The Fall TV Season and the Future of TV

November 16th, 2006 | Posted in General

As I’ve mentioned numerous times in this space, I don’t watch much TV just for myself. I was talking on the phone with MAD art director Sam Viviano the other day, and I reminded him of this.

“Sam,” I said. “You know how when you call me to ask if I’ve ever watched such-and-such a show just before you tell me I’m going to be doing the art for it’s parody and I always say, ‘no… never seen it’?”

“Yes….?” He replied, suspiciously.

“Well, I won’t give you that answer if you ask me if I’ve ever watched Heroes,” I continued.

“You and everybody else!” Sam exclaimed.

The only parody I’ve ever requested to work on was Batman Begins, for obvious reasons. I did mention that I’d love to do one of the Lord of the Rings movies, but I was just expressing interest. I certainly wasn’t crushed when Hermann Mejia got the call on those films (he did a stunning job on them, as he does on everything). I wasn’t asking to do the art for any Heroes parody MAD might do, but I would be happy if it happened. That one would be fun. I just wanted Sam to know that I was familiar with the show, but apparently he’s heard that already from who knows how many freelancers. This show is one of a surprising few hits this season.

I read an article recently about the sluggishness of many of the fall TV shows that premiered to great hype and expectations, and have either fallen on their faces or met with very mediocre ratings and interest. In general the crop of new shows on TV this fall have been praised for being strong, quality shows with real substance. Yet many of them have already bit the dust and been cancelled. Typically the networks order 13 episodes of a new series in the spring, and then if they have strong ratings and performance they purchase a further nine episodes to complete a season. Already shows like Kidnapped, Vanished and Six Degrees are gone or going, and The Nine and Friday Night Lights are on the brink. These were considered creatively strong shows, but viewer interest has been poor or mediocre at best. Even some shows that have been ‘picked up’ for the rest of the season are not exactly ruling the ratings in their time slots. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Men in Trees started strong but have lost significant viewers as the season progressed, yet they were both picked up by their networks in an effort to be patient and allow them to catch on. Heroes and Ugly Betty are two exceptions, and Jericho on CBS has had a cult-like sleeper success to it.

Why the mediocre response to what critics are considering one of the strongest TV season line-up in years? As a viewer the answer seems obvious to me… networks have too many heavily serialized dramas on their menu. These kinds of shows demand constant viewership and loyalty to keep up with the plots and storylines. There seem to be few shows on TV these days where self contained stories are the rule, even when worked around longer multi-episode plots. Grey’s Anatomy and House are examples of two of those, where even though there are storylines that are ongoing each episode also usually involves some story that begins and ends within the hour of each episode. Not so most of the new series this season. They require big commitments from their viewers. Likely this trend stems from the mega-success of shows like 24 and Lost.

Even though perhaps many of these new shows are as good as their hype, I think viewers easily get maxed out on how many of the super-serials they can handle at one time. I personally am stretched with trying to follow both Lost and Heroes, and have no interest in a third serial like The Nine, even though it is led in by Heroes on NBC. Another problem is that these shows require that you start from episode one and miss none of them, or you get derailed and can’t follow along. That is probably as good an explanation as any for the 50% drop off in viewership many of these super-serials have experienced since their premieres. If you miss an episode it becomes a chore to catch a repeat or get caught up via shows you’ve recorded. Do many people have that kind of free time on their hands? It’s also a task to make sure you have those episodes on tape or DVR so you can get caught up, if you do have the time to do so. Perhaps as on-demand cable and resources like iTunes get more prevalent and sophisticated, it will become easier to do so. The networks would be doing themselves a favor by making that easier for people. I know they had a three episode “catch up” marathon of Heroes already this season… perhaps shows like The Nine, Vanished or similar can figure out how to allow viewers who did not jump on board on Day One to get up to speed with the show. Lost has done a few “compilation” episodes where they show key scenes allowing viewers to get on board with the major plot points. Personally I don’t think that will matter… I am of the belief that the average TV viewer can only handle a few of these shows on their menus and just can’t take on more even if the way is opened for them to jump on the train mid-season.

I can tell you that I’d not be watching Heroes without TiVo and more importantly iTunes. The ability to download and watch these shows at my leisure is the key (paying for them sucks, but it’ s reasonable for the tradeoff of convenience and commercial-free viewing). I watched two episodes on my iPod on the airplane this weekend.??ᬨ‚Ć Last night I finally got an hour free to see the last episode I had TiVoed. I set the TiVo to record the show from the network’s HD channel. Unfortunately there must have been some weather issues that night, and the episode was so choppy and broken up as to be unwatchable. I would have been screwed, but instead I went into my studio, downloaded the episode and watched it on my iPod.

Honestly, this is the future of TV and media in your home. The ability to download shows on-demand and watch them anytime you want is so convenient and easy, the marketplace will demand it until every show is available like that. TiVo and DVRs were a step in that direction years ago, but they still require you to plan ahead and set them to record, plus they have limited capacity and recording multiple shows at the same time requires multiple inputs and/or DVRs. Plus you are stuck watching them on the TV the DVR is hooked to, unless you are technologically savvy (ie. geeky)??ᬨ‚Ć enough to have your DVR set up on your home network so you can transfer it to your computer or burn it to a DVD. No, on-demand video is the wave of the future. Once they figure out how to keep advertising revenue coming in with these downloaded shows, and broadband internet speeds become fast enough to allow the download of shows in full HD quality, it will be a no brainer.

I have finally seen all the episodes of Heroes thus far, and plan to blog soon about the show. I can’t help but compare it to Lost, and will probably examine the differences and similarities between them as well. In the meantime, maybe I should lobby Sam and the MAD gang for the assignment… if the show gets any better I just might be tempted to do that. I sent MAD editor John Ficarra a picture of me in the Batsuit to convince him I was a big enough Batman geek to be good for the movie job. I don’t think me in a Hiro Nagasaki outfit will have the same effect.

Comments

  1. Matt. says:

    I like heroes, but for some reason it doesn’t keep me interested.

  2. mengblom says:

    Tom-

    I look forward to your thoughts on the series thus far. I’m really enjoying it, as is my family. Any characters standing out as favorites yet?

    I’d have to say my favorite character (on the basis of the acting and the mystery involved) is the mind-reading cop (still not familiar with all the first names yet). I’m also getting to like the dad of the cheerleader, since he’s shaping up to be quite a bit more morally complex than I initially thought he’d be.

    All around, some fantastic acting and a fairly quick-moving pace. Let’s hope that continues as it reaches well-deserved “hit TV show” status.

  3. Keelan says:

    Tom,
    Forget the Hiro costume. Barbie said you’d look much cuter in a cheerleader outift.

  4. Tom says:

    Mark- I’d say I am most intrigued by Hiro. I htought it was goofy that the “hero” with the most power would be a geeky, silly guy like that. Then came the scene in the subway with ‘future bad-ass Hiro’…. more on that later!

    Keelan- If I keep on eating foie gras like I did Paris, I’ll at least have the man-boobs to fill out that cheerleader outfit. Take THAT, Barbie…

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