Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Problem With Serialized Scripted TV Shows On Network TV

Forgive me, while I do a rant.  I've been saying, for awhile, that serialized television programming is a mistake at the network level.  You can have very successful serialization on cable TV networks (TNT, USA, etc.), and on premium channels (HBO, Showtime), but it just doesn't really tend to work, or at least not as well as it should, on the four major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX).  I have frequently wondered why this is the case, and last night's episode, of the serialized Revenge (ABC), finally gave me an answer I'm satisfied with.

On the cable networks, even though there aren't a tremendous amount of completely serialized shows (off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is FX's American Horror Story), they work for one simple reason.  They all get to air their entire season runs in one fell swoop.  This is especially true for the premium channels, because there is no reason for them to go on hiatus.  Generally, cable TV seasons are 13 episodes, and premium seasons tend to be between 10 and 12 episodes.  There are always exceptions to this (shows that come on two or three times a year, like on USA and TNT), but that's generally how it works.

For network TV shows, there are generally a tremendous amount of hiatuses during the full TV season, as only 22 episodes are done for most TV series, per season.  They're trying to space five and a half months worth of programming across approximately eight months.  When you're doing a serialized show, that often means two week hiatuses here, and four week hiatuses there.  All of that type of series depend on the audience's memory, or willingness to invest an extreme amount of time remembering what has gone on.  If the serialized show is really convoluted, the audience can end up forgetting a significant amount of what has happened, while the show was away, which can sometimes cause the audience to tune out altogether.  The audience tune out has been ongoing with the ABC show Once Upon a Time, but Revenge has held a steady audience for at least the last seven episodes of the series, with neither large increases, nor large losses, while still having pretty middle of the road ratings overall (I do think it will be back for a second season, at this point).

For most people, how good the show is will determine how much time he or she is willing to invest.  It just becomes hard for most people to follow a large story, with tons of details, when it is seemingly constantly in reruns throughout the first half of the season.  Most serialized shows depend on momentum, and once it's lost, it never gets picked up again.  The solution, to me, is hybrid serialization (I think I'll coin this term now), which is a style that has really been picking up steam on network and cable TV.  The most practical example of this is Burn Notice (USA), which was originally a very heavily serialized show, but realized early on that it needed to be more than that to have longevity.  The perfect way for hybrid serialization to be done is to have a one off story for each episode's main plot (that can relate to the larger plot when necessary), and then a book ending or sprinkling of the larger serialized plot throughout each episode.  Even House is a hybrid serialization, if you look at the series solely from a character development standpoint. 

Hybrid serialization is the way things should be done, in the future, in my opinion, because it allows you to have a long story arc, for what could generally be wrapped up in one season.  Audiences also tend to love this type of show, as it has been routinely successful across many different genres.  People seem to want something just a little bit more than a case by case TV show.  Everyone wants to feel like there is always a larger story or purpose behind every show they watch. 

Again, to me, the reason so few serialized shows are successful on network TV is because of hiatuses.  Hiatuses kill the momentum serialized television shows have, and most audiences just do not have the attention span to put up with those hiatuses.  There are lots of quality choices out there, and it's just easier to move on to something else, rather than invest in something that you'll probably forget a lot about during the hiatuses.  I think true serialization should be left up to the cable and premium channels, because they don't really have the hiatus problem, and that nearly all attempts at network serialization should be done in the hybrid serialization form. 

For now, the only network that seems to be in love with true serialization is ABC, even though FOX is also taking a few leaps with shows such as the doomed Terra Nova, and the still to be aired Alcatraz.  This year, they're bringing us Once Upon a Time, Revenge, Pan Am (I don't watch the show, but I don't think I'm incorrect in saying that it's serialized, correct me if I'm wrong), The River, and MissingPan Am is canceled, Revenge only has middle of the road ratings, Once Upon a Time's ratings have been falling like a rock for the last four episodes of its run, and we're still waiting on The River (probably will do okay), and Missing (toss up).  I'd be pretty surprised if more than three of those make it back next year, and if more than 3 fail, you're likely to be looking at the end of truly serialized network TV as we have known it.  That will be a certainty if The River fails.  You may not have gotten anything out of this, but it's something I felt was worth mentioning.  Thanks for reading.

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