Monday, January 01, 2007

On The Seventh Day Of Christmas...

My true love (TV) gave to me - Seven cancelled serials.

You'd think that the serial would be a natural for television, and indeed it is (or was) for morning and afternoon TV in the form of the soap opera. But the nighttime serial - the non-soap opera type - has been a minefield for the networks. They've been tried in a number of ways and for the most part they don't stick. And the way the networks - as a group - handle them shows the respect that they hold for their audiences. Which isn't much.

The current trend towards serials probably started with 24 and picked up momentum with Lost. In 24 you have a true serial in which events from past episodes are tied tightly together and each episode ends with a cliffhanger to build tension. Lost on the other hand maintains a looser, but still highly important, continuity. Events are remembered and have varying degrees of importance, and the series also uses flashbacks to give us some enlightenment about the characters, but there are episodes and events in the characters' lives that at least appear to stand on their own. While the 2005-06 TV season brought us a couple of attempts to do new serials - one successful (Prison Break) and the other a total bomb (Reunion) - the start of the 2006-07 season unleashed a flood of new serials. Twelve shows that can - by most standards including those set by 24 and Lost - be defined as serials debuted in September and October of 2006. Of that number only five - Heroes, Ugly Betty, Brothers Sisters, Jericho, and Friday Night Lights - remain on the air in December. The rest - Kidnapped, Vanished, Smith, Day Break, The Nine, Six Degrees, and Runaway - were all cancelled, and in some cases very quickly despite solemn promises from network executives that the shows would run to their natural conclusion. There's a certain amount of betrayal there, but of course we all know that a network executive's solemn promise and $2.50 will still leave you in the hole for a second cup of coffee (his).

What happened? It's not that the shows were all bad television; far from it. Kidnapped in particular had an outstanding cast and was very well written, while I found Vanished engaging enough - when I could actually find it - with an incredible twist at the end of the eighth episode. Day Break also received a lot of critical support although it did far less well with the actual viewing public. That of course is the usual reason why shows get cancelled but the question isn't so much why they got cancelled but why the public that embraced 24, Lost and Heroes wouldn't watch Kidnapped, Vanished or The Nine.

I think that there are a lot of factors going on here. Six Degrees had a very tenuous premise coupled with less than compelling writing. The Nine started off brilliantly but very quickly tailed off with a weak premise. Opposition also had a lot to do with the success or failure of some of the shows. Six Degrees was on Thursdays opposite ER which led with the cliffhanger about Abby's baby. Kidnapped had a CSI spinoff as competition while Day Break was against Criminal Minds. I suppose there's some of the "new shows up against established hits" syndrome here but I'm not prepared to state that it was the only thing going on. In that situation cost is a factor. Networks aren't prepared to bear the cost of shows that aren't pulling their ratings weight.

To be sure I think that - had the original NBC line-up not been massively altered to "save" Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip from the original CSI and Gray's Anatomy - Kidnapped would have stood a better chance against Boston Legal and Smith. It was a better show and would have benefited from weaker shows on the other networks. Still I think that the five networks made a major miscalculation when they put so many serial type series on the schedule. They created these shows with tightly integrated continuity and continuing story lines but they seemed to have had no clue as to whether the public would accept them. Indeed if current trends are to be believed at least two of the serials that started this season have become less than compelling for viewers. There were irritated complaints about the handful of episodes that Lost aired this Fall before giving over their time slot to Day Break, and there seems to have been more than a little dissatisfaction with the way that Prision Break is developing. Maybe people are losing some of their patience with serials, or perhaps they want serials where the continuity isn't so essential. Or possibly they just want compelling characters.

Television would seem to be made for serialized story telling. The serial, either in literature or in film, was a way to get people to keep coming back, either to buy the magazine or go to the movies every week. The TV audiences are already conditioned to show up every week at the same time to watch their shows, so a serial should work. Maybe one thing working against serials on TV is the idea that you might not get resolution. A stand-alone program can get canceled after a few weeks and while fans might be angry or protest the unfairness of canceling their show. Would it really matter to viewers if CBS were to decide tomorrow to stop showing episodes of CSI effective immediately? For the fan of serials - and we saw this least year with Reunion - there is the extra factor of wanting to know how the story resolves itself. If Lost were cancelled immediately people would not only be protesting the loss of their show but also demanding to find out whether those people left the island and if so how they did it. Under those circumstances why commit to a serial unless it's particularly compelling or there's nothing else you want to see on at the time. It would seem to be a bit of an exercise in circular logic - viewers are less likely to watch a serial for fear of cancellation but the risk of cancellation goes up if viewers won't watch the show. I don't think it's a huge factor, let alone a decisive factor, in the way viewers choose what they'll watch but I do think it's in the back of people's minds.

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