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Terra Nova declared extinct

08/03/2012

Scientists aren’t sure how long it took the dinosaurs to die out 65 million years ago, but it only took Fox a few ours to wipe them out all over again when they cancelled Terra Nova earlier this week.

A lot of people were not surprised by the announcement. Some said the show had been overhyped and, ultimately, been unable to live up to what was promised. There were still a few fans (including my wife) who were very upset all the same. There was a rumour that the production company might sell the show to another network, but the only one with enough of a budget to be able to afford it’s US$22 million price tag would be HBO, and they’ve already got a pretty full stable of successful shows. The show could work well on SciFi, sorry SyFy, but they seem to be gradually moving away from their foundational genre. If it did end up there, it would likely be repackaged as Mega Rex vs Giant Pteranodon, or some equally schlocky plot.

If only there was some way to avoid this sort of disappointment in the future. Maybe there is….

Maybe it’s time TV networks thought about how they produced and presented shows. It seems like every show coming out of America these days is setup to be the next M*A*S*H or Seinfeld: a popular show with some big names that can run for years with little effort. Sure, this makes some financial sense. You save a lot of money if you can reuse the same sets year after year and it’s fairly easy to market a show that people are already familiar with.

What I’m proposing is that the US networks start following in the footsteps of UK networks like the BBC. Make shows that are more compact, and often have a fixed length. Sure, not all British shows are like that – hell, Doctor Who is one of the longest running shows on TV – but there is a good percentage that are. This way, networks can better budget for a show’s overall cost, and shorter seasons mean that more variety can be introduced into the schedule (or even more reality shows can be aired).

Here are my suggestions for revamping the television industry…

The First Step: Shorter Seasons
At the moment, most shows have a 20-25 episode run, taking up roughly half of the year. I suggest cutting this in half (at least). Limit shows to a 13 episode run, just like HBO does at the moment. This will encourage show creators to be more focussed in their work and hopefully spare the viewing public some of the blander ‘filler episodes’. Get some good, solid plot arcs going, and allow viewers to catch up on missed seasons without having to devote the better part of a week’s worth of time. An added bonus is that you effectively double the number of shows you can air, or you can air a rerun of the series during the off-season.

A good example of this was the final season of Chuck. For the first four years it was a standard show, with a full complement of episodes. At the end of the fourth season, however, NBC weren’t happy with its ratings and were going to cancel. In the end, the made a deal with the creators and allowed the show to wrap up on its own terms, but only gave them half a season to do it in. What resulted was, in my opinion, a more fast paced season where something big happened in nearly every episode. Imagine how much better shows like Heroes would have been if they hadn’t dicked around so much during each season.

The Second Step: Limited Seasons
This will be a lot harder to achieve than the first step, but is something a lot of shows could benefit from. Much like the Replicants in Blade Runner, each show should have a fixed lifespan. For most shows this would be around four to five seasons, though some might be shorter. Think of all the times a show has gone on longer than it should have, both Babylon 5 and The X-Files are guilty of this. Yes, it’s tempting to keep milking the cash cow, but eventually that milk gets old, turns sour, and leaves the viewing public with a bad taste in their mouths. You could call this the Don’t Jump the Shark Rule.

I do feel a little bad using Babylon 5 as an example here as it was originally planned to run for five seasons, then got cut back to four, before being miraculously renewed, forcing the writers to hurriedly scramble for new plots. Something similar is currently happening in Supernatural. The show exhausted its main story arc, so now it’s having to make up a whole new one. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but one new episode featured a unicorn that farted rainbows and used its horn to kill people. That’s probably all that needs to be said.

Getting back on track, giving a show a limited run means it’s easier for creators to sketch out plot arcs that can be advanced at a predetermined rate. They don’t have to come up with every single episode in advance, that would be insane. They just need a good idea of what needs to occur when, then let the writers fill in the rest of the details. A few shows have suffered from a lack of such predetermination, often leading to episodes where things have to be explained with sometimes the flimsiest of reasoning.

The Third Step: Consistency
Have you ever started watching a show, really gotten into it, then had it seemingly disappear from the TV schedule? It happens more often that people think as networks tweak the broadcast time and date of shows to boost ratings and make themed nights. Sometimes, they’ll even move a show to a well-known black spot on the schedule (like Friday nights) in a subtle attempt to kill it. More often than not this ploy is a success, but occasionally a show will thrive at those times.

The best local example of a network dumping a show is what happened to Justified here in NZ. Local network TVNZ originally aired the show on a Wednesday night at 8:30pm. Sadly, it wasn’t a spectacular hit, so after a few weeks it moved to a 11:30pm slot. A slot shared with shows like Torchwood. If marketed right it could have been a popular hit, but instead it was squandered and left to rot where very few people would watch it. Don’t even get me started on Babylon 5 and Warehouse 13 being relegated to Saturday afternoons.

The point here is, if a network is going to commit to a show, they also need to commit to airing that show at a consistent time for the entirety of a season. Remember seasons are shorter now, so this will be easier to achieve. The day and time could still change from season to season, that’s fine, but don’t make people reorganise their schedules every few weeks because one of your magical metrics isn’t perfect. To be fair, the high ownership rates of DVRs and other high-capacity recording devices makes the actual time that a show airs somewhat irrelevant, but what we’re trying to do here is create appointment viewing. You do this already with some shows, why not try it with all of them?

The Fourth Step: Rethink Ratings
Following on from the previous step, it’s time to do something I’ve wanted networks to do for a long time now: tell Nielsen to take hike. Sure, they may be a trusted brand with a history of providing valuable ratings data, but it’s really just speculation and fancy math. We live in the 21st Century, and networks are still relying on a company who gathers ratings information from small boxes that people have to fiddle with each time they watch TV. That’s about as accurate as a Russian election.

Surely it wouldn’t be too hard to hook up a system that automatically records when a customer is watching TV, which channel(s) they are watching and for how long. Also, start recording how many times a show is recorded then watched at a later time. Yes, there are obvious privacy issues that come up with either of these ideas, but I’m painting a big picture here. It’s a lot less intrusive than the Nielsen system, and would likely give a much more accurate view of what the public are actually watching.

One of the main reasons for gathering the Nielsen data is to allow networks to set ad rates for various TV shows and time slots. If they know a lot of peope are going to be watching during Popular Reality TV Music Show, they can charge more money for that time as the advertiser is guaranteed to get more exposure. I suspect the networks don’t want to have something this detailed as it will reveal a harsh truth: people channel surf during ad breaks. The only time you can guarantee someone will be watching an ad break is at the beginning  and, slightly less often, the end – times that are normally taken up by ads for other shows on that network. Try selling ad time when the numbers show that only a fraction of the viewers are actually watching.

So that’s it. My Four Step plan for fixing television. It’s not complete, of course. There are plenty of other things that could be tweaked and fiddled with to make television a more consistently enjoyable viewing experience, this is just the beginning. Are any of these ideas likely to be taken up by the television networks? To be honest, not likely. I don’t have a lot of sway in Hollywood, let alone Wellywood, but you never know. Maybe someone will become inspired and take one or two of the suggestions here on board. Some have already, so maybe it’s up to them to set a good example of everyone else.

We can only hope.

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