IN OUR OPINION: The Death Of Serialized Television


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!

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  1. WaySeeker says

    Great article, very smart research-based opinion.
    IN YOUR OPINION … why was “Legend of the Seeker” not renewed? That was a strange circumstance where the distributors bailed on it, I think.

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    • Robert L says

      “Legend of the Seeker” is a very interesting case. The thing to remember, though, is that it was broadcast in syndication (as opposed by being picked up by a network). Instead of a single decision being made by a network, you have lots of decisions being made by local distributors, and there’s a threshold to be met. X amount of stations need to pick it up for X price (to my understanding, the price can vary, based on the individual negotiations).

      So if I were to guess it’s that while the show may have performed well overall, there were too many stations who didn’t find it worth the cost for their demographic. The official reason given had no more explanation other than there not being enough support, although several other sources reported large amount of stations deciding against continuing it.

      It’s like TV’s version of Gerrymandering. And yes, I think you’ve managed to find an exception that I agree with.

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  2. K says

    Maybe it’s me, but I feel that serialized television can only thrive on cable for some reason. Maybe V and Dollhouse were given a chance, but they received absolutely no promotion from the network. The same for Fringe, still “surviving,” but barely, in the worst timeslot a network can give. I am STILL mourning the loss of Firefly as well as some other serialized network shows such as Boomtown and, most recently, Chicago Code that got chopped. On cable, however, amazing shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. not only have good time slots, but get great advertising and promotion from their distributors. Seriously, you can’t turn on TNT for five seconds without seeing promotion for Falling Skies.
    Again, it might be me, but if serialized shows were promoted with the same enthusiasm as Survivor and Big Brother, the audience might be there from the start.

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    • Robert L says

      I don’t think it’s fair to say that V was given no promotion. During the first season, they gave it tons of promotion. I’ll never forget all of the enraged LOST fans screaming bloody murder after V returned from it’s hiatus (after the first 4 episodes), and had that countdown clock running throughout the duration of that Season Six episode. I’ll admit there wasn’t much promotion for the second season, but the ratings had already fell so far.

      In fact, the first promo I saw for “V,” I felt was ridiculous. But they were constantly promoting it so heavily (and my wife loves ABC), I eventually relented to giving the show a shot.

      I do agree that cable seems to be a better fit for serialized shows. But that only proves the point that serialized shows are thriving so well. There are so many channels trying to put out the next big “addiction,” with more channels joining in every day. Even ReelzChannel (which nobody’s heard of until now) picked up “The Kennedys” after History Channel dropped it. There are a lot of other examples like DirecTV picking up “Damages,” and so on.

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  3. TomC says

    The shows that have been cancelled that stick out for me that i could’nt believe are…
    both had great stories, characters and got to the serialised stories nice and quick and gave enough good twists.
    There are some that have been cancelled that i enjoyed but i have my theories why they were cancelled….
    Caprica – Took way too long to actually get going, its given hints\clues to the cylons beliefs and their beginnings but im up to ep13 and its only just shown them getting used. It seems to focus too much on the Gods vs God side which puts even me off at times (still airing second half of season here in uk so i dont know how it ends).
    Outcasts – I wont give anything away as its just started in the US, but its another one with the case of taking the majority or the season to get the serialised story going…. but when it did it was great, but by then it was too late as so many people had stopped watching so it got cancelled (fingers crossed bbc america & ????? may take it on).

    Crappy reality tv is ruining tv as its cheap and easy to make\film a bunch of fools and the majority of the public watch it as it doesnt take any brain-cells to understand it. If anything, tv like that destroys your brain and turns you into a mong! But there’s still some shows **cough**Desperate Housewives**cough** that make me want to kill people.

    I want tv shows that keeps my brain guessing, provides many WTF moments, a few laughs, good actors/actresses and good writing. My current favourite is Battlestar Galactica, im up to season 3 ep1 or 2….. i’ve never seen it before (apart from ‘The Plan’ a couple of years ago..made no sense then, i’ll have to watch it again) and its fooking amazing! I love it so much i’ve asked for the blu-ray set for my birthday.

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    • Robert L says

      I think the biggest problem with Caprica is that it was a character drama with no likeable characters. But they gave us a nice “coda” at the end that pretty much wraps things up. You can tell it was meant to go either way (season or series finale), but it does bring some nice closure.

      Actually, same with the Season 3 finale of BSG. If that had been the end, it wouldn’t have been so bad. (Episode 10 of Season 4 was also almost the series finale, because of the writer’s strike. I would have HATED that.)

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