Alan Sepinwall laments that the sheer quality and quantity of scripted television shows being made makes it nearly impossible for television lovers to watch it all.
In 2002 — the year “The Shield” debuted on FX — there were actually 28 original scripted dramas on premium and basic cable (some of it famous stuff like “The Wire” and “Monk,” some of it long-forgotten like “Falcon Beach” and “Breaking News”) and 6 original comedies. In 2007, there were 42 original dramas and 17 comedies. By last year, that number had ballooned to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And in the first four months of 2013 alone, there have been 34 dramas and 19 comedies. And that’s on top of everything that ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and the CW are doing. That pace will slow down somewhat as we shift into summer, but I’d still expect 2013 to top the 2012 numbers, and to keep rising. Netflix is making its own original shows now, and releasing all the episodes at once. Amazon has pilots in development. The amount of television expanding, but so is our definition of what counts as “television.”
As a fan of scripted TV, I’m excited anytime a new player (say, History with “Vikings”) enters the arena, since I’ve seen what’s happened to the medium in general when the likes of HBO, FX and AMC have done it. But I’m really losing my ability to keep up with it all.
This is problematic for several reasons.
- Shows need more time: Good television shows aren’t given the leeway to survive a rocky creative start or even find an audience. We lament the loss of good shows like ‘Firefly’ or ‘Terriers’ that were never given a chance to survive but beloved shows from yesteryear like ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ were created during an era where low-ratings and a bad first season weren’t an absolute reason to cancel them.
- The ratings system still sucks: Although it’s slowly evolving, shows are still evaluated on the antiquated ratings systems and still judged using the barometer when there were only a handful of channels showing scripted TV. Just because ‘Parks and Recreation’ doesn’t get the same ratings as ‘Seinfeld’ doesn’t mean it should be cancelled. And that speaks to the first point about shows not being given the opportunity to find their groove.
- Shows require slavish devotion: Most shows are now serialized, which means you can’t just skip a few episodes and swing back around a few episodes later. You have to watch all previous episodes to have a true understanding of the show’s story. That can be tedious. It also prevents many people from even giving a show a chance. I don’t want to invest emotional energy into a show until I know it might last a season and not be cancelled. This is more of a problem for the networks since most cable outlets green light shows for an entire season before airing them.
This is a good problem to have, in my opinion. Television has become the serialized literature of our time and a few simple tweaks could help alleviate some of the problem with discovering, watching, and getting hooked into a show. There is no solution for not having enough time, but the idea would be to give more shows a chance to find a niche. To get a second or third season. This plan would help the networks be relevant again.
How to Save Your Network
Every season should be limited to 10-13 episodes even if they are on a broadcast network. This would eliminate reruns and shows having long stretches of no new episodes to broadcast and make the quality of that show more on par with premium and basic cable. Plus, as a side effect of this, networks could even move to three distinct yearly television seasons comprised of four month stretches: January – April, May – August, September – December.
Figure out that some shows — like reality TV or competition shows — are perfectly intended to carry over throughout the year. This means each season would focus on promoting just a few sitcoms, a few mindless procedurals, a guilty pleasure or two, and a prestige drama.
Also, understanding technology would be a big boost. Stop fighting the Hulu’s of the world and make that technology work for you. Address the ratings issue to get a true understanding of a show’s audience. Sure, 5 million people watch ‘Game of Thrones’ every Sunday, but then another 5-10 million illegally down load it. Would those people pay a dollar or two to download the episode at the same time it airs? Probably. But it also goes to show that a show’s true audience could be two to three times larger than ratings suggest when factoring in illegal downloads, DVR, and Internet streams.
Experiment. What the fuck do you have to lose by stepping outside the box? Why are shows still broadcast in 30 minute and 60 minute blocks? Why do we still show two sitcoms and two dramas every night on the networks? Take inspiration from the Internet and try a panoply of different types of content to see what sticks. Maybe air live sports one night or movie re-runs, etc. All the rules for how TV was packaged that was established in the 1960s should be thrown out the window.
Of course, none of those solutions actually helps with the problem Sepinwall is having and to be sure, it would probably just make things worse. But, it might help make the networks relevant again.