The past decade of television has offered some of the best shows to ever grace the celluloid small screen. Critics and fans agree that shows like LOST, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, DEXTER, 24, THE WEST WING, HOUSE, DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, and THE SHIELD were among this “golden renaissance” era; and they paved the way for shows like THE GOOD WIFE, BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, DAMAGES, JUSTIFIED, HOMELAND, LUTHER, SONS OF ANARCHY, SHERLOCK, and DOWNTON ABBEY. These are just a few of the multitude of extraordinary shows that sprang up in this creative climate when studios and television viewers were willing to embrace shows that were a little more cutting-edge and outside-the-box than television of years past.
However, that “hey day” seems to be slipping away. It is getting harder and harder to get television audiences to checkout and stick with television shows that are considered “thinking” shows. Back at the height of their popularity shows like HOUSE and LOST commanded 24-27 million viewers. But that was several years ago. LOST fell to below 10 million viewers when it ended its run, and HOUSE is limping out with a weekly average of 6 million viewers. Creatively, these shows have been strong from beginning to end. Instead, what happened was viewer-fatigue. Shows that last more than 5 years are a rarity on television today. There are the procedurals that are still going strong, but as popular and well-done as they are, these are not the type of shows you think of when you hear the phrase “smart TV.” They are along the lines of “safe TV” – well-crafted and consistent, and they resolve their weekly stories in easy fashion.
As much as pains us to consider it, shows like THE WEST WING and LOST would fail miserably in today’s television climate. Why? Because viewers are tired of shows that make them think that hard.
An interesting dichotomy occurred during this past decade: not only did phenomenal television shows rise and capture our attention, simultaneously a large portion of viewers embraced “reality” television shows and each year we see a bit more encroachment – so much so, that it has sent shivers down the spines of those of us who love and adore scripted television. The rise of reality TV has conditioned viewers for the past decade to expect shortened seasons, revolving casts, sensationalized scandals, and the need to give very little thought about what they are watching on the screen. It has bred viewers into being voyeurs instead of television connoisseurs. Like the economic gap between the rich and the poor in America, television has become divided into “thinking” and “non-thinking” television and the “non-thinking” is rapidly over-taking “smart TV.”
The rapid descent of FRINGE in the ratings perfectly illustrates this divergence. In its first season FRINGE was very procedural based and it was not until it revealed its deeply-embedded mythology roots that viewers began checking out. It went from an average of 11 million viewers to today’s average of 4 million. FRINGE is probably one of the more complicated shows ever to be written for television. It also makes it nearly impossible for the average viewer to figure out and most do not even try and avoid it like plague. For the few fans who have cracked the FRINGE-code and stuck with the show, it is a vastly entertaining and rewarding experience. But it not a show that can be watched casually, which is exactly why is does not attract new viewers or retain casual viewers.
What shows are building on their audiences? Ones that are easy to jump into. There is a reason why shows like THE BIG BANG THEORY and PERSON OF INTEREST continue to climb in the ratings. Anyone can jump in at any time and know exactly what is going on and feel included.
One of the most critically lauded new shows this season was NBC’s detective drama AWAKE. However, the very thing that makes the show exceptional and fascinating is also its largest deterrent: it’s complicated to follow. Each episode flips back-and-forth between two different realities where the central character uses clues from both realities to solve very different crimes. For intellectuals, this show is a gold-mine. It offers more in one hour of television than most shows. It is three stories told simultaneously. But it also requires a level of thinking that most viewers are unaccustomed and they cannot really get a handle on what is going on most of the time. Multiple realities are fascinating to the “thinking” fan, but the average viewer just wont use the brainpower required to keep track of more than one reality – which is their loss. (The one exception right now is ONCE UPON A TIME, which has cleverly created two different realities and viewers are devotedly tuning in and trying to figure it out the mysteries it unveils.)
But television was never designed for niche audiences; it was designed for the masses. It was conceived to be a way of capturing as many eyeballs as possible and reaping a profit through sponsored advertising. The more viewers, the more money could be made. This simple economic model has been used since the inception of television. In recent years, more creative ways to glean profits have been established, such as through product placement and marketing to special “niche” markets – a.k.a. demographs (the coveted 18-34 year olds with the most disposable income) or by interests (sports, music, cooking, history, science, etc.) But, by far, the easiest and most accepted method for selling television advertising is by ratings (the gross number of people tuning in).
Because television is a profit-driven industry, it cannot afford to cater to less viewers. A television show must deliver the desired number of eyeballs to sustain its costs, or it will be deemed “unviable” and canceled. Creativity and critical-acclaim play little part in the decision making on whether to keep a show on the air. So with viewers avoiding or turning away from shows that they find too strenuous on their brain-cells, it is forcing the television industry to bankroll more reality TV and to find shows that require less effort to watch.
Think about it: what do you watch on TV regularly? You may be surprised at what you are actually watching. Clearly the majority of viewers are choosing to watch shows that are easy to watch – whether it is competition series, reality TV, procedurals, or comedies. Whereas, serialized, scripted television is fighting day-by-day, week-by-week, to sustain themselves and carve out a sustainable portion of audience to justify their existence.
I shudder to imagine a day when “smart TV” disappears completely.
To read more about other possible contributing factors, be sure to check out my prior articles:
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