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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Formulaic Television: The Networks’ Disturbing Trend

Article first published as Formulaic Television: The Networks’ Disturbing Trend on Blogcritics.

I regularly use the terms “serial” and “procedural” when referring to the structure of scripted television shows. If you’re someone who even occasionally reads my work, you’ll know I consider one of these a dirty word. Unfortunately, looking at the current broadcast television landscape, there seems to be a disturbing trend, which spells doom for the Big Four network TV for a very long time.

J1First, some brief definitions. A procedural drama fits each week into it a relatively rigid structure, using a signature formula to solve a case or a mystery of some kind. It’s also known as a case-of-the-week program, and is widely used in cop and lawyer shows. (In science fiction series, it’s sometimes called “monster-of-the-week). A serial sets up a longer-running story, with a continuing narrative. If you skip an episode, you may be lost about where the plot is going. This is popular among soaps (including those pretending to be heavier dramas) and genre shows, as well as the type of high-quality fare that usually wins awards. I think you can guess which of the two I like.

I do appreciate procedurals occasionally, and they can be good–especially if they give the viewers something new. Castle and Bones are both well done, and the acting and writing teams have managed to conceal the procedural skeleton so well, a casual viewer might not even recognize they’ve being re-fed the same stuff over and over. But too often, procedurals are subject to uninspired, lazy storytelling, and they can be boringly repetitive.  And the format’s severe limitations hold it back, serving an entertainment meal too bland and of little value: the fast food of the television world.

Right now, procedurals rule the primetime schedules of the Big Four – CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX. Occasionally, the networks have experimented, and some of the more successful experiments include the soapy like Grey’s Anatomy and genre hit Lost, but by and large, the the networks continue to mass produce the procedural. And they’ve suffered for it in the TV ratings game, as the Big Four have seen their numbers erode more each season.

Viewers continue to flee these broadcast networks in greater and greater numbers. Although some ratings erosion is natural (It is accepted that, as a rule, each subsequent year will have fewer viewers), the current benchmark is to avoid losing too many viewers each year to the next new thing. Forget about holding steady, let alone gaining. There are exceptions, of course, but few.

Ratings erosion is largely blamed on the number of choices currently out there, and that’s fair. With basic cable networks, including FX, USA, TNT, SyFy, MTV, AMC now producing original content along with premium networks HBO, Showtime, and Starz, and the new streaming-only kids on the block like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, the field is getting crowded. That’s not even mentioning the growing number of web series and YouTube shorts. There are, these days, a heck of a lot more choices for your television viewing enjoyment. 

House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men are among the series that people have gotten excited about, dominating social media, garnering critical acclaim and  awards show accolades. These series may never get the sort of conventional ratings the Big Four want (and need for advertisers), but they don’t have to please the advertisers–only the subscribers. It’s an advantage that an NCIS will never have.

The Big Four have been doubling down on their failed, losing model, and why not? Repetitive Procedurals get the most eyeballs, and NCIS, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, and Bones have been big winners for the broadcast networks in getting those important advertising dollars. However, the market for the the format may be shrinking, with younger viewers using new technology to seek out more relevant (and interesting) fare, and older viewers discovering that high-quality stuff is out there beyond the rabbit ears of broadcast.

The Walking Dead is a great example of this shift in viewing tastes. It is on basic cable, but pushes the boundaries of standard television fare. It’s gory and scary, but it also contains pathos and human emotion, with terrific character development and performances, and most importantly, the show makes you think. The Walking Dead is far from a procedural drama, yet, it gets more viewers than practically anything the Big Four are showing, and its audience grows every year. I’ve mentioned Game of Thrones, a soapy war of kings, that also achieves very high viewership (when you count the pirated copies that seem to be forever circulating). People are no longer content with just drivel.

Now, the best argument that can be made is that television networks care about money more than anything. Currently, the broadcast model gets the most out of commercials and ad sales, so they make more of the stuff that earns that immediate, direct income. However, this is not going to work over time. While there is still much struggle to monetize the way things are moving, there are subscription fees and other options, imperfect solutions, but not ineffective ones. Quality content can be charged for.

Over the next few years, this shift will continue, and the broadcast networks will fall further behind. Maybe they won’t even be relevant 20 years down the line. As the good stuff becomes more easily obtainable online and streaming to TVs, people won’t even consider checking out CBS, knowing they can find better elsewhere. When convenience reaches that tipping point, the Big Four will be left behind as a footnote of 20th Century entertainment.

Can the networks compete with all the cable and streaming fare? Sure. By taking the risk to produce the next Mad Men or The Walking Dead. Not all of network entertainment needs to be edgy and compelling, none of the cable nets air original programming every night in every slot. Let sports and reality and NCIS-style procedurals continue to pay the daily bills, but stop forcing Sleepy Hollow and Grimm to contort themselves to match some marketing VP’s model of “sure thing.”

At least, that’s my opinion. Feel free to add yours to the comments below.

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