With new models opening up, ‘six seasons and a movie’ may now be less likely for late-blooming shows.
What makes a truly great television show? It is certainly true that a show’s success can ultimately be its undoing, but on the other hand, an average show has a harder time in connecting with audiences for long enough to grow into something that would be more creatively successful than its popular counterparts. The network model developed in the United States (which relies heavily on advertising) suggests that a new show should get at least one season before the network decides if it is profitable enough for a second. Sometimes a show is so popular its continuation is all but assured, but in most cases a new programme struggles to stay on the air.
During the Writers’ Strike, many new shows were yanked from the schedule before half of their episodes could even air
However, if an average show can stay on the air long enough, it may find itself evolving beyond its original conceit into something even more special than its creators anticipated, and become either a rousing success or a cult hit. Now, subscription and online services are shifting focus away from dependency on advertising, to a more direct engagement with audiences which allows a show at least two seasons before it might be cancelled. But is there actually a fundamental difference between these models?
Breaking Bad is rightly considered one of those watershed moments in television, yet this era-defining show had average beginnings. Debuting in 2008 around the same time as the 07/08 Writers’ Strike, this fledgling show’s first season was cut short to only eight episodes. Looking back, the show demonstrates great promise, but feels almost quaint compared to the pulp powerhouse it became in its final years. Being a cable show, Breaking Bad had a good chance of surviving, and thankfully it did, but if it were on a free-to-air network it may have fallen victim to the Writers’ Strike, where many new shows were yanked from the schedule before half of their episodes could even air. Networks cut their losses rather than take a risk on an unknown entity. Imagine a world without Breaking Bad. Scary, isn’t it?
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to network television. Again in 2008, JJ Abrams’ Fringe debuted on the Fox network. Considered to be a knock-off of The X-Files, the show had an interesting premise but fairly uninspiring execution. The show was given a chance at a second season and, seeing the writing on the wall, the creators expanded on the show’s central mystery; by the end of the season, the show had not only come into its own as an original take on the paranormal procedural, but had developed a promising fanbase. Fox, having made so much money on advertising revenue from reality shows, found they could support this cult hit for three more seasons, allowing the show to end on their own terms and become a classic science fiction series in its own right.
Shows may need to arrive fully formed to satiate growing demand, without the chance to start simply and evolve into something great
Conversely, subscription networks aren’t necessarily television utopias. While they are not beholden to advertisers for their revenue, good ratings still affect a show’s success, as they result in more subscriptions. Shows like True Blood and Dexter can last seven or eight seasons, well beyond what their central conceits could sustain, while better shows end up on the scrap heap. Bored to Death, the laidback comedy starring Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis, was only just hitting its stride when it was pulled by HBO. It lasted three seasons, but really didn’t start to click until its final year, when the show’s stoner-noir elements really began to coalesce.
On the other hand, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which had an extremely rough first season, blossomed at FX to become one of the longest running comedies of all time. It’s so far completed nine seasons, and there are more planned for the future – it is the quintessential example of a TV show that has been allowed to evolve from very modest beginnings to become a dominating success.
The days of the network and cable models are most certainly numbered – the rise of online services is changing the way we view content, but the few differences between them means online services are really just a variation on a theme. Perhaps with this move toward a more exclusive consumption of online content, TV shows will need to spring out of the ether fully formed to satiate this growing demand, and won’t get the chance to start simply and evolve into something truly great. If that is case, gone will be the days where we can tune in every week and watch a show evolve in front of our eyes, as storylines are dropped, characters are killed off and the writers hone their craft. Instead we may find ourselves in a wasteland of one season wonders and disposable pilots. Scary, isn’t it?
Featured image: Fox
Inset image: AMC