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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Driven from the Tube

After Tivoing the first three episodes, Heather Marie and I finally got around to watching Drive this week. It's a little uneven, but it's different, exciting, and of course Fox has already cancelled it. Yeah, after 4 episodes.

There are several related thoughts that occur to me.

First, what is it with the folks who figure out scheduling for the networks? I'm guessing that they must've skipped the parts of Art of War where Sun Tzu said to counter your enemy's weakness with your strength (or something like that). I can just imagine the meeting: "So, we've got this new show we want to introduce, when should we air it? Oh, I know! Let's put it on opposite Dancing with the Stars and Heroes!" It seems like lots of great shows have been killed prematurely by being scheduled opposite popular, established shows.

Second, has anyone ever considered starting a network (or at least cable channel) that does nothing but pick up shows Fox has cancelled? Seriously. Look at this list of 13 shows that shouldn't have been cancelled. By my count, 7 of those 13 are former Fox shows. And that doesn't even include Futurama, Family Guy, and Wonderfalls. Lots of those shows spawned devoted followings, strong DVD sales, cable syndication, and even a movie. They were not bad shows, and although I'm sure the networks would say they were cancelled because we weren't watching, I think that's like a bully telling his targets that it's their own fault they're picked on. And in a way, I guess it is, because we keep allowing ourselves to care about their shows. Going forward, what should be my incentive to invest any time or interest in future Fox shows? I'm not interested in playing Charlie Brown to Fox's Lucy.

The third thought is related to the above question: I'm sure this is really naive, but what would be the incentive for producers to try to make new shows for Fox? Seriously. Drive was the third of Tim Minear's shows that Fox killed with their rank incompetence. What would be his incentive for taking a fourth good idea to them? You'd also think that other producers would start being reluctant to take ideas to Fox after a while.

Actually, I think I can answer my own question there. My first guess is that, from the inside, there are so many shows that don't even get a pilot that getting one on the air is such a rarity that doing it at all seems like success. Frankly, I'm very thankful to not be working in an industry where success is defined as "failing slightly less than usual."

My second guess is that the pay-off for making a successful Fox show is huge, perhaps more than for any other network. That's because, if your show is successful enough to make it on Fox for a few seasons, they will keep it until it has absolutely been run into the ground (e.g. The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill....) I can see where that sort of job security could be a strong incentive.

Fox also has a reputation for being willing to take a chance on unique, quirky shows (although apparently not much of a chance, nor for very long), but I digress....

My fourth and final thought is the one that should really scare the networks: I have a lot more choices now, and they have fewer opportunities than ever to reach me. What's more, I don't even need to give them the chance.

At one time, like most people, there were shows I'd watch faithfully nearly every night of the week. Now there are only a few: Battlestar Galactica, How I Met Your Mother, The Class, Dancing with the Stars, Amazing Race, Heroes, Bones, Til Death, Psych, and Monk. That means that if you're CBS, you really only have 2 hours per week to try to entice me with a new show. If you're ABC, you only have 2-3 hours per week, and that's only when Dancing is on. NBC only gets 1 hour, and that's only when Heroes is new.

In every case, if that number reaches zero, as I suspect it is for increasing numbers of people, that network has likely lost me forever. At the very least, they'll have to depend on word of mouth to attract my attention again, so whether I ever again consume their product is largely out of their control. We're not a captive audience anymore. That should be really scary.

And what's more, I don't really need the networks much anymore. Note that many of those shows air on Sundays and Mondays. If we didn't have a DVR, in all likelihood there would be 3-4 fewer shows on that list than their are. It would already be cheaper to buy those shows a la carte from iTunes or wait for the DVDs. Just this season, we've had to watch several episodes online (legally, I might add) because we missed them when they aired. It wasn't that bad an experience, and it was very convenient.

But why wait for those things? Yes, good television is expensive, but the technical parts are getting cheaper all the time. My guesstimate is that it would already be possible to make a "real world" (i.e. not sci-fi or fantasy) show cheaply enough that you could, with the right marketing, make money by selling it directly through iTunes or by subscription on DVD. If you could get 200,000 people (a minuscule audience by TV standards) to pay $10/month to subscribe to a monthly DVD mailing or download that included 4 new episodes per disc, that would be about $500,000 per episode. Not great production money, but on a shoestring it's a workable budget.

If I were a network-abused writer/producer (especially one with an established fanbase), I'd sure be thinking about it. Total creative control and no middle man? Sounds pretty good to me.

And if I were an audience- and creator-abusing network, I'm be thinking about the same thing, but in a very different way....