Random Thoughts

How To Fix Network Television

August 12th, 2007

A Television — Duh!The fall television season is almost upon us, and it’s time for the networks to pull out all the stops in trying to get us to tune into all their new programs. Before the end of October, the majority of the new series will have come and gone, and by December, we’ll have forgotten about most of them (remember Four Kings? No? How about Love Monkey? No? Both started in 2006).

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when a network would order an entire season’s worth of episodes of a new show, and they’d air every last one of them. Now, if the show doesn’t have a significant audience after episode number two, its days are numbered.

The networks don’t seem to understand their audience, and in their effort to maintain their audience in the face of competition from movies, video games, cable television and even (gasp) books (damn you, Harry Potter!), their patience with new series is at an all time low.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips for the networks as we approach this fall season. I’m providing these free to the networks, because they can’t seem to figure out these common sense items for themselves.

1. Order More Episodes

It’s very rare for a new series to get an entire season pickup prior to the start of the fall television season anymore. The best producers can hope for is a 13 episode order, andThe Simpsons many times the orders are as small as 6 or 8 episodes. 6 – 8 episodes of a show is not enough time for a show to build a word of mouth audience. Air more episodes of good shows, and people will slowly tune in over time. It doesn’t always work, but if you look at the most successful television series in history (The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Cheers, MASH, I Love Lucy, etc.) you’ll see they build slowly more often than not.

2. Give Shows A Chance

Airing two or three episodes of a show and then changing its time slot (or worse, canceling it altogether) does nothing for an audience. All you’re doing is training the audience to not care about new shows, because the shows won’t be around long enough to be worth their while. By the time I had heard from a friend that Fox’s Drive was worth checking out, it was gone. Even summer series, that last place shows used to be able to go to be given a chance, like Pirate Master aren’t safePirate Master from the axe these days. I find it odd that the last place network (now NBC) usually gives shows a chance (witness Studio 60 getting a full season’s worth of episodes, Friday Night Lights being picked up for this fall) whereas the leading networks (now CBS and Fox) pull shows out of the few holes in their lineup as quickly as possible. You’ll notice that CBS and Fox have very few hits from last season.

3. Take More Risks

A sitcom becomes a hit, suddenly all the networks fill their schedules with sitcoms (and usually crappy ones). Then procedurals become a hit, and all the networks fill their schedules with procedurals. Then serial dramas become a hit and … well, you get the idea. How come nobody at the networks notices that the shows that are DIFFERENT from everything else on the air are the ones that catch on? Lost was a hit because it was different from the deluge of reality shows and sitcoms that had been smothering theDavid Caruso on CSI: Miami networks prior to it airing. Producing shows that all look alike just divides the subsegment of the audience interested in those shows.

4. There Are SEVEN Nights In a Week

For some reason, Friday and Saturday nights have become a desert of programming. Friday nights are usually filled with cheap game shows, and Saturday nights are reruns of shows aired earlier in the week. CSI started out on Friday nights (where it had been given the time slot following the expected hit from that fall, the remake of The Fugitive starring Tim Daly), the X-Files started on Friday nights, hell, Knight Rider and Dallas were on Friday nights. Saturday nights have been The Golden Girlshomes to hits like MASH, Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family. If you give people a reason to watch television on a Saturday night, they may actually surprise you by doing just that.

5. Enough with the High Priced Stars Already

Why is it every time someone comes off a hit comedy series, the first thing the networks want to do is shove them into some other high-concept piece of crap? The content should come before the casting, and building a show around a “personality” almost never works. Witness the shows starring former cast members from Seinfeld, Cheers (Frasier excepted, of course), and Friends.

6. Spin-offs Can Be Lucrative – If You’re Careful

The best spin-offs (Frasier, Laverne & Shirley) are built around peripheral characters who aren’t central to the “parent” show. The worst spin-offs (Joey, Joanie LovesJoanie Loved Chachi Chachi) try to take a show which has run out of gas and push it that little bit further. Some spin-offs can even damage a parent show still in its prime (how many CSIs do we really need, CBS?)

7. If You’re Competition is Dumb Enough to Cancel a Show With A Following, Pick It Up!

Jericho was canceled this past season, but audience support helped it to get picked up again. Had CBS left it off the schedule, NBC or ABC would have done very well to pick it up. If a network is dumb enough to understand their audience, the other networks have a responsibility to scoop that audience from them.

8. Embrace the Internet

HeroesNBC has started to figure this out, by offering episodes of Heroes on their website. They should go further. Episodes of first-run series should be made available on the torrent networks as they air. Why? Because they’re going to go there anyhow. If the networks put the shows up, complete with ads, those people who don’t want to watch broadcast television will download it from the legitimate sources. Also, torrent networks provide a means for tracking the audience that is much more effective than anything Neilsen can offer. There’s also an audience out there for commercial-free programs, and they’re willing to pay for them. They’re called iTunes users, and they will buy your shows (if you could get enough of them, you wouldn’t actually need advertisers – it’s a unique concept, I know).

9. Air More Original Episodes

The original Star Trek aired on NBC for three seasons and produced 79 episodes. This is an average of 26 episodes per season. Now, a “full” order of a network televisionStar Trek series is 22 episodes. Short seasons are for the HBOs and Showtimes of the world, where people will pay extra money to watch The Sopranos or Weeds. Broadcast networks should be able to fill a time slot for an entire year based off of one season’s episodes. Once in the original airing, and once in a rerun. By having only 22 episodes per season, the networks are ensuring that an original episode will air in the time slot less than half the time. How does that build audience loyalty? In cases where producing more episodes is difficult, scenarios like what NBC is doing with Heroes this year are the way to go (Heroes will get a series of spin-off stories that fall outside the main arc, but appeal to the same audience).

10. Let The Producers Produce

Studio 60 was actually a really good show at the beginning of its run and the end of its run. In the middle, it reeked of network interference. Any time you force creative peopleBattlestar Galactica to do something against their will, the quality of the work will suffer. Let the producers of the shows do their jobs. The work will live or die on its own, and every time the networks meddle it just makes things worse.

There we are, 10 quick tips the networks can use to make this fall television season more bearable for all of us. Do I think they’ll listen? Nope. But at least it’s off my chest.

Oh, and one last freebie for the networks. When you’re releasing the previous season of a show on DVD, you should probably do it enough in advance that newcomers to the show can catch up before the new episodes air. If you do that, you can actually BUILD your audience instead of building a separate audience that just waits for DVDs (are you listening, Battlestar Galactica?)

2 Responses to “How To Fix Network Television”

  1. erika

    Oh how I wish every single network type would read this, print it out, and highlight it for everyone to memorize. These are nice, well thought out, and fairly basic ideas that should be embraced. Very nicely done.

  2. kestral

    Thank you for making things so clear for the networks executives. Unfortunately, I think it would still be difficult for them to actually sit and read it. My recommendation? Alert the Jericho fan base and let them print this and mass mail it to CBS! Maybe a few thousand of them will get their attention (just joking)! All joking aside, these are great ideas and I really do wish that the major network executives would finally wake up and listen to the fans. Thank you for bringing attention to the pathetic state of network television today.

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