Where Have All the Viewers Gone?

Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro have assembled a great data chart over at Vulture that compares network shows from the 2014-2015 season to their most recent 2015-2016 incarnations, and they mull over what could be causing that.

After reviewing those numbers, though, I have to admit that I’m only really depressed by how iZombie and The Last Man on Earth are declining, which suggests that the original, catchy premises simply aren’t catching on with viewers, even though the writing has improved. Moreover, it also suggests that shows that are predominantly plot-driven have nowhere to go once they burn off (or drag out) their initial mysteries. I’m tuning into The Blacklist out of respect to James Spader, not a fascination with the serial story; once you’ve heard the anachronistic banter from Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow, is there really anything else to see?

The shows with longevity, then, must be those to which viewers form an attachment to the characters/actors, such that they’re willing to forgive the plots that are simply excuses that allow us to hang out with them through the television screen. Survivor is down presumably because it’s repeating gimmicks (Beauty vs. Brain vs. Brawn 2) and on identical-seeming islands, whereas The Amazing Race keeps showing new locations, which helps to keep everything else chugging along.

Reinvention, then, is the key. Perhaps that’s why The 100 is doing better–or, then again, maybe it’s just because the base for that show was smaller to begin with, and all of these shows have a certain baseline of, say, eight million viewers that they can appeal to, assuming that they can actually reach them. It’s not just a matter of establishing an audience first; that’s helped Arrow and The Flash, but it’s done nothing for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, which suggests that writing and acting is critical, too.

Maybe the answer, then, really is in limited and/or anthology series, in which we can invest in writers and actors, but don’t have to sit through a dragged out story. As with British television, it’s a lot easier to sink into 6 to 10 episodes of a heavily serialized program than it is to slog through the standard 22 that we get for a show like Scandal. (Netflix and Amazon provide us with roughly 13 episodes at a time, but let us set our own pace.) In this way, we can have our reliable standards, but also try out new things. It’s the difference between a tasting menu and a buffet.

Another possibility might be that viewers are finally fed up of being played by networks that callously cancel their programs mid-season, without resolution, and are sticking to watching full seasons of the more critically acclaimed or buzz-worthy shows. Why run the risk of getting invested in something that won’t end, when you can wait for the Oprah Book Club equivalent–a seal of streaming approval–that gives you something to watch and talk about with friends down the road? How important, really, are the cliffhangers and watercooler conversations from the LOST era of television?

Who knows? Personally, if writers can keep up the innovation on a long-running show, I’m all for it, but there’s a reason I’m watching Sarah Gamble’s new program (The Magicians) and not her old one (Supernatural). I loved Banshee, but I also liked those characters on Justified and Hap and Leonard, so really, I’ll go wherever the script’s sharpest. I don’t think the viewers are going anywhere–I just think the bar’s been raised, which means that if you want to keep us, you can’t coast by on lazy tropes and conventions. Slyly acknowledging your telenovela roots in a meta way–I’m looking at you, Jane the Virgin–will only get you so far in this day and age.

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