Monday, March 12, 2007

Why Network Drama Fails (And How To Fix It)

As my girlfriend and I prepare to move in together, one of the things that continues to come up is the question of cable: should we spring for more TV? Neither of us has cable right now, and the ability to split the cost of the service seems oh-so-tempting. On the weekends when we’re using her apartment complex’s gym we have free reign over the single tv, and the possibilities that cable channel surfing seems to offer serve as the loudest of cable’s sultry sirens.

But above all these dvr-delights looms one growing concern: network television seems determined to make us unhappy.

Like most of our friends, we keep up with our two or three network shows. For us, that means making time to catch Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, and until it was yanked off the air, Studio 60. But even those staples are beginning to suffer. As I mentioned, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 hangs in scheduling limbo. Grey’s Anatomy, a show that until this season I had ignored, has ended its surprising and involving third season sweeps with an episode that came close to jumping the shark. Even Lost, which by itself could have made a case for not giving up on network tv entirely, has started to falter.

I think Lost’s current third season struggles best illustrate why successful, well-written series television as it is now produced is doomed to fail: the audience asks too much.

But isn’t it the networks’ fault? Yes, in part. TV ratings need to catch up with the way more and more people have been watching their shows for the past twenty years -- on their own time. First VCRs, then recordable DVDs, and now digital hard drives have enabled people to watch TV when they want and how they want. But TV ratings are still based on how Neilsen families respond to different shows as they’re aired live. The good news is that this is something that’s not impossible to fix. Current Nielsen ratings could be combined with information from set-top digital recorders like the newer TiVo boxes, delivering a more complete ratings picture to the networks.

This, however, is only half the problem, and fixing the other half requires a big change in how episodic drama is made. I said before that the audience asks too much. What I mean by that is the audience expects a single show (let’s say, a popular hour-long drama like Lost) to entertain them with original stories for several months out of the year (again, using Lost as an example, about twenty to twenty six weeks, or roughly five to six months of the year).

Putting these kinds of demands on the structure of a show, it’s amazing that a series like Lost maintained the level of quality it did for even one season. But I also think that the first season of Lost will forever be its best, and here’s why: I think Lost already used up most of its best story and potential. I think the show is now just spinning its wheels until either the creators get tired of working on the show or the network decides Lost costs too much to produce. At either point, depending on how much advance notice its creators have that the show is ending, I believe fans will see a huge spike in the pace of the show as it races to the series finale. But between now and then, Lost fans will continue to get more vague and tangential episodes that both lead nowhere and fail to progress the story in significant ways because that’s what everybody thinks series television should be.

Under the current system, audiences expect a show to go on in perpetuity, and networks expect to milk a concept until dust coughs out its udders. This is why most series television will get worse the longer it goes on. Consider a long standing show like E.R. Do you know anyone who still watches E.R. on a regular basis? Maybe you do. But do the startling events of last night’s E.R. ever come up as the topic of conversation around whatever stands in for your office water cooler? Again, maybe your experience is different than mine. Maybe you also live in 1995 -- I can’t say. But I know why no one I know watches or cares about E.R.: the show has long since explored its territory.

I don’t think most or in truth any scripted tv drama has the real staying power conceptually to engage audience interest at a high level for more than a couple of seasons. If you leave out the best TV has to offer, the few complex shows with interesting ensembles and suspenseful ongoing plots, the rest don’t have the depth of concept to generate even one season’s worth of good stories.

But what if instead of six month behemoths, our episodic dramas were six part miniseries? Think about grouping all the best moments of Lost -- the best mysteries of the island and the most engaging flashbacks -- into a Six Hour Television Event. Could it be done? I think so. And I think that if all series dramas were cut back to mini runs of three to six episodes we’d see two things: tighter, more interesting stories and more variety. I think if a network were to look at a risky high-concept show and realize they’d only have to produce six episodes instead of twenty-six, they’d be more willing to make a show that broke with convention. Maybe they’d spend some money on something that wasn’t another C.S.I. or Law & Order or E.R. clone. I’m sure there are other interesting professions out there. What about a show that explores the lives of astronauts (such as HBO’s From Here to the Moon), or a show that tells the story of a group of World War II soldiers (HBO’s Band of Brothers), or even a show that examines the interweaving actions of several generations and the death of their small town (HBO’s Empire Falls -- I think you see where I’m going with this).

Changing the length of a typical series' run would not only increase the opportunities for new kinds of shows, it would cut a lot of the repetitive fat that chokes the bloated season of all shows, even the lesser detective/lawyer/doctor fare. Imagine Michael Crichton writing a six episode run of E.R.. Imagine if Law & Order had been just a two part mini-series. I think this new format could even make something like C.S.I. watchable (although if you’ve watched an episode, you know I’m asking you to stretch your powers of imagination to their utmost limits).

Reducing our TV seasons from long, drawn-out and redundant runs to short, tightly scripted series of greater variety would, I believe, make network TV audiences (and network TV execs) realize what the British have known for a long time and what cable is starting to figure out: longer isn’t better. It’s just longer.

So will my girlfriend and I join the other 85% of American homes that subscribe to cable? As long as networks and network audiences persist in thinking that we’ve got to supersize our seasons, the automatic debit’s in the mail.

5 comments:

Clinton said...

Word.

I think that, one of these days, network seasons will get shorter; that whole evolve or die thing. I think the only show out there that's currently making the most of it's full season is 24; that's a program that knows exactly what it's doing. Lost, while I still enjoy it, is very guilty of what you said: Spinning it's wheels.

That being said, you should TOTALLY get cable, if for no other reason than the programming explosion that's happening on the Discovery Channel right now. Not kidding. Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters (a show you would be SO all over) and Surviorman are three of my favorite shows on TV right now.

Justin said...

Braden,

Found yer blog through Cinton's. I'm proud to be a new reader!

I'm with ya, man. It seems to me that my favorite scripted shows seem to be those that never got the chance to jump the shark...

...The Office (BBC), Firefly (FOX), Push, Nevada (ABC), etc...

They were all stopped at (or less than) a single season...when the vision behind it was still fresh, the producers were still excited, and the creators were still on set trying to work out with fear and trembling how to make their concept come to life on my screen.

Then, in contrast, you have The Simpsons, Lost, and Boston Legal...three shows which started out as visionary, compelling and wonderfully-written pieces of television art...and which have turned into senile shadows of their former selves.

The list of both types goes on and on...but it certainly hints that perhaps the limited-run show would be your best bet. The trouble is, it will be hard to convince advertisers to get behind a new project every six episodes. However, if America starts truly enjoying network TV again, I can't imagine there will be a shortfall of ad-folk getting in line for the next big miniseries hit.

Preach on, brother.

Peace,
Justin

Braden said...

Clint: From what I've seen of Mythbusters alone, The Discovery Channel is a big check in cable's Plus column.

Justin: Thanks for reading, man! My hope is that American networks will look to the shorter runs of successful cable and foreign shows and at least try out a similar system. We might already be seeing the beginnings of a change, though -- ABC's Daybreak was a high-concept, self-contained miniseries that ran only 13 episodes during this year's midseason Lost hiatus. The show didn't fare too well (losing about half its viewers after the first three episodes), but I admire the network for at least experimenting with a limited-run episodic drama instead of a bunch of reruns or yet another reality show. Let's hope the next guinea pig can grab more eyeballs.

stewpid said...

yo! hands off "The Office"! If you deprive me of my yearly rush of hope when Jim and Pam come close to kissing, I will hunt you down and step on the backs of your shoes because as we all know, it is HELLA uncomfortable when people do that and sometimes even painful.

Some series are meant to linger and languish, treating us to years and years of meandering plots and silly details that keep us going.

But yeah, everything else on TV let's just git 'er done. But "The Office" and "Ice Road Truckers" are perfect just the way they are.

Braden said...

stewpid ... A few years ago when I first heard about the American version of The Office, I was actually one of those annoying people who were saying, "But ... but it's not British! It can't be good!"

After actually sitting down and watching a few episodes, I can honestly say I was an idiot. It's a great show, inspired by but different enough from the original that it has become its own thing. Great stuff, and I'll eventually get around to catching up with it from the beginning.

As for Ice Road Truckers, well, Discovery Channel seems to have hit upon a new genre: the Working Man in a Perilous Job Documentary. More power to them. I just hope it spawns more and more obscure shows, like "Poison Toad Smoochers" or "Deadliest Haberdasher". Those are real and death-defying, right?