In today’s television climate, it is nearly impossible to predict what kind of show will be a hit and which will just miss the mark and fade into oblivion. Shows with sterling pedigrees, all-star casts, brilliant writing and some with double the money of other shows are still unable to reach their audience. Lots of fingers are pointed when shows that are supposed to be “guaranteed” successes don’t succeed. But even with all the right ingredients, there are certain intangibles that networks and studios are refusing to recognize as significant contributors to why shows today are not making it.
In an effort to illuminate the intangibles having such negative effects on television shows, I have identified a dozen categories that need to be considered.
One thing that TV executives always shudder to consider is the economic reality of the times we live in. People are being forced to cut back on certain frivolous expenditures, and television is one of those unnecessary items. When forced to choose between paying rent and buying groceries versus the monthly cable bill, television will always lose. So viewers are downgrading their cable packages to the bare minimum or simply giving up cable/satellite television altogether in order to make ends meet. Food, gas, and rent are simply more important. Being economically strapped consumers/viewers are prioritizing how to spend the few dollars they have — and television is on the losing side.
Similarly, television viewers are having to work longer hours, sometimes a second job to afford the basic living necessities. It is cutting into their available television watching time. Television now has to compete with work schedules and limited free-time. With daily commutes having doubled in recent years as people are having to travel farther distances to find work, or there are simply more cars on the road leading to more traffic congestion, as well as other time-constraints on the available hours in a day, television viewers are getting home later and finding there are limited hours to watch TV. Primetime is considered between the hours of 8 pm and 11 pm, simply because that is the time period that the maximum number of viewers is watching TV. But not any more. The 10-11 pm hour is slowly becoming obsolete as viewers are having to get up early for work, or are getting home late and are too tired to watch TV.
With viewers under more stress as demands on their time and money increase, there is a distinct problem with disengagement from TV shows as well. It is easy enough to tune in for a few minutes to a TV program, feel completely interested in it, and then as soon as the first or second commercial break hits, the feeling of fatigue and disinterest sets in. The viewer’s mind begins to assess whether their time is best spent watching TV. Commercials are simply giving viewers the chance to wonder, “Should I be doing something else?” or even, “Should I go to bed and get some sleep before the long day ahead tomorrow?” With the advent of DVR’s, it has never been so easy to record and watch TV programs at another time. Viewers are simply not locked into the live-viewing that used to be the norm.
Likewise, viewers are unable to focus on TV shows, even ones they love, because they are too tired. The stress, the longer hours, the increased commutes, the increasing demands on their time has put fatigue levels as a maximum and viewers are looking at their TV’s and thinking, “I’m too tired to watch TV.” So they are just going to bed and will worry about catching up on their shows at another time.
It is easy enough to turn on a television set for background noise, but in order to properly focus on a TV show that may have a medical, police or legal mystery, it requires concentration. Have you ever watched 10-15 minutes of a TV show and then realized you had zoned-out or dozed-off for a few minutes, and then had to wonder if you even knew what the episode is about? Some TV shows require no effort and it is not important to pay attention to the stories, but then there are those that require you actually know what the characters said and what story they are trying to tell. If it is impossible to figure out what is going, it can lead viewers to just turn the TV off once they realize they were not paying close enough attention. Perhaps this is why reality TV has become so popular, it requires the least amount of effort to follow what is going on. Scripted comedies and dramas require that a viewer a least follow the stories in order to appreciate the humor or complex story.
Too Much Competition
Many have cited the proliferation of broadcast networks as being a TV viewer’s dream-come-true: more channels to choose from. But, in actuality, it is a nightmare. It has made it nearly impossible to determine what shows are on when and it has increased the number of shows competing in the same time-slots — and DVR’s can’t keep up. The average DVR records 2 shows at once, but with 5 major networks and another 10 or so competing broadcast networks, there can be, at times, 5-6 shows if not more that the average person is interested in watching, but simply does not have the means to do so. So viewers have to prioritize which shows are important enough to DVR and which are important enough to watch live and which they can catch up online. As a professional TV blogger and writer, I find this task nearly impossible. Thus, I imagine that the average viewer finds it insane and frequently just gives up. They don’t even attempt to sort through the dozens of competing shows, let alone figure out when the shows are on and if they have the ability to record or watch them all. It has turned the average viewer into an opportunist. Whatever is on when they turn the TV on and so long as it is on a basic channel they can find (ABC, CBS, NBC, maybe Fox), that’s what they watch.
Inability to Find Channels
I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have heard from people that they have no idea what channel The CW is on. Viewers are similarly clueless about where to find FX, AMC, A&E, TNT, TBS, BBC America, Syfy and USA Network. My own family and relatives will call me from around the country to ask what channel they can find these networks. I then sigh and remind them that it will be different in their area depending on their cable/satellite package. Their frustration only increases once they search through their available channels and find that whatever they were looking for is not offered in their area or through their cable/satellite provider. I am sure that network executives rarely consider the fact that (a) viewers don’t even have access to their channels/programs because it is not offered as part of their cable/satellite package, or (b) that the programming set-up makes it difficult to even recognize at channel since lots of broadcast networks use local call signs (such as, KTLA — who knows that means The CW?!) or put channels in such high ranges that no one can find them. For example, on my basic cable package, I have to scroll all the way to 131 to find BBC America and Starz is number 429 (there is no way my parents or even my stressed siblings with children would ever find those channels!).
So short of some serious research to find out what all the different channels are and where to find them, the average person is not ever going to recognize or find the channels they are looking for. (Plus, my parents searched for weeks and ended up calling their satellite provider to figure out what channel The CW is broadcast on, only to discover that it was not even available in their area. They couldn’t get it if they wanted to. Since when is central California considered so far “off the grid” that The CW is considered unavailable?!)
Information Overload and Limited Equipment
Television programmers forget that the average viewer is not sophisticated enough to keep grids and tracking charts of all the TV shows they want to watch, let alone has the means to watch everything they are interested in. While nearly every household in the U.S. has a television, not all have DVR’s or other recording devices. So besides having the problem of too much competition and the difficulty in figuring out what shows are on when and if a person can even get/find that channel, people just don’t have the ability to watch everything at once or record it all. There are practical limitations on time, information and equipment. Not everyone can own 2-3 TV’s, a couple of DVR’s and have a laptop or home computer as a backup to watch TV shows online. There is simply too much too chose from and no way to easily capture it all.
I hear all the time from people that they would love to watch more shows, but simply can’t record it all. So they pick one, maybe two shows, and that’s what they watch per night. That’s right, per night. Not per hour. The average person can only find the time and means to watch 1-2 hours of TV a night. That is not to say that people aren’t watching more than that — they are. But they are not making an effort at it. It is literally whatever is on before or after the 1 to 2 shows they are making a point of watching.
Viewers are essentially lazy. They don’t want to have to focus on complex stories, they don’t want to have to figure out where channels are or when TV shows are on, and they certainly don’t want to have to go through mental gymnastics to keep track of more than 1-2 shows per night. Television viewing has simply become an art-form — it requires a sophistication that the average viewer just doesn’t possess and does not try to achieve. If a TV show is not there when they turn on the TV or can be found within 1 to 2 channel changes, then they are not willing to make the effort. Whether it is teens, young adults, middle-aged viewers or older viewers, they want television to be easy. They do not want to have to really think about it. It just needs to be there when they want it.
Blame the Critics
TV critics also play a large intangible part in killing television. The elitists and the amateurs all use the same excuse, “It’s my job to criticize TV.” That’s another form of laziness. For a professional who writes about television — whether it be reviews, analytical opinion pieces, interviews, or promotional coverage — their job should be about writing using analytical skills. Thus, I tend to call the average TV critics “grumpy old men” because for the most part, such critics are men and they tend to write from a harsh and snarky viewpoint. It’s not limited to male critics, but a large portion of the critics today seem to be men — and their idea of writing about television borders on hostile. It is astounding that they get paid to do a job they clearly despise and do not enjoy.
Now that the Fall 2011 season has launched, go back and read the reviews by any of the TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly critics and see if you agree. I will bet that you will begin to see a pattern of “grumpy old men” who are out of touch with what viewers like to watch. Critics tend to favor shows like MAD MEN and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which to the average television viewer are shows they have never even heard of. Such shows are fine shows, but to think that every TV show needs to be compared to such fare is ludicrous. Television offers a fantastic variety of shows that appeal to both mass and fringe audiences. Imagine a world where every show was LAW & ORDER or AMERICAN IDOL. Television needs variety — and it needs critics who appreciate that viewers are looking for more than “cookie-cutter” shows. Plus, the average viewer is just not going to be drawn to art-form television. They want shows that are relatable, comfortable and easy to follow. That’s why shows like NCIS and MODERN FAMILY do so well. It is also why shows like ONCE UPON A TIME and REVENGE are doing so well despite negative reviews.
So the disconnect between what people really watch and like versus what television critics are writing about is vast. Yet the “power of the pen” can be downright poisonous and detrimental to new TV shows. Who cannot say that shows like THE PLAYBOY CLUB might not have fared better with viewers had critics not championed it as the punchline for every article they wrote? Ignoring the scathing reviews, I tuned in and saw a show that was kind of an old fashioned, romantic look at the beginnings of the women’s rights movement. It was more about nostalgia, equality and justice than anything half as scandalous as the television critics suggested. Another show that would do better had the critics not lampooned it is HART OF DIXIE. Rather than deride the show for what it is not, critics should have been celebrating the show that it is — HART OF DIXIE is a charming, sexy show about a young woman trying to prove herself against Southern stereotypes against women in the medical profession. It also should not be a punchline; instead it should be seen as a fun look at life in a rural town where change is slow. This is an adorable show that simply needs be sampled to be appreciated.
So the power of persuasion is being used to promote the personal preference of a “grumpy old man” and it is also one of the intangibles killing TV shows before they even air.
The Decline of Print Media
With print media (such as newspapers and magazines) going by the wayside and deemed “dinosaurs” in today’s modern world of digital media on the Internet, it has become increasingly difficult for viewers to even find out about new TV shows. In the good ‘ole days, announcements and promotional ads could be placed in TV Guide and the local newspaper and everyone heard about upcoming TV shows. But today, very few people get the daily newspaper and even fewer are buying or subscribing to the TV Guide. In fact, I was riding in my apartment elevator when a young woman in her 20’s next to me saw my copy of TV Guide and she mentioned she had not seen “one of those” in years.
Young people have never even seen a TV Guide, let alone know that such a magazine still exists. The youth of today rely exclusively on social media and the Internet to find out about TV shows. So reaching out to and trying to advertise or persuade viewers to give a new TV show a chance is like trying to see if lightning hits them. There is simply so much esoteric information floating around the Internet that nothing is centralized. Hence, the value and importance of social sites like Facebook and Twitter. These are the most likely ways of reaching out viewers who do not read print media anymore. But it is like gambling. There is no way to know if the site or social medium being used will reach the right audience.
Thus, it is increasingly difficult to advertise to the most powerful demograph of television viewers today (the 18-34 year olds). Archaic or not, Nielsen ratings are still the lifeline to any television show — and the only demograph that matters is the 18-34 year olds as that is the group that advertisers are willing to pay top-dollar for. Since television is a business, it is essential to reach this select group of viewers in order to pay for the costs of making the shows we all love to watch. So it is becoming more and more important to find out how to reach the elusive 18-34 year olds and convince them to watch traditional TV shows. Without print media, the challenge is to reach this mercurial yet financially-desirable, audience.
The “Watercooler” Effect
Generation Z just does not have the patience to watch serialized, scripted television programs. The most you might get them to do is watch something like GOSSIP GIRL, JERSEY SHORE, or THE X FACTOR. They are looking for “watercooler” shows — ones that their friends are all talking about. They flock to social media to talk about the shows they find and which interest them. The power of “watercooler” attraction is indescribable. But whatever kids today are talking about are the shows that are going to make the most money and which will get to stick around.
It has been wondered about for over a decade how The CW survives with such low numbers of viewers — well, the secret to its success is that it attracts high numbers of the most desirable viewers in television. They know they don’t have to have 9-12 million viewers for a show, they only have to hit the magic number in the 18-34 demograph and they are golden. Television is a numbers game. It just isn’t about mass numbers of viewers. It is all about luring the right number within the most profitable demograph — and The CW has that down to an art-form. This is why THE VAMPIRE DIARIES will be back for another season, but TERRA NOVA probably won’t. It’s all about the magic demograph numbers. Whatever the kids of today are watching and talking about, those are the shows with the greatest chance of survival. Unless you can get people talking about your show, it is doomed.
Online message boards, social media, Twitter, anything and everything where people are gathering to share what they are watching and why they are watching it. “Watercooler” is perhaps the only thing that saves some “on the bubble” shows on TV today. After all, where would CHUCK and FRINGE be without their passionate online fanbases?
In sum, there is more to guaranteeing television show success than what you see on the screen. There are at least a dozen intangible factors that encroach upon television success: including economic-factors, stress-factors, difficulty locating or finding out about shows, too much competing at same time, viewer A.D.D. issues, out-of-touch critics, and the need for “watercooler” appeal. With all that working against TV shows, it is a wonder than even the best of shows make it at all. But it is never about being the “best” show on TV, just the most appealing and most accessible.
So here’s to hoping that your and my favorite shows are not killed off by one or more of these “intangible” factors!
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The Secret to Television Success: Why some TV shows are succeeding when others are failing?
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