What in the world is going on with television these days? Hell, what’s been happening the last 10-15 years? Today, NBC released it’s midseason schedule and there were some surprises. Among them, Community was shelved. Yes, it wasn’t a huge ratings show, but it was an intelligent, well acted show that had a small, yet loyal fan base. Prime Suspect has pretty much been cancelled and 30 Rock was given another season and moved once again to a different time slot. Let’s start with 30 Rock. This show has never been a huge hit for the network but has won many awards during it’s run. NBC for some reason really sticks with this show even though it has lost a step or two or three. Prime Suspect was a very interesting police drama that just never was given a chance to build its audience. It’s star would have been a better draw for the coveted 18-49 year old demographic that the suits from all the networks so cherish, yet you give Harry’s Law another season with an actress who I am sorry to say, looks like she’s from the civil war era?
Let me just say that I am no expert on the inner workings of a television network, but I am someone who admittedly watches a good deal of television. I am one of the geeky TV watchers that follow the Nielsen ratings, follow the numbers for the age demographics and always gets pumped up around pilot season. With all these years of watching television and following the industry, I think I have picked up on some things and learned a few of the tricks that are used in the TV industry. If you want to look at what’s wrong with the industry, just take a gander at what has happened to NBC.
Once the darling of the networks, NBC was on top of the world in the 80’s and 90’s with a string of successful dramas and comedies. I like to call the 80’s period of NBC domination the Cosby years. That’s when the Cosby show aired and became this huge juggernaut for the network. With shows like the Cosby Show, Family Ties, The A Team, Cheers among others, the network could do no wrong. Then the 90’s rolled in, hits like Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You, Frasier and ER. NBC once again was on a roll. But as the year 200o approached, things started to change for the network. Not only were some of its big hits either gone or on their last legs, something else had been brewing for several years and it started in my opinion with MTV when they debuted the first major reality show, The Real World. MTV loved the show because a) it was cheap to produce and b) it brought in huge ratings for the network and the coveted 18-49 demographic. With this reality bug starting to spread, CBS brought in the reality series Survivor to go up against the NBC Thursday Must See lineup which for years was unbeatable. We all know the story here, Survivor became a monster of a hit and all but left the must see shows in the dust. Jeff Zucker took over as President of NBC Universal television in 2004, by then most of the networks had caught the reality bug. NBC was now in the distance compared to the other networks as far as ratings were concerned and remain there to this day. Why am I picking on NBC? I just it was an easy quick avenue to take to see what can happen when a network makes the wrong choices. No network is perfect, but the fall of NBC has been a big one and with the decisions made today, it’s no wonder.
Now, there is also another reason besides reality television that hurt NBC and to some extent, the other networks..cable television. In 2011, the average viewer is inundated with over 200 channels to watch any program at any given time. That’s alot of shows trying to get your attention to keep the channel locked. With the rise of HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, FX, USA, TNT, AMC and channels like that, they are proving you can make quality television, attract viewers and still not have to cater to the lowest denominator to keep viewers. I find myself rarely tuning into the big 3 these days for television shows. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few shows that have been or are fantastic. NCIS is still going strong in it’s 9th season. Supernatural on the CW network is another favorite of mine. Modern Family, Rules of Engagement, Lost, Grimm and House are some examples of shows that have kept me tuning in to regular television.
It’s the cable networks that I am really impressed with today. They are taking risks and gambles on shows that would never be seen on regular televisions and I find it extremely refreshing. Some of my all time favorite shows have come from cable networks. The Shield, Rescue Me, Homeland, Dexter, American Horror Story, True Blood and The Killing are shows that are willing to push the envelope and because they air on these cable stations, they are able to get away with it. Maybe some of the suits at the big 3 networks need to take a chance and push the envelope. Better yet, give a show a chance to grow its audience. If it’s not a hit right out of the gate, chances are a show will not survive on a regular network past a season or two. Look at the gamble FOX took with Terra Nova. From various reports, the pilot was one of if not the most expensive pilot ever made. Big names attached to the project and a ton of money spent of special effects. FOX put the hype machine into overdrive for the series and when it debuted…it debuted to modest ratings for the pilot. Since then several episodes have aired and it consistently ends up in 3rd place for its time slot. The overall ratings are somewhere around 8 million viewers per episode and it pulls in around a 2.7 for the 18-49 demographic. Does FOX order another season of this expensive series? Or does it take the hit and cancel the show because of poor ratings? That is a decision for the suits to make.
Obviously, the bottom line here is money. The networks want to have shows on their schedule that will make money. The 18-49 demographic keeps coming up over and over in this post because it is so important to the networks. Another important aspect is syndication. A network can make a ton of money when one of its series is sold into syndication. In the early days, a show would need to last at least 5 seasons to go into syndication, from what I understand now, it’s 80 aired episodes. It’s a shame that the dollar bill is determining the fates of some great shows that never got the chance to fully blossom. You can go to any of the major networks and just see a graveyard of shows that never got a chance. Many of them deserved to be cancelled because they were just rip offs or just plain bad, but there are always some in there that deserved a better shot then they received.
As I learn more and more about the television industry, I am learning that it is a tough world and you have to have thick skin to survive. Again, these observations are from a TV fan looking in from the outside who has no true idea of the inner workings of network television. I can safely say that there have been several series that were cancelled either before they had a chance to get started or before they had a chance to finish. Two off the top of my head are Brimstone and Millennium, both from FOX. Although, Millennium did get 3 uneven, yet enjoyable seasons, Brimstone only lasted 13 episodes before the plug was pulled during production of the 14th episode. There are hundreds of stories like Brimstone over the years of network television, maybe one day the small guy will get a victory. For every Brimstone, there is a Jericho, so there is hope.
I know for certain that with all the drama and chaos that comes with the television industry, it’s one that still keeps me in front of my television. Allowing me to escape for just a little while and that’s something that is needed from time to time. Don’t you think?