We recently reported Star Wars producer Rick McCallum‘s pessimism about scripted TV:
“Network television and cable television as we know it are completely imploding, so we’re not really sure that in five years’ time we can release a dramatic one-hour episode because it is all reality TV now.”
While few would go so far as to say scripted TV’s days are numbered, this will undoubtedly fuel countless hours of internet discussion on the end of serialized TV, something that concerns us, and I feel is worth addressing.
Fans whose favorite shows get bad ratings scream that serialized TV is dying, that smart people no longer exist, and that the system is cheating them.
Let me first point out that even if serialized TV was dying (which it isn’t), either the system is right and there aren’t any smart people left willing consume complex serialized TV shows, or the system is cheating them and smart people watch serialized TV shows in droves. It cannot be both.
That being said, I still don’t think any of the arguments hold up on their own.
Reality TV is certainly getting a lot of really great ratings, but they are absolutely worthless in terms of syndication, DVD sales, critical prominence, and really just about anything that isn’t water-cooler conversation the following day at work.
TVByTheNumbers reported in early 2010 that the top-selling TV shows in 2009 were as follows:
- True Blood S1 ($61 million)
- The Office S5 ($30 million)
- Lost S5 ($29 million)* (was only available for ~3 weeks during 2009!)
- Heroes S3 ($25 million)
- Grey’s Anatomy S5 ($23 million)
- 24 S7 ($22 million)
- Family GuyS7 ($19 million)
- Dexter S3 ($17 million)
- Smallville S8 ($16 million)
- Southpark S12 ($15 million)
While there might be some debate about whether some of the shows on there are procedurals containing serialized elements versus a true serial (whatever that may be), the only two that jump out as definitively NOT being serials are Family Guy and South Park.
Being sold so successfully on DVD not only extends the life of shows in many instances (like the third and nearly final season of Battlestar Galactica), but also allows an audience to be built over time. This is why premium cable channels almost always renew highly-praised shows for a second season — to allow for the DVDs and “buzz” to expand their audience.
I would argue that with the ability of both premium and mainstream cable channels to schedule reruns, not even DVDs are needed to successfully build a show’s audience. This is handily demonstrated by the building audience of Game of Thrones, a fact that we recently reported (although I am curious to see if the audience fluctuates after the episode 9 plot twist).
It’s true that many great shows have been canceled before their time. It’s also true that many great shows have been given even more than a typical 5-season run (like Babylon 5 and its innumerable spin-offs, and Smallville just to name a couple). But generally a show will last in direct correlation to its quality.
It’s quite easy to tell when a serialized show is going to receive poor viewing numbers based on the buzz created by critics and fans on the internet.
Since I’ve been seriously involved with the TV community, I can think of a few prominent cases of shows being “prematurely” canceled. Most of these shows had a sharp decline in quality around when their numbers started to drop, and were even given second chances. Off the top of my head, here are three shows that were given a second chance by being picked up for a partial second season, even with poor ratings: V (2009), Dollhouse, and Jericho.
Here are three shows that may have otherwise been canceled mid-broadcast if it weren’t for moving them around to time slots that aren’t considered ideal for ratings: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Stargate Universe, and Firefly.
So it’s not that broadcasters are killing them off — they’re actually working very hard to give the cult followings the shows they so desperately want. Just look at the series finales of Arrested Development or Caprica to see how the broadcasters are working with the creators to give closure to fans.
An even more recent development was this past Spring when a number of media outlets were predicting death for Fringe, but given its quality and slot on Friday nights, the show was famously renewed for a 22-episode fourth season.
Quality shows will always attract advertising revenue, even if they have to be a little extra creative about it (here’s looking at you Chuck), and broadcasters will always continue to renew them if the quality is consistently there, and they think that the base is a safe and loyal bet (which was V‘s nail in the coffin — too much fluctuation, even if the numbers did seem to grow later on).
I know each fan will come up with excuses for their own shows and bitterly complain about the networks they’re broadcast on — heaven knows I have for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but there’s no looking past those warehouse episodes — but these arguments simply don’t hold up.
Forget scripted TV, if serialized TV was so much as faltering, then why does Seriable continue to grow and cover more shows?
What do you think — is serialized TV here to stay? Is your favorite canceled TV show different? Did I get it all wrong? Let me know in the comments below!