Sunday, May 20, 2007

Audience Abuse

So, the networks have all released their prime time schedules for next fall, and the CBS television series Jericho, the subject of one of my recent posts, has been canceled. How rude! Here I go to all the trouble of writing about the series, and saying some nice things I thought, and they go and cancel it on me.

This is getting to be a problem. I'm getting a little tired of investing my time and mental energy, getting all involved in a series, and seeing it get cut, sometimes without even a full season. This past year, I followed The Nine, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Daybreak, and I know there were one or two others that I've forgotten about, and last season there was Surface, Invasion, and some others, all series that delivered an intriguing mystery, a high degree of complexity, a continuing narrative that required more mental participation than the typical television show, and above all quality. They were promising us programming to rival HBO's achievements, such as the incomparable Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Entourage, Big Love, etc. And they were promising us programs like Lost, and Alias (before those series went off the deep end), and 24.

The problem with these cool (in McLuhan's sense of low definition, high ambiguity), involving shows is that they require viewer commitment and participation. If you're in, you're all in as the Texas Hold 'Em crowd likes to say. This is a fine strategy for attracting loyal and dependable fans, a cult following, but not for reeling in the massive audiences that have been the networks' bread and butter. So, they get some of us hooked, and when it turns out that the sum of us is not enough, they leave us hanging out to dry on an unresolved story line.

Of course, the fact that it's millions of viewers who are left high and dry matters little, or not at all, given the scale on which network television operates. It is odd, indeed, to use the same term, mass media, to refer to television and to forms of printing that may only result in tens of thousands of copies being produced. Television is the massiest (it actually is a word) of the mass media, it's a nuke, in contrast to print media which are nothing more than machine guns and grenades.

And, television is a business, but it is a business that is now abusing and alienating its product. Not its customers, mind you, because viewers do not buy the programs. The programs are nothing more than the bait that lures us in, so that the networks, stations, and channels can deliver the audiences that they've created into the hands of advertisers. We are the product of television, in more ways than one. This is basic media economics, as taught in Mass Media 101 courses, of course.

The advertisers pay for eyeballs, as they put it, but the cost of producing the commercials and advertising campaigns is tacked on to the price we pay for our products and services, at least those that are advertised. That's why it's been said that we don't pay when we watch, we pay when we wash, meaning that we pay extra for the advertising and marketing of the laundry detergent that we use, and everything else that we consumers purchase and consume (everything that's advertised, that is). We have no choice in the matter, it's taxation without representation, media tyranny.

And it's like an addiction for the advertisers, they know that they could stop if they wanted to, but they just don't want to, in part for fear of losing sales if they do. So, they're TV junkies, paying through the nose, or put another way, advertisers are the johns, the TV industry, they're the pimps, and guess what that makes us viewers?

The rates advertisers pay are based on ratings, which are based on a small sample of viewers who are given electronic devices that record what they watch, or are asked to keep track of them by keeping a diary or log. So, a few hundred people in effect decide the fate of our television programming. Here's another analogy, we're the product, like chickens on a farm, and every so often the inspector comes and examines a few of us, and gives us a rating of Grade A, B, or C. There's no guarantee that either rating is necessarily accurate, although the law of large numbers says that it probably is fairly accurate, but the main thing is that it makes everyone feels better and provides data to back up decisions about rates and renewals.

So based on what this small group of people say and do, estimates are made as to how many people are actually watching, and based on that advertising rates are set, and if not enough people are watching this threatens to lower the rates too much and, oops I canceled it again.

It's an unstable, volatile system, and that's fine for a medium whose best programming, as Neil Postman pointed out long ago, is its junk. That's why the quintessential television show is the sitcom. Not much commitment needed, you can pick it up any time without much problem, nothing much changes from episode to episode, there is no real beginning to the story, and no need for much in the way of a conclusion.

I don't mean to imply that sitcoms can't be good, there have been absolutely brilliant comedies aired on the networks over the years, for example, The Burns and Allen Show, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Get Smart, Green Acres, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, MASH, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, South Park, and now The Office. And if the show gets canceled after only one season, like The Honeymooners, it doesn't damage the overall quality of the series, nor is it terribly damaging to stretch out a series, as long as the laughs keep coming, as was the case for Seinfeld and continues to be for The Simpsons.

But trying to turn commercial television into an art form, trying to produce complex, continuous, involving television series while operating in this sort of economic environment has turned into a form of audience abuse. Traditionally, the networks understood that quality television could not co-exist with an open-ended series. Instead, it could take the form of an anthology series such as Playhouse 90 in the 50s, each week presenting a new theatrical production adjusted for the TV set; Rod Serling's innovative Twilight Zone also worked because it was an anthology series. Quality also came in the form of the stand-alone special, the documentary film made by television news crews, such as Harvest of Shame, the made-for-TV movie such as Brian's Song, and the television miniseries such as Roots and The Day After.

It was understood that quality television meant never having to say you're sorry about having a beginning, middle, and end, it meant knowing exactly how long you need to tell the story you want to tell, making sure you have the resources to complete the number of episodes needed to bring the story to completion, and not stretching the story out just because you've attracted a lot of viewers (as Lost has done, and even Battlestar Galactica has suffered from a little padding). Again, none of this applies to comedy, only drama, tragedy and melodrama.

We have only to turn to BBC programming, for many years the staple of PBS stations, to find examples of programs that knew how to stay within their limits, The Prisoner being a prime example. The reason that the BBC was different was because it was public television, like PBS, not commercial television--as Postman has pointed out, public television networks place certain limits on television programming (often based on other forms and media such as print and the fine arts), while commercial broadcasters let their television programming go with the flow, giving carte blanche to the medium's bias towards immediacy and discontinuity (and now, this...).

HBO, being primarily a movie channel, and having dabbled in made-for-TV movies, produces television series that are more or less cinematic, a term that once referred to a certain kind of material and machinery (celluloid, film projectors, etc.), but now mainly means a certain level of quality. Artistically, there are coming from the right place for complex, involving programming.

Also, HBO is in certain respects similar to the BBC and PBS, in not trying to sell its audiences to advertisers. They do try to sell us to cable companies as subscribers, but that's at least a bit more direct. We may not be able to pay only for what we watch, but we can decide whether or not to pay for the package that includes The Sopranos. Their business model must intrinsically include a healthy respect for their audiences. We are, at least in some respects, their customers.

But we will always be nothing more than product for commercial television. Specialty networks like SciFi Channel treat their product with more care, hence programs like Battlestar Galactica, and as the audiences for CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and CW continue to shrink, they no doubt will pay more attention to quality control as well, quality of viewers that is. But we'll always be packaged goods to them.

Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with selling ourselves, as long as we know that's what we're doing. And as long as we get a fair price for our goods. If we put in the time and effort needed to watch their programming, then we need a reasonable guarantee that our efforts will be rewarded with the minimum wage of wrapping up a narrative appropriately. If viewers invest in a series like Jericho, and the return is not sufficient to warrant its continuation on network television, then make sure it continues on a cable channel instead, or at least give us a TV movie or miniseries to wrap the story up.

At the same time, I can only imagine that many viewers, having been burned by all of the cancellations, will be reluctant to commit to the next round of complex, continuous narratives that the networks present in an attempt to create the next Lost, or now Heroes. Expect a viewer revolt as a natural response to the networks' audience abuse. With online viewing and on demand services on the rise, commercial TV's days are numbered, and mark my word, the network walls will come a tumblin' down.


Anonymous said...

Every time I think of the Black Donnellys I nearly cry.

Lance Strate said...

We must try to be strong!

Anonymous said...

Hi, coming from the UK we very rarely actually get cancelations. It is usually someine like the writer who decides to stop the show. Gervais cancelled the Office. Just to piss of the nation i think. I also believe that you in the States are into your third series, were we only go two and a Christmas special.
I noticed the trend in television change when i was living in America. I am a sci-fi, trekker nut. And it was with the gradual release of the Babylon 5 series that changed the way programmes were made. This series started slowly and each episode had its own independant story. It grabbed the viewer and then introduced a back story, which then became the reson to watch it.
Deep Space Nine followed suit. Now the majority of programming tries to introduce the audience into a running series straight away. There is very little time for characters to develope relationships. RE Stargate Sg1, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Friends, ER, NYPD Blue, Sopranos. The list could go on. 24 for me was where this all became insignificant. Give a character a job and a child and a wife and then send him out on a secret mission to save the world.
The audience also needs to develope relationships with the characters, this is one thing the Networks are ging to have to start understanding. Whether it be through humour or action, we need to connect.

Like your blog.