21 February 2010

The Solution to All Your Prime-Time Television Problems (TM)

I thought I would do something completely different for a change. I'm a little burned out and disappointed with politics right now and most of my thinking and writing on Mormon issues goes into my own Sunday School teaching right now. So this will be something a little lighter, but, sad as it may be, still in the front of my mind.

I watch more TV than I can be proud of. It seems as if I have at least one hour-long show I watch every night of the week, except on Sunday, and most nights it is more like two or three. Of course, the advent of the DVR has made it both easier and harder to deal with this level of viewership. I am not required to schedule my life around my favorite shows and can theoretically watch an hour-long show in 40 minutes (or a half-hour show in 20, unless they are on BBC America or PBS), which makes a difference when you are watching two or three shows a night. However, those same advantages make it possible to watch two or three shows a night and still feel like there is time left over to do something else.

Even though I really do love some of these shows, from time to time I find myself wishing that they would come to some conclusion or simply be cancelled, especially those that are going on into their fifth or sixth season or beyond. Plus, I have the frustration that most of us have shared of having a really beloved program cancelled prematurely, while there was still plenty of good storytelling to be done (see Kings or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). How do we correct this imbalance and frankly, cosmic injustice? I present to you The Solution to All Your Prime-Time Television Problems (TM)*

1. No reality TV. None. This needs absolutely no explanation.

2. All new shows will be limited to four seasons. This is the linchpin of my plan. Some shows just overstay their welcome (e.g. ER, which kids were watching when I was in high school. I am now almost 30). Putting a cap on the number of seasons focuses the writers and producers on storytelling. Beginning. Middle. End. Not Beginning...Middle...Middle...Middle...uh oh we just got canceled. (e.g. Heroes). What show could not put together a complete, complex story arc within four seasons of 18-24 episodes a piece? I could probably film all the good parts of the Bible (OT and NT) in 96 hour-long episodes. That ends up being the length of about 48 feature films or almost more than you could watch if you watched one two-hour movie every week for a year. You think Lost really needed more than four seasons to tell its whole story? Three words: Nikki and Paolo. Case closed. I cannot think of a single show that has improved in its fifth, sixth, etc. season over what it was doing in its first or second. The fifth or sixth season is also prime time for the original regular (and beloved) characters to start jumping ship for the movies, another show, etc. After that, its all downhill. (e.g. X-files)

2a. All currently running shows will be grandfathered in by allowing them two seasons beyond their current one (if necessary). In my recent experience, early notification of cancellation has saved at least two shows-- Lost and Battlestar Galactica, with a possible third being Alias. Anyone who watched these shows can tell you that in the late second and third season, these shows really started to wander. They had lost their original trajectory or raison d'etre. And everybody knew it. When the producers of Lost announced that they would wrap the show up in two more seasons, the quality of the late fourth season immediately picked up. Same with BSG. The show had started to wander from the goal (Earth). While still executing science fiction on a high level, watching began to tax one's patience. The final season brought the show home (literally and figuratively), with the possible exception of that mess of an ending. Bottom line: if Lost can gather its many scattered threads in two seasons, anybody can.

2b. (Almost) all shows will be guaranteed two seasons. Four seasons is plenty to tell a great story. But some stories do not deserve to be told. Nevertheless, everybody has their favorites, even if the ratings don't justify keeping a show on for another two years. Two seasons will not be enough to satisfy some folks, but letting producers know that two seasons is their initial threshold will drive them to build and orient the story towards a possible initial deadline.

2c. The first sentence of 2b says "almost," because television executives will be allowed to cancel some truly abominable shows after one complete season. These opportunities are limited. A network gets three each season (one for every two nights of prime-time programming). A network also gets one chance to pull the plug on a show that just does not work at all before the initial season is even up.

2d. Under the above system, renewal for a second season is considered automatic as a default option until a network plays one of its four possible cancellation cards. Once a show is renewed during the second season, it can either be renewed for one or two additional seasons. The choice between one or two additional seasons is locked-in and irrevocable once made. All renewal decisions must be made before the midpoint of the season, allowing those shows that are not being picked up for any additional seasons to bring their story to a proper close. Some may think that this system will lead all executives to go for the one-season renewal every time, just to avoid the risk. This would be true, except....

2e. Like athletes, shows that are offered one season at their "home" network may opt to take a contract with another network for two seasons. As a concession, the home network can insist on the show skipping one season (coming back to that later) and not erring on its new network until the subsequent season.

What does this mean for the decision-making of a TV exec and the viewing possibilities of your average TV consumer? Knowing that the network will be locked in with almost every show (with the possible exception of four) for two seasons, judgment and decision-making will be front-loaded. Producers and writers will have to offer more up-front for networks to take a chance on their shows. Ultimately, because of costs, this means that less pilots will be produced and less shows will be given that chance to air for the first time each season, thereby decreasing the choices available to consumers. However, in the long run, this will likely mean that more shows will get the chance to air, since shows that are camping on prime timeslots for six or seven years will be cleared off the schedule promptly.

3. The year will be divided into three TV seasons: fall (beginning in August), spring (beginning in January), and summer (beginning in May/June). Shows on the major networks will either be fall or spring shows, but cannot air during both. Shows that transfer from one network to another may switch seasons, thus if a show transfers from ABC to NBC but ABC keeps it off the air for one season (fall), it may begin airing in either the spring season or the following fall season. Summer is reserved for shows on basic cable (we'll call it the Mad Men or My Boys season), vacations without your DVR, catching up on your backlog of reading, and going to the movies. Basic cable shows can also air during the fall or spring seasons. The institution of two separate and independent television seasons also adds to the total number of possible shows that can be aired by each network, also increasing viewer choice.

3a. Shows will air weekly (or more often) and consecutively. There will be no skipping weeks except for major sporting events (Olympics, World Series, March Madness) and major political happenings (SOTU, Election Night, etc.).

4. For those of you doing the math at home, you are probably thinking, "if a show has to start in August and end by the beginning of January, (or start in January and end sometime in May or June), how will you fit a 24-episode season into only 20 weeks or less?" Answer- you won't. Television seasons should shorter. A season of 24 (which is one of my favorites) feels interminable at this point. Furthermore, it only contains about 12-16 good episodes. Anyone who doubts me should go back and watch season 1, where Jack's wife Terri loses her memory and wanders around for three or four episodes. The rest is just filler. Part of what makes TV seasons seem so long is that airing 20-24 episodes, along with skipping five or six weeks (or more) along the way, means that shows last over half the year. That is a pretty heavy demand on a thread of your attention for a medium that is not known for inducing improvements in attention spans. I cannot sustain my attention on a book that I am reading in bits and pieces for longer than a month. So TV seasons will be anywhere between 16-18 episodes, which builds in some flexibility for starting later than August 1st, or for the aforementioned major sporting events.

5. Now for those of you who can still do math after my fourth point, you might be thinking "I thought he promised us 96 hours in four seasons? Now it sounds more like 72 hours, which is about three seasons worth of episodes." You got me. That was a dishonest "hook" to get you to read the rest of the post. Welcome to television.

* Before someone brings this up in the very first comment, I want to point out that I am well aware that creative issues are not the only, nor even the chief driver of what gets put on television. Advertising and network politics (hi, Jay Leno, didn't see you standing there) are more powerful influences. I openly admit that my scheme is a pipe dream and could never possibly be adopted. But tell me I'm wrong.