A Modest Proposal For Television Premieres #tv

Many TV shows get cancelled without having the opportunity to really build their audience.Yet another television show has been cancelled after just two episodes aired; FOX’s LONE STAR, about a con man leading two separate lives, just got the axe and is one of the first casualties of the season. While I can’t comment on the quality of this particular show (I’ve been travelling for both of the weeks it was on the air), I’m yet again struck by the absurdity of the notion that a show can prove its performance in the space of 90 minutes or so of storytelling time.

In fact, this is why I don’t really watch new television shows anymore. What’s the point in getting excited when know the chance of seeing a new show make it past the initial order of six episodes is so slim? I’d rather wait till the first six or ten episodes are out – or even until the first season is complete – so that I can get a feel for whether it’s worth getting emotionally invested. Heck, it took me four years to get into MAD MEN, and then I dumped money straight off my credit card to AMC and Apple in order to be able to catch up.

Now that most of the people I know watch their television in three- and four-hour stints via Hulu.com or DVDs, or on DVR, does it even make sense for a network to try and build a following around a new show with a grand total of 90 minutes storytelling time?

Sure, broadcasting time may be at a premium, but isn’t it worth it for a show to get its initial story arc out and hook its viewers? Shows that make a splash right off the bat aren’t always capable of sustaining it, and shows that take a long, slow burn approach to gathering an audience can wind up being wildly profitable for networks in the long run (DVD sales, downloads, merchandise, etc.). Anybody who’s been around television long enough to remember “Cheers” should remember the widely-circulated opinion that had that show been held to the broadcasting standards of the late nineties – let alone the late naughties – it wouldn’t have made it past season one.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way for hundreds of thousands of people to have access to four or five episodes of a new show for a few months, generating buzz to a point where their friends and family were keen to see it? Then the network could run the episodes at off-peak times for everybody to DVR, or during slow seasons, instead of running THE BACHELOR’S THIRD REJECT PICKS A DOG, or whatever they’re on to now.

Think about it, networks:

  1. Make six episodes of an expensive TV show with high production values. (You already do this, and spend a fortune doing it.)
  2. Advertise the hell out of it (You already do this) on online channels like Facebook, build buzz on Twitter, and so on (your stars and their fans do this for you already).
  3. Broadcast an episode on terrestrial television (You already do this).

 

But here’s where the model can change. Instead of cancelling a weakly-performing show practically within minutes, how about:

  1. Upload the first six episodes (or however many you’ve already paid to make) to your website and to online broadcasters like hulu.com
  2. Let people enjoy the full story arc that your writers and producers have constructed.
  3. See if the show catches fire.

 

Instead of broadcasting episode 2 a week later (and let’s face it, in today’s 24/7 news and entertainment cycle, it takes a lot for someone to clear their schedule at the same time each week for the first couple episodes of a new show), why not upload the remaining episodes to the portion of your website that hosts streaming television? Leave them there for a month or so and see how they’re doing. Give people the chance to watch the whole story arc of the first six or eight or twelve episodes of the show – whatever you’ve already paid to make. Then, just sit back and see what happens.

If, within a few months, it becomes clear that the show is taking off, think about transferring it to television. If not, at least your viewers will have a heightened awareness of the work as a whole, and they’ll have been exposed to your brand and the brand of the people who’ve made the show.

By the time you decide whether it’s worth putting the show on the air, you’ll have a proven brigade of social marketers buzzing about the episodes; if the show is well done these internet denizens will happily wait for a few weeks to see newly produced episodes air.

This model would allow networks to minimize the time in their schedule that they’re taking a chance on, while allowing them to develop newer shows more fully – thus encouraging audiences to invest emotionally in their show before allowing it to invade their schedules. It would allow networks to get a tightly focused profile of their viewers, and perhaps even consult them as to the dates and times that they’d be able to watch the show on TV. In fact, networks would even get an idea of the size an audience might grow to, and therefore the money they can afford to put in to keep a great show afloat even longer.

Production and marketing dollars have already been spent creating these shows, and the scattershot approach favored in today’s market – throwing a bunch of pilots at the wall and seeing what sticks – seems to cut a lot of shows off at the knees. I hardly ever watch the premiere of a new show – GLEE might be the one exception to this, and then only because FOX broadcast its pilot as a “sneak preview” that allowed it to build buzz over the course of several months. It’s simply not worth my investing emotion or time into a show until I know it’s going to be around for a while.

What do you think, readers? Would you be more inclined to check out a new show early on if you knew you had a handful of episodes and a full story arc to watch? Or do you think the networks tend to make the right call when it comes to cancelling a show so quickly after its premiere? Would they be cannibalizing their own creative resources to pull something like this off, or does digitial distribution of new series offer a way for networks to minimize their risk and maximize their viewership and buzz?

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