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Speaking of TV: Oh please, please, don't abandon the scripted drama!

Speaking of TV: Oh please, please, don’t abandon the scripted drama!

So I go and praise TV and immediately I hear on NPR a story about how NBC is failing and considering cutting scripted dramas. How sick is it that 8 million viewers (the number that Studio 60 got this week) might not be enough to keep the show on the air? You’d think that 8 million people plus critical acclaim would count for enough to keep trying for a while…

Not that they’ve decided to cut Studio 60 yet and not that it would be the end of the world if they did, excited for it’s potential as I am. What I’m more worried about is a general backlash against scripted dramas. The ones with plots that continue from week to week in favor of more procedurals (like we really need another procedural mystery show), game-shows and, yup, reality TV. In fact that was exactly what the analysts seemed to be suggesting. Sure continuing plots require committment from viewers, and certainly I don’t understand how some people dip in and out of them and expect to get anything but frustration out of the experience1 (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that they just couldn’t get into a show after watching three or four episodes separated by weeks).2

What I don’t understand is why the networks don’t leverage their investments better. Here’s what I see as a better way to handle the too common problem of the critically acclaimed and unwatched show: How about instead of canceling it, you ship it off to one of your cable channels—you know the one that’s running a made for TV movie five times tonight—where the kind of numbers you’ve been getting would be excellent. Sure you’ll loose a bunch more because of people who don’t watch cable, but you’ll also get a chance build up some more press and acclaim. If it starts doing really well, maybe you can try bringing it back to the network. Otherwise, maybe it’ll grow enough to become a decent cable hit. Either way, I still get to watch, and, worst case, fine, now you cancel it, but not before you’ve run a good publicity campaign for the DVD boxed set.

Problem is that shows like these take time to build audiences. Time that I’m sure costs lots of money to the networks. But this is a very unique form. There isn’t any other place you can tell stories with the scope that serialized dramas can. I’m sure it’s no mistake that the novel as an art form developed from the mass market serialized drama of the day. It’d have been a real shame if they cancelled Dickens because they needed to save cost on paper and replaced him with a weekly list of amusing maxims or something.

The good news in all of this is that aparantly I picked a popular one this year. Heroes seems to be doing quite well, and personally I think it’s one of the best new shows, but I’ll save that for a Fall TV roundup I’ve been planning.

1 Personally I go the opposite direction, preferring to hoard shows on the TiVo and watch a bunch at once or to rent boxed sets a season at a time. That way instead of watching one episode each of three or four shows in a week, I might watch several episodes of a single show one week and several of another the next. Except, of course, I obviously don’t have the restraint to do this for shows like Battlestar Galactica. But the only way to watch 24, for instance, is in bursts of four episodes. It takes at least 3/4 of an episode to get into it, and if you watch much more than four at once it’d get irritating.

2 I’m not saying that it’s a problem if you don’t like this kind of show, or that all shows on TV should be like this, just that in a world that’s been dominated by procedurals, sitcoms, and fluffy game shows, I’d like there to be some continued room for the things that I like.

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