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Patience Is A Virtue: Is Conventional TV Worth Saving?

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Television actors are really nice people. Every day, they come to my home, shrink themselves down to doll size, and perform their mini-theater plays right in my living room. They are even kind enough to bring their own sets, props, and costumes. I hear they do the same thing for millions of other people; nevertheless, I feel no less special and privileged.

For a lot of people, TV is a form of cheap entertainment and a good excuse to put their feet up in a recliner, while munching on chips and swilling beer. To me, though, it is a form of art – or mini-theater. Instead of going to an actual theater, decked out in my Sunday best, or recreating the crammed-sardine feeling of an airplane in a movie theater, but with much stickier floors and seats, I like to enjoy this particular art form from home – in full affirmation of what was once known as cocooning.

The "plays" performed inside my little box are often no less captivating and literarily challenging than those on Broadway, and they come in digestible portions of 30, 60, and sometimes 120 minutes. But the best part of it is that, thanks to DVRs and similar newfangled technology, I can assume the role of director and call "cut" any time I feel like it. And if I really want to live it up, I can make those actors go faster or speed up the time set aside for the intermissions.

Unfortunately, the very gadget that allows me to do all these things is what has prompted TV networks and executives to predict the imminent death of television – at least of television as we know it. You see, when millions of viewers use their DVRs, TiVos, etc., to avoid commercials, the networks lose out on the valuable eyeballs that are supposed to be riveted to their advertisers' and sponsors' product promotions. Not a sustainable model, many TV insiders wail.

Adding to the problem of declining advertising revenue and ratings, most TV shows can be bought on DVD just before the next season starts. Those who have not figured out how to work a DVR or TiVo, therefore, exercise patience and figure they will simply wait for the DVD to come out. Then, they watch an entire season's worth of their favorite show in single weekend.

The TV networks curse the day DVRs and DVDs were invented, and hold them directly responsible for their problems. That so many TV addicts have flocked to recording-made-simple gadgets or DVDs, however, is merely a symptom, but not the actual cause of conventional TV's decline. Clearly, there is something that keeps pushing more and more people away and straight to broadband downloads, DVDs, TiVos or video-on-demand and cable channels.

In the golden age of television, networks would produce about 39 weeks of original episodes, instead of today's 22. Back then, viewers actually got their money's worth, because they were not forced to sit through too many reruns, and, more importantly, their shows were not constantly shuffled around the schedule the way they are today.

In fact, not too long ago, television was "by appointment". People knew where and when to find their favorite shows, and they would all "meet" in front of their TVs, collectively, and then discuss whatever show they were watching around the water cooler the next day. Dallas was such "by-appointment television" (Fridays at 10pm). If Dallas were still on the air today, though, viewers would have a hard time finding it on the dial: one week, it would be on at 10pm on a Friday, then be shifted to, say, 8pm, only to end up on Tuesdays at 9pm for several weeks. This would be followed by an unexpected hiatus of three, maybe four, weeks, and then the show would reappear in its brand new timeslot of Mondays at 10pm.

This, essentially, is what is being done to almost all shows on all networks today. Viewers start watching a new show, but then "lose" it, because the network keeps playing peek-a-boo with them.

Also, during the golden years of television, network executives had a lot more patience. Even if a show did not quite perform as well as had been expected, they stuck it out and, if things really got too bad, canceled it at the end of the season. Today, however, a new show can be axed as early as a few minutes after its debut broadcast. Before long, viewers will tune in to a new show and, following the first commercial break, see a screen that says, "Unfortunately, viewer response during the first segment of this show has been unsatisfactory, which is why we have had to cancel it effective immediately. We will now fill the remaining 23 minutes of this broadcast with the national anthem on a loop."

Here is a newsflash for TV execs: When a show does not do well in a certain timeslot, it will do equally badly at a different time. Moving the show around the schedule and trying it out on various days and times, hammocking it between so-called hit shows, will only make audiences dwindle even faster.

Patience is a virtue, so the saying goes, and in TV land, ignorance of this time-honored rule is the real cause of the incipient demise of traditional TV. If a show does not meet its target, either remove it immediately or give it time to grow – networks might be surprised to find out what a bit of TLC can do. But by all means, stop aggravating viewers by sending them on a wild goose chase in search of their shows. If viewers are sufficiently angered by such incomprehensible castling, they will take it out on other shows on the same network, and suddenly the network may find itself in last place in the ratings.

Some shows are instant hits, but they are as rare as top-winning scratch cards that claim that all and sundry can be an instant winner. Most of what we see on TV is an acquired taste. At first, a new show may look like a real dud, but then, often several weeks into a new season, something clicks and a connection has been established. Unfortunately, by then, the network usually has already sent in its "contract killers", and the hapless viewer is left with nothing more than the chalk outline where the show used to be. This may not drive the viewer to drink, but it will certainly make it easier for him or her to switch to cable, the Internet or DVDs.

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About Werner Patels

  • Baronius

    Good article. You’re right that the networks’ season is shorter, but also the individual shows are shorter. We viewers used to sit still, or go get a sandwich, during a 1-minute commercial break. Give us 4-minute breaks, and we’ll pay money for devices that fast forward past them.

    Network impatience is a problem, like you said. It has a secondary effect that networks don’t think about. If the viewers hear that a show has no “buzz” or low ratings, they won’t bother watching it, because they know it’s going off the air soon. That kills shows with long story arcs. Network support for weak starters like Veronica Mars is rare. Instead you get shows like Kidnapped being cancelled quickly. It makes the viewer less likely to even bother with a first-season show.

  • Ruvy

    You wrote a good piece, Werner, but the boys in TV land don’t want to know.

    From the looks of things, they don’t give a damn anymore. Considering the load of junk they have called “entertainment” over the last two decades, it’s no surprise that viewers are voting with their fingers, being willing to pay a one time fee for the luxury of not having to sit through reruns and commercials.

    Dig it. My kids get to watch Smallville once weekly – and we don’t even own a TV!! And I never even buy the episodes!!