Sunday, May 29, 2011

CHAOS: A Decent Show on the Wrong Network at the Wrong Time

Last night, I was flipping through the channels looking for something to watch.  Much to my surprise, I noticed that CHAOS (CBS) had started, already.  CHAOS being back on TV was truly shocking, to me.  This was a show that was unceremoniously canceled after three episodes.  I thought that it must be a repeat, but no, after watching a couple of minutes, it was clear this was a new episode.  I'm not sure how many they have left to burn off, but I am really hoping it is at least 10.  But at least I have been given something else to DVR, next weekend.

Channeling my friends from TV by the Numbers, I will give you a little bit of an indication of what went wrong with this show.  We all hopefully know that if you want your show to be successful, it must appeal to the 18-49 demographic.  If it doesn't, your show is destined to fail.  The reason for this is that the advertisers are only interested in attacking that demographic.  If you fall outside of this key demographic, you might as well be dead to the advertisers (I still have nearly 10 years left, woo hoo!).  I haven't done much research on this topic, but from what I can tell from guessing, it appears if you can pull in around a 2 share in the 18-49 demographic, you will at least have a chance of getting picked up for future seasons, depending on which network you are on.  If you pull anywhere in the low 1 share, you are on life support, and if you hit 1, or below one, it's time to pull the plug.  Cable obviously has much more leeway, for lower ratings, due to the lower costs of producing the shows.

If you want to make a successful show, here are the keys to success, in my opinion.  First and foremost is that you MUST appeal to the 18-49 demographic.  The second is that your show needs to be kind of cost effective.  If your show is really expensive to produce, and then suffers even a little bit in the ratings, you're already in trouble.  The third is that your show actually needs to be good.  If you noticed, I didn't say that the show needs to be good, as the first key to success, I put it third.  There is a long list of good shows that have been canceled.  So, just based on a tiny bit of analysis of the numbers, if you can hit two of the three up above, you have a good chance of being renewed.  For future blog posts, next season, I will do a little bit of analysis on these fronts, to see if we can get a leg up on whether shows will be canceled, or renewed.  We'll see if it ends up being scientific. ;) I'll probably also eventually do a cable version, since I watch so many shows on cable, based on the ratings of shows that get renewed for multiple seasons.

Getting two out of those three key things to happen is the biggest problem facing TV shows today.  It's also much harder for shows to be successful when they often aren't even sure what they're supposed to be, yet.  The days of shows being heavily developed prior to hitting air are long over.  Now, if you watch just about any new show, you will see it making dramatic, and often strange, changes from week to week.  There is no bigger offender of this than Body of Proof (ABC).  Sometimes a show will come out of the gate quickly and well developed, but for the most part, small tweaks are made, along the way, during the first season of nearly every show.  Sometimes, the shows are good enough that you don't start seeing these kinds of things happen until the beginning of season 2.  This, however, was not the case for the show CHAOS.

During the 2011 NCAA basketball tournament, I was constantly bombarded with promos for CHAOS.  I felt it was good enough to check out.  I saw the first episode was directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Money Talks), and figured it probably had a pretty significant budget.  Ratner is a rather hit and miss director, so I knew I couldn't form an opinion just by watching his name go by in the credits.

I will start out by saying that the first show had a major problem.  The major problem is that if you weren't paying attention properly, you would think the show was over the top stupid.  Alexis K. basically said this.  However, from the first scene, I immediately concluded that it was intended to be a farce.  Then, each subsequent early scene shored that up.

Bear with me for the show description, as I am doing it all from memory, minus the names of the characters and who played them.  The show began with a gung ho Rick Martinez (Freddy Rodriguez) arriving at the CIA, for his first day of work, something he had been dreaming of his whole life.  Upon arriving at the front gate, it was determined that he was on the terrorist watch list, and caused a major scene.  The person who talked to him about it said that they were sorry for the mistake, and basically that this sort of thing happened all the time.  Okay, I get it, comedy.  Then, he makes it into the office for his first day with the Director of the CIA division CHAOS (Clandestine Homeland Administration and Oversight Services), H.J. Higgins, (Kurtwood Smith), and is promptly told that due to budget cutbacks, his job is no longer available (hmmm, almost sounds like how the show was canceled).  Martinez is obviously disappointed, and the Director then says that he does have one job available.  The job would basically be to spy on a particular unit in CHAOS, called the ODS (Office of Disruptive Services, if I remember correctly), that Higgins would like to eliminate.  Say ODS out loud.  It sounds like odious (see dictionary definition for even more laughs).  To me, that is more comedy, but maybe only to me.  Martinez basically asks Higgins if he is being asked to be a mole.  Higgins then basically responded that Martinez did want to be a spy, right (more comedy)?  It was either that or no job.  So, Martinez reluctantly accepts the job.  Higgins then reminds him that no offense is too small to report.  That was more comedy, more farce, and if you were unsure, just look at the casting of the show, which is filled with strong comedic actors.

On his way to his new job, he runs into a guy sitting just outside the entrance doors, played by Rick Overton, who wants to help show him the ropes, if he'd just give him the opportunity.  This particular character is played for farcical laughs numerous times throughout the series three episodes.  Upon arrival at the ODS unit office, Martinez is greeted by a rag tag group of people.  The apparent leader of the division is Michael Dorset (Eric Close), a hyper serious guy, who apparently is the only one in the farcical universe to be taken seriously.  The next player is Billy Collins (James Murray) a Scottish or Irish national, who is working for the CIA (again, comedy).  The final player in the division of the ODS is Casey Malick (Tim Blake Nelson) who is the "Human Weapon".  His diminutive size, and dead pan delivery, also lend to the comedy.

Martinez goes about his job of spying on the division, but little does he know that they were already aware of exactly what he was doing (they are spies after all...more comedy).  They eventually force him into a situation where it looks like he is giving state secrets to another country's rogue operative, and thus was tricked into working for the ODS, since they tell him they will turn the footage over to the CIA, if he doesn't work with them.  Hijinks ensue, they go on an unsanctioned mission (filled with numerous comedic moments, mostly at Martinez's expense), and Martinez is instrumental in saving the day (he is portrayed as a superhero, who knows a lot about everything, at his very young age, also probably comedy, but I am unsure).

By the end of the episode, Higgins would prefer to just fire him, but due to the heroic nature of the mission, he decides to keep him.  The episode played for a lot of laughs.  If you got it, then you were able to be a future viewer of the show.  If you didn't get the joke, then you would just think it was a stupid, over the top action show, with a lot of bad jokes.  I got the joke, and looked forward to where it would go, though I was unsure how I felt about the show, after the first viewing.

Evidently CBS didn't get the joke, and they most likely forced the show into re-tooling, after the pilot.  All of a sudden, we were treated to a mostly action show, with only a few comedic elements here and there.  The problem with this re-tooling, even though every actor/character did fine, was that the casting was all wrong for a serious show.  It's hard to watch a show filled with comedic actors, and think you're supposed to take it seriously.  So, in effect, the spirit of the show had been killed.  The third episode played out in a similar way, only this time, Rick Overton's character was used on a mission, a mission done on extremely faulty intelligence (his own).  After that episode, CBS had had enough, and pulled the plug on CHAOS, after only three episodes.

I had never heard any news that it was only on hiatus, while they waited for the rest of CBS's TV shows to end.  It appears they are now going to burn off the last 10 episodes of the initial 13 episode run.  It is now on Saturday nights, presumably at 8pm EDT, check your local listings.  It's still very unlikely to return to CBS on a full time basis, regardless of what kind of ratings it pulls, but maybe it could be a summer show in the future.  I can always hope.

Now, I'm going to quickly break down what went wrong with CHAOS.  The first mistake is that CHAOS was put on CBS.  This show so clearly falls outside of their main demographic, that it was destined to fail.  CBS always touts that it is the highest rated network.  What they forget to mention is that the vast majority of their viewers are Baby Boomers, and that demo doesn't get advertising dollars!  If NBC had a show where it was getting a little under 6 million viewers on average (inside or outside the demo), on any night, it would probably be ecstatic.  Then, factor in that the show got this many viewers on a Friday night, the equivalent of a TV wasteland, and you can see how the show was just in the wrong place.  The next place that it went wrong was that it really had no clue what it was.  Was it a comedy, like Get Smart, probably its second cousin?  Was it an action show?  Was it a spy show?  Should we take it seriously, or as a joke?  Those are all questions that should have been answered in early development of the show.

Ratner could have made those decisions for us, had he been a little more in your face with the comedy.  His mistake was that he figured all the small farcical goings on (one after another) would be enough to make us understand, in combination with the casting, that this is clearly a comedy show, or at least not meant to be taken completely seriously.  Instead, it went to re-tooling, where they decided to try the action angle.  That made the show fail, as it just wasn't a great action show.  Then, when they sort of tried to return to the comedy angle, with a little bit more heaviness on the action side, it got canceled.  Shows like this need to know exactly what they are, before they hit air.  You can't give a show a soul, and expect it to survive when you rip the soul out.  I don't know who to blame for that, but it's probably Ratner, as he just didn't play it clearly for laughs as much as he should have.  The casting was spot on for what they were trying to do, they just didn't follow through.

To wrap up, most likely to your relief, I'll go through the three keys to success I talked about at the beginning, with actual ratings numbers from TV by the Numbers, to help illustrate the point.

1.  A show must have ratings in the 18-49 demographic.  If it doesn't have at least a mid 1.5 to a 2, it is likely in danger of cancellation.  If it is near or below a 1, it is dead.  I'll list the numbers, below.

Episode 1:

- 6.525 million viewers
- 4.2/8 HH
- 1.1/4 A18-49

1.1, highlighted in red, is the 18-49 demo ratings.  This would be considered a very bad start, to a season premiere, even with its relatively high overall viewership.  By the end of the first episode, you, as a viewer, should be worrying about its prospects, due to these ratings.

Episode 2:

- 5.728 million viewers
- 3.6/6 HH
- 0.9/3 A18-49

Red alert, people, it lost .2 in the demographic after the premiere, and it lost nearly 800k viewers.  The TAPS march has already started to sound off in the distance.

Episode 3:

- 5.683 million viewers
- 3.4/6 HH
- 1.0/3 A18-49

There weren't any major losses of viewers for the third episode, but CBS had had enough.  Shortly after these numbers came out, CBS canceled it.

2. The show needs to be cost effective.

3. The show needs to be good.

Let's now answer the keys to success I listed above:

1.  Does it have good ratings in the 18-49 demo?  No
2.  Is it a cost effective show?  Not likely, it looks pretty expensive, with relatively high production value.
3.  Is it good?  Well, it could have been, but no one really knew what it was by episode 3.

Did it get at least 2 of the keys right, to help it toward the path of success?  No, it likely missed on all three.  CHAOS is a great lesson of how a show can go wrong, even when it could have done better somewhere else.  On another network, with a longer leash, there is no doubt it could have been successful on 2 of the 3 keys to a show's success.  Instead, it got stuck on a network with a main viewer demographic that doesn't touch what it needs to, with likely too high a budget on the pilot, and then it was re-tooled to its death, losing its soul and identity in the process.

To end this blog post, I just want to share a few numbers of the worst network on TV, NBC.  This network consistently under performs in relation to their competition.  Their ratings are a shadow of those on CBS and ABC, and yet, under performing, supposedly good shows, get to keep coming back for more.  The standards are much lower for NBC, and a show like CHAOS likely could have been a hit on that network.

For these numbers, I had to pull from a different site than TV by the numbers, because they have pulled down all the easily accessible numbers from last season.  For these numbers, I am grabbing them from Inside TV Ratings, which looks remarkably similar to TV by the Numbers.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC flagship show):

-8.1 million viewers
-2.4 (18-49) rating

1. Successful in the demo
2. Due to the length of time on the air, is likely cost effective (with the loss, after this season, of a long time lead, even more so).
3. Is usually good, or at least plays off when it once was.

The Office (NBC flagship comedy show):

-6.45 million viewers
-3.3 (18-49) rating

1. Successful in the demo
2. Very likely cost effective
3. It has a lot of fans, so it must be good.

Parks and Recreation:

-4.55 million viewers
-2.4 (18-49) rating

1. Even though it has low overall ratings, it's successful in the demo.
2. Very likely cost effective
3. It's good, if you don't believe me, we're dunzo.
  
30 Rock:

-4.20 million viewers
-2.1 (18-49) rating

1. Even though it has low overall ratings, it's successful in the demo.
2. Probably not that cost effective
3. Those who like it, love it.

Chuck:

-4.1 million viewers
-1.4 (18-49) rating

1. Danger line on the demo, is always in danger of cancellation
2. Probably not cost effective, but it will be next year ;)
3. Those who like it, love it.

This is as clear a bubble show as there ever is.

The Event:

-3.85 million viewers
-1.1 (18-49) rating

1. On the death line in the demo
2. Definitely not cost effective
3. If anyone says they like this show, they are lying, or have terrible tastes.  Most people are just watching because they got stuck in the story line, and invested too much time to stop.

These are textbook numbers of a show that will be canceled, and it was.

Law & Order: Los Angeles:

-5.05 million viewers
-1.2 (18-49) rating

1. Near the death line in the demo
2. Shooting in L.A. is 'spensive.
3. No, this show was not good.

3 for 3 means no more LOLa for me.

What these numbers showed is that just because you don't have huge overall viewer numbers, it doesn't mean your show is automatically going to be canceled.  Outside of Special Victims Unit and The Office, the overall viewership of CHAOS was higher than each one, ON A FRIDAY (known as the TV wasteland where shows go to die).  Because of that, I have no doubt that CHAOS would have been successful on NBC.  I think it would have found an 18-49 demo, and NBC would have been much more likely to let the show have a long leash of creativity.  If you don't believe me, see The Event.

So, in wrap up, if you don't get your show on the right network, at the right time, in the right time slot, it can spell disaster for you.  FOX is the absolute biggest offender on this, and often cancels shows that should still be on the air.  In a future blog post or posts, I will be having a post mortem on all this season's shows I watched.  FOX will be on my angry list.  Thanks for reading.

Update: 

I have watched the two new episodes of CHAOS, and here are my brief thoughts.  The first episode that aired was "Two Percent".  That episode is exactly the tone CHAOS needs to capture for future episodes.  Watch out for that change, hopefully.  The second episode, "Mole", was, in my opinion, by far, the weakest effort in the series, to date.  My feeling is that these aired out of order, and that airing "Mole" first would have polarized the audience, even further, against the show.  Some plot that was dropped, in a conversation between two characters, in "Two Percent" was something I wasn't aware of, in any of the previous episodes.  However, when "Mole" aired, the piece of plot that was referred to in the previous episode was revealed.  So, that's the main clue for why I think they aired out of order.  In my opinion (even though "Two Percent" did not feature the great Kurtwood Smith), if you don't like "Two Percent", you have zero chance of ever liking the series.  If you do like "Two Percent", you should end up liking the series.  Use that as your barometer for whether you should continue watching this show, that has already been canceled.  "Mole" is not representative of the series, so far, at all, so I don't really know what to think about that one.

The episodes are available here, if you would like to check them out:  CHAOS home page at cbs.com

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