The one thing that the 2011-2012 television season will be best remembered for is: it was the year that more of the new shows will be canceled than were picked up for a second season.
Viewers have shown that they are not just unwilling to check out new TV shows, they are unwilling to stick around beyond an episode or two. This may be a pattern that is typical of television viewers, but never before has it been so prevalent across the television landscape. Viewers just shrugged their shoulders and kept watching their “tried-and-true” shows or opted to check out fare off-network. This has left the “Big 5” networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and The CW) scrambling to figure out how to attract viewers. If the 2011-2012 season’s shotgun approach to trying to find anything that would lure viewers did not work, what could the 2012-2013 season hope to offer that the previous year did not?
Television programming is not an exact-science. In fact, it is equivalent to picking lottery numbers. It is a guessing-game — and one that costs program executives and other “suits” working at the networks their jobs each year. Guess wrong and the network loses hundreds of millions of dollars; guess correctly and the profits can be unimaginable.
The Fall 2011 season heralded the likes of PERSON OF INTEREST, ONCE UPON A TIME, REVENGE, GRIMM, and NEW GIRL. But these were just the few among the many. Shows like CHARLIE’S ANGELS, FREE AGENTS, PRIME SUSPECT and THE PLAYBOY CLUB were barely blips on the radar. Other shows like TERRA NOVA, RINGER, PAN AM and A GIFTED MAN limped through the season, but never really attracted the high number of viewers each needed to survive. And the mid-season has yet to really launch any big successes, with shows like ALCATRAZ, THE FINDER, AWAKE, SMASH, THE FIRM, GCB, and THE RIVER all struggling to pull in enough viewers to get beyond the spring season. (Note: It is too soon to tell with newcomers TOUCH, SCANDAL and MISSING.) Even the thought-to-be ratings-bullet-proof THE X FACTOR was just okay in the ratings.
So what happened? Horror of all horrors, viewers turned the channel. As previously discussed in “The Collapse of Primetime Television: Where Are Television Shows Going Wrong”, viewers turned the channel and found off-network channels to watch and discovered the joys of shows like THE WALKING DEAD, DOWNTON ABBEY, LUTHER, JUSTIFIED and SWITCHED AT BIRTH. Viewers sent a loud message to the “Big 5” networks: “We’re bored.”
Viewers saw THE X FACTOR as a pale imitation of AMERICAN IDOL – despite the fact that Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul were helming the new series (or perhaps that is wherein the confusion lay). They also cringed upon first sight of shows like CHARLIE’S ANGELS and PRIME SUSPECT, which were much poor versions of the original series they were intended to emulate. And, as for shows like RINGER and THE SECRET CIRCLE, viewers were not tricked into believing that these shows were anything like the shows they were supposed to remind them of: RINGER is nothing like BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and fans of Sarah Michelle Gellar did not understand why she wasn’t pummeling these evil men to the ground; nor did they see any similarities between the uber-hot series THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and THE SECRET CIRCLE (after all THE SECRET CIRCLE had the audacity to kill off their “hunk” factor in the first 5 episodes!). Viewers were not fooled and they did not like being played for fools either.
Interestingly, they embraced fantasy series in a way that was unprecedented. ONCE UPON A TIME and GRIMM are both premised on modern day fairytales, and viewers ate it up. They also happily checked in and stuck with the “revenge fantasy” series REVENGE and the modern “superhero” series PERSON OF INTEREST. Riskier fare thrived. (Side-note: Another reason, I’m still bitter — LOCKE & KEY did not make it onto the 2011-2012 schedule. This was its year – it would have fit in perfectly. Such a loss.)
So with only a handful of shows having secured an audience, there is a high likelihood that the “Big 5” networks will opt to clean-house and cut their losses. This is not the time to nurture new shows and give them time to grow. Viewers that were unwilling to tune in initially are rarely wooed to check out a show that has already been on the air for a season.
Just look at COUGAR TOWN – all the exclusive cast parties and special enticements were never going to convince viewers that a show that started out as being about older women chasing younger men, had changed its entire premise to be a show about funny neighbors bonding while pulling pranks on each other. In the viewer’s mind, a TV show doesn’t change “it’s spots.” Which is a shame that viewers are so narrow-minded and unwilling to sample shows, because in COUGAR TOWN’s case, its metamorphosis created a truly funny, charming show that more television viewers would probably have loved had they given it a chance.
First impressions are critical in Hollywood. The wrong hair-color can cost an actress a job or an entire career. Good examples are Gillian Anderson and Lauren Holly who both dyed their naturally luscious blonde hair to vibrant red to land roles that launched their careers. The same holds true with television shows. You only have one shot at making a good impression.
That is the goal of “pilot” season in Hollywood. Tens of millions of dollars are spent on a pilot episode of a new TV series in hope of striking gold. Each and every show has the potential to be the next FRIENDS, SEINFELD, THE WEST WING or ER. Networks are desperate to find shows that will run multiple seasons and rake in gazillions of dollars in advertising dollars. The thought is that the longer a show is on the air, the higher its commercial air-time can be sold for – well, so long as it is a hit. But then, if the show is not a solid hit or performer, it won’t be picked up. Even the former Emmy-winning series HOUSE got its pink-slip this year. It fell beneath the dreaded 7 million viewer mark and Fox had to make the hard decision that the show was no longer viable. It was not pulling in the eyeballs needed to keep it above the profit margin. (FRINGE, are you listening?!)
So what does this all mean: it’s going to be a bloodbath over the next few months. With pilot season well underway, the buzz is already building. There is going to be a healthy crop of new shows chomping at the bit to take over for underperforming current TV shows.
What’s going to be on the “Big 5’s” Hit List? You might be surprised. A lot of the shows you watch are going to be on the list. Why? Because you are the minority, one of the stalwart few who stuck by your show through the thick-and-thin, or because you were willing to give a new show a chance, but you were one of the very few. (And trust me, if you are reading this article, you are definitely amongst the few. You are a thinking television viewer who gives shows a chance and who is loyal to stand by your show no matter when or where it gets moved to.)
Dare we speculate on what shows are going to be canceled? New shows like ALCATRAZ, THE FINDER, I HATE MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER, AWAKE, THE RIVER, PAN AM, A GIFTED MAN, GCB, and THE FIRM are in the cross-hairs. Older shows like FRINGE, BODY OF PROOF, COUGAR TOWN, CSI: NEW YORK, NIKITA, THE SECRET CIRCLE, RAISING HOPE, PRIVATE PRACTICE, and HARRY’S LAW are also looking like they may be venturing towards “pink slips.”
With viewers flocking in record numbers to shows about a zombie-apocalypse and class struggles of the English elite, the taste and preferences of television viewers is clearly changing. It would be foolish for the “Big 5” networks to fail to see that they need to venture outside-the-box and find new shows that will capture the imaginations of viewers and lure them back. If they don’t, they are essentially conceding that they have lost their dominate position in delivering to advertisers the bulk of American television viewers. If they cannot deliver that, then they will teeter towards financial ruin and oblivion. The “bloodletting” must begin.
It will be painful and viewers and fans will wail and cry for last minute attempts to save their shows. But really, it’s too late. Now we can only prepare for the worst and get ready to welcome the new shows for the Fall 2012-2013 season. Without change, things will only become more stagnant. It is time to cut losses and allow for new growth.
Let the reaping season begin!