The state of TV in America

I love TV. I know that as an ‘intellectual’ I’m supposed to hate it, but I’m also a creative and I love the form immensely. Shows like ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘The Shield’ are truly wonderful works of serialized fiction. Some game shows like ‘Survivor’ are beautiful visually (have you seen Survivor lately?) and fun to watch from a strategy perspective. But today isn’t about TV reviews. It’s a short musing about what I feel is happening in the TV business.

Networks are clueless (as most big media houses are these days) about how to make their audience happy. First off, they seem to choose shows not based on quality but on thier ability to appeal to the largest audience. That means that most shows are dumb, and easy to follow. I find that most shows I tend to love these days are on networks that seem to care a bit about quality (AMC for example with the now cancelled ‘Rubicon’ and their so far non-cancelled ‘The Killing’, or FX with ‘Archer’ or ‘The League’). That’s problem one and I know that its expensive to put on TV shows and you can’t cater to long tail viewers. I get that.

What I also get but find to be a huge problem is cancellations. It seems to me that more and more, networks cancel shows before they allow them to get into a stride and capture an audience. Its a well known fact that ‘Seinfeld’, considered one of the most successful shows of the 90’s was almost canceled many times in it’s first couple of years until they placed it after ‘Cheers’ and tuned it up a bit. You can read in many places about shows that were cancelled before they should have been (‘Firefly’, ‘My so Called Life’, ‘Sports Night’, etc..).

So when a network has a new show what am I to do? 5-10 years ago I would have watched it and hoped for the best. Now? I tend to wait. In a time where everyone seems to watch on DVR or Netflix, there is almost no need to see a show in its timeslot because nobody is talking about it the next day (like we all used to). What you want to be sure of is that you are able to see all the episodes, in order. So I wait it out a bit and see if a show makes it to its second season before I decide to give it a shot. Then I rent the first season from Netflix (or if they don’t have it I *gasp* download the torrents) and I catch up. It’s much safer to watch tv that way.

Of course if everyone did it the way I did then everything would be cancelled. What’s the answer? I’m not sure but I think part of it is that we have to understand that moving to an on-demand world is a good first step. Maybe loosing the cost of having to maintain a huge broadcast network with affiliates, etc. and moving exclusively to digital distribution across the internet may help?

For music, we are seeing that a band can self produce and distribute and still maintain quality. We’re seeing that start to happen ion publishing as well. I wonder if TV can do the same thing? I know it’s way more expensive to make a TV show than a song so I fear that maybe we will loose out on production values if the networks stop funding big shows. That wouldn’t be good. But there is an answer somewhere out there and it doesn’t seem that anyone is looking for it.

Edit : Just came across this interestingly relevant post (and comments) on reddit.

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