One of my big loves is TV shows. Generally, I actually prefer TV shows to movies, because I can get to know the characters more intimately, and they have more time in which to explore character and background. In a movie, you have two and a half hours to get through this entire story, to the point where sometimes things get a bit squished.
What I am finding really annoys me about this, however, is the American networks tendency to cancel shows after the first season.
You’d think that after seeing the mass popularity of this show, of seeing it become a cult obsession after only a single season, seeing the continued cult popularity despite only having a single season, that the networks would realise that the ‘on the night’ ratings are not the be all and end all of a show.
Joss Whedon is one of the victims of the downfall of on the night tv ratings. First it was Firefly, and next it was Dollhouse.
Dollhouse was cancelled after season one, and, as you’d expect from the Whedonites, there was an uproar. However, it was not the fan’s outcry that brought the show back for season two, it was that Dollhouse rocketed the DVD presales charts, breaking records. It was popularity in a monetary sum that brought Dollhouse back for a second season. Only, then, Fox did it again! They cancelled the show half way through the season due to poor TV ratings, meaning a speedy wrap up so that fans weren’t left on a nothing ending.
Did Fox learn nothing from the record breaking sales of the DVDs? Did they miss Firefly’s popularity because they weren’t branded in front of them on a TV ratings board?
The problem with this model is that the TV ratings of a show prove very little for their popularity, especially when you take international viewing into account. The reason 8 million people tune in to watch American Idol? Because we know that you won’t be releasing the DVDs. We know that if we want to watch it, that is our only shot. If we want to vote, we have to be there at that point. When you look at TV dramas, however, we have lots of other options. We can not only download the show via websites (legal and illegal,) but we can watch them on On-Demand, or catch up. Then take into account that not every person who enjoys these shows wants to watch them one episode a week. Some of us like immersing ourselves in them for a weekend or two, so we specifically wait for the DVDs. Next you have to look at international fans, and how unless they have Sky (which let’s face it, not everyone wants to pay a large amount of money a year when they only want one or two shows out of it) we have to wait for 6 months to a year before it shows on our regular TV.
Now, you may wonder why I’m rambling about this, but after at least two shows I absolutely loved were cancelled after their first season, I realised that the same model works for books when looking at Traditional Publishing. If you don’t sell you first book well, the likelihood of you being offered a second deal reduces dramatically. However, when looking at book series, you find that, for the most part, they don’t become vastly popular until there are a number of books available.
Harry Potter is a brilliant example of this. Harry Potter is one of the biggest book franchises on the planet. Their popularity has spawned a movie series, millions in merchandise, a studio tour and a theme park. Yet, the popularity of Harry Potter didn’t explode with the first book. I personally didn’t even know about Harry Potter until the fourth book was being advertised for release. With each book, the popularity grew and spread.
TV shows and books are very much the same in this aspect. Yes, you have the well advertised shows that boom right from the start, but that usually comes with the fact that they are created as adaptations to books. Most series need time to get off the ground, and when the first season is only 10 or 12 episodes long, you have not given that show enough time to gather its following.
Political Animals was one of these shows last year. It was 6 episodes long, nowhere near enough time to actually gather a following, yet the popularity after the fact continues. But no, Political Animals was cancelled due to a lack of ratings. Let’s ignore the fact that this show has now been nominated for 4 Critic’s Choice awards, including best Mini-Series. Let’s also ignore the fact that the network decided to air the show during the Olympics, because we all know that would have absolutely no effect on how many people tune in to your show.
Common Law was another of last year’s victims. A brilliant new take on buddy cop shows, Common Law saw two detectives who work very well together but don’t get along on a personal level being forced to take couples councelling to work out their issues.
The reason these two particularly sting (and they weren’t the only casualties of last year’s cancelled after first season) is that firstly, as I said, they aired during the Olympics so ratings were going to have been affected anyway, but also, because they were passed over in favour of TV shows that have long since outlived their use.
This is the other end of the model, shows that continue on and on with no show of stopping. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the Mentalist, especially of Simon Baker and Tim Kang, but the Mentalist, for me, has outlived the story. The whole point of the show was that Patrick Jane joined the CBI until Red John was caught. We are now five seasons in, and every time we get close to catching the serial killer, he manages to trick the CBI and get away. There is only so long that you can draw that story out, and if other fans are anything like me, they’re starting to get bored of waiting.
The same can be said of multiple crime TV shows: Bones, Castle, The million and one CSIs. Yet these shows are renewed year after year instead of finally saying “We’ve done this, we’ve done it well, let’s close it off and work on something new.” Supernatural is another example. It’s an amazing show, but with the need to increase the drama year on year, surely we’re at the world having been blown up and Sam and Dean Winchester living in a black hole for the audience to not sit back and think ‘well, we’ve seen this all before’. The risk here is that you destroy your brand from the inside out because you didn’t know to get out when the going was good.
Maybe it’s all the stock market. Knowing when to hold on to something because it needs more time, and when to get out before it plummets.
I guess this is my long winded way of saying that, in this business, whether it’s TV shows, movie franchises, or book series, you need to understand that you have to give it time for your product to gather traction, you need to keep putting out that superior product, even if your original returns are low… And then you have to have to stay true to your story, and not drag it on and on just because it’s making you money.