD because the plug is getting pulled on them a few episodes in. What are the alternative distribution methods? It's something that the networks should be thinking about, especially as a few fairly strong and interesting shows are being dropped off the lineup this fall.

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for bringing this to my attention.


On November 6, 2006 at 5:57 PM, lynn liccardo said:

can't argue with the viewers holding back because of the trigger-happy network execs. that said, the time factor cannot be ignored. evene with timeshifting, there are still only 24 hours in each day. every new show a viewer adds to their viewing schedule adds time that has to come from somewhere.

this year, with so many good shows -- heros, studio 60 (for now), six degrees, ugly betty are the ones that caught my fancy and so far, kept my interest. all i've dropped from my series priority list is house (a little out there, for me, and the characters in general, and house in particular, were seriously losing their appeal. so i picked up four, and dropped one. my question, and what i expect piqued bill carter's interested, is what is it i (and other viewers) won't be doing to accomodate a new gain of three shows this season.

On November 7, 2006 at 10:38 AM, Sam Ford said:

I think Bill makes some good points with these questions, too, Lynn. My problem, though, is that there are so many television viewers out there, I think that, while Six Degrees and Ugly Betty and Studio 60 and Heroes may be more attuned to your interests, there are plenty of other new shows that may be more interesting to other viewers, etc.

In other words, there should be enough room for a plethora of complex shows, but they have to come to the realization that complex shows are worth more than other types of programming (fosters a deeper relationship, creates more loyal viewers, extends the possibility of transmedia or ancillary content, etc.). The problem is that, if Life with Fran is worth as much as Veronica Mars (two shows that had about the same rating last year, but one was clearly a more powerful connection than the other) as far as numbers go, complex shows are clearly the losers.

I have picked up Studio 60 and The Nine this year. I'm interested in The Nine in hopes that it lasts exactly one season, since it is a contained story that is complex enough to be told over a season but nothing beyond that.

I guess my question is why it is a problem that people can only watch so many complex shows and why there can't be viable models for complex shows that attract a variety of viewers. One of the problems I see so far is that most complex shows are in the suspense or adventure category because of the early popularity of 24, Lost, and Alias, among others. I think this model of storytelling could be extended more and more to other genres so that, even with viewers choosing among their favorite complex shows, there's still a little bit of something for everyone.

But, again, until depth of interaction becomes part of the measurement, these shows are likely not to fare well if they appeal to a narrower niche audience. So, in order for these shows to be a success, they have to unseat other successful shows, etc., which creates a situation when there is only room for X number of complex shows.