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A Television Primer for the Fall Season

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2009 24 Sep
A Television Primer for the Fall Season

In economic hard times, any entertainment that comes to your home looks like a better bargain than the cost of going to movie theaters or other more costly recreation. As the fall season of new and returning TV shows rolls out, let's take a quick survey of the television landscape and examine the sometimes surprising reasons we get offered the shows we do and why.

Follow the Money

To understand anything in the business of mass media, you must remember that everything is expensive and the goal of programming is profits—not  entertainment or creativity—which are simply possible means to profits, if they get an audience.  Obviously the lack of creativity, evidenced in many popular shows, is also a means of profit for networks.  For advertisers and network executives, programming is important only as a way to draw eyes to ads—which is why they hate Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), those pesky boxes, like TiVo, which allow viewers to skip through commercials or record programs for later viewing.  This scandalous innovation is a breach of the unwritten agreement that the audiences "pays" for their free programs by staying put on the couch to watch the commercials.

But other factors have upset broadcast networks once dominant control of television.  Decades ago, the "big three" broadcasters, CBS, NBC, and ABC held over 90% of the home audience.  So dividing most viewers between just three slices of the pie meant all audiences were bigger.  But lo, the dark times began when two challengers arose and now the share is just above 50%.  First, the growth of cable channels in the 1980s began to drain viewers away from broadcast networks offering both more programming variety and more individualized types of content, such as Lifetime ("television for women.") and the Cartoon Network.  This move from broad to narrow casting meant the decline of the "mass" in media as the audience was distributed along a far greater number of viewing options.

The other big audience-stealing option arose with the coming of home video, first in the form of videocassette recorders which freed us from the leash of network schedules and allowed us to watch Hollywood films in their entirety, without commercials, at our convenience.  Now that we've gone digital, first with DVDs and now with startlingly clear Blu-Ray discs to view on our widescreen hi-def monitors, there are more ways to not watch network shows than ever.  (And let's not even start on video games as another way to use your television set.)

After seeing their audiences shrink for a generation, along comes the recession and advertisers have spent far less for over a year now and thus, the profits for all television are down.

The schedule-based TV-viewing habit is also challenged by alternate viewing digital technologies like iTunes, YouTube, and DVD releases of television episodes.  Though these may be revenue generating, the basic broadcast business model, based on advertising is collapsing.

And all those cable channels have become very competitive with the once dominant networks, with popular shows like USA Network's Monk, TNT's The Closer providing traditional network entertainment, and edgier dramas like AMC's Mad Men winning critical praise and awards once reserved for broadcasters.  Plus, because cable channels are lightly policed by the FCC, so they can have family-unfriendly content that networks just can't compete with.

The Ratings Game

Not only have network audiences shrunk, but not all viewers are as desired as others by advertisers.  In fact the term "mass audience" is the exception to today's niche audiences; it takes a Super Bowl or American Idol to reach the 25 million plus number of viewers that were routine in the early 1980s.  And for years, advertisers have valued young, urban viewers with disposable incomes and unfixed brand choices over anyone aged under 18 and over 49 years. The younger ones have less income and the older ones have apparently decided forever their product choices and are persuasion proof, despite the huge cohort of Baby Boomers now firmly in middle age.  Also, those living in small towns or rural areas are less desirable—take that Middle America!  

Why You See What You See

Television is occasionally very creative but every time a really original idea comes along, the next season we'll see attempts at replicating that innovation.  As old-time radio comedian Fred Allen once said, "Television is the sincerest form of imitation."  Thus we have Law & Order which begat its Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent spinoffs and CSI which begat its Miami and New York clones, and for that matter inspired another procedural,  NCIS (spun off from JAG) which this season is spinning off NCIS: Los Angeles, oh my. 

The derivatives continue: Without Lost's mega-mysterious island plotlines, we wouldn't have last year's Fringe or this season's Flash Forward, both of which deal with long-term story arcs resulting from and /or heading toward seeming catastrophes.  And that coveted young adult demographic even has a whole network dedicated to sex and angst, the CW, home of Gossip Girl, the revived 90210 and now, the re-launched Melrose Place.  And so as not to miss out on the vampire bandwagon, CW is also bringing us The Vampire Diaries.  It's all practically incestuous—but it's safer than being original.

It's difficult to launch and sustain support for such complex narratives so, networks lean heavily on no narratives at all. Thus we get more cheap to produce and easily cast reality programming like The Biggest Loser.  Or, in a move that may be either a famous or infamous milestone in network programming history, NBC gave up on attempting to compete with the other networks in successful 10pm dramas and is putting The Jay Leno Show in every weeknight because it's cheaper to do one old-fashioned variety show all week than five scripted conventional dramas.

These factors are some of the main shapers of what you will—or won't see on television.  But stay tuned.  We hope to bring your attention to programs that might be worth your attention as we review what's out there this year.

Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  He is a regular contributor to