Lessons learned from network TV's disintegrating season
Nearly a dozen series have hit the garbage bin or are circling the drain, including Knight Rider, My Own Worst Enemy, Do Not Disturb, The Ex List, Lipstick Jungle, Opportunity Knocks and Valentine. The culprit: chronically low viewership, even for series considered of high quality and excellent execution.
Proof of that trend came in ABC’s announcement that three of its best-regarded shows wouldn’t be coming back from fast approaching hiatuses: Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies. For critics, Daisies was a particular sore spot. Championed by the professional couch potato set, this quirky series with a fantasyland visual style and whiplash-inducing wisecracks was easily the smartest show on network TV, bolstered by three Emmy wins this year.
Once upon a time, that was enough to save a show –- see Cheers and All in the Family for reference. But in today’s fragmented TV environment, an average 6.7-million viewers wasn’t enough to save a show about a piemaker who can raise the dead, his undead love and the irascible private detective who turned them into a crime-solving trio. Yeah, it was complicated.
Here are a few more bitter lessons learned from the wreckage of the 2008-2009 TV season so far:
The quality divide with cable TV is accelerating: Network TV has some of the same problems as newspapers but in slower motion –- audience declines compared to last year; growing competition with cable TV; growing competition with DVR, Internet and gaming usage; and weakness among key advertisers.
But the biggest problem may be that cable TV can sustain quality shows with a fraction of the audience broadcast requires. Daisies’ 6.7-million viewers would be a bonanza for Bravo or the Sci Fi Channel; on ABC, it’s cause for a eulogy. Which means populist, predictable stuff like Dancing With the Stars and CSI increasingly becomes the world of the networks, while risk-taking, rule-breaking TV pulls more sophisticated and moneyed audiences to cable.
Bringing back mediocre freshman shows from last year didn't make them any better: The theory was, shows like Lipstick Jungle, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money didn't jell when they debuted last year because the writer's strike got them pulled off the air before they had a chance to develop. Now, after several weeks on air in this season, we know they didn't jell because they didn't work.
The fantasy boom on network TV has gone bust: Some of the most troubled series on network TV are the fantasy shows: Fox’s Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, NBC’s Crusoe, My Own Worst Enemy, Chuck and, of course, Heroes.
They are expensive shows with complex plotlines that have often fallen short on execution. But their biggest problem is that films tell these stories better, with bigger budgets and better special effects.
So when comic book geekoids want a shot of superhero adventure, will they turn to an episode of the increasingly frustrating Heroes or watch Robert Downey Jr. nail one of the best roles in his career on the Iron Man DVD? 'Nuff said.
TV comedies keep rolling snake eyes: The numbers are numbing -– among the Top 20 network shows to date, there is one comedy, Two and a Half Men. This season’s most buzzed-about network comedy, 30 Rock, is ranked 48th, five slots below canceled Eli Stone.
The years when sitcoms were the gasoline that powered the TV industry -– big hits with profits that made up for all the big misses -– are long gone, replaced by unscripted “reality TV” series that can’t be rerun, developed around increasingly stale formats.
No wonder rumors are flying NBC may keep entertainment chief Ben Silverman, abn executive who increased revenues despite developing a new slate of expensive failures such as Crusoe, Enemy, Knight Rider and Lipstick Jungle. When every trend is working against you, the guy who can make something out of nothing may still be your biggest asset.