A dramatic decline for network dramas
James Wong knew he was in trouble when his own daughter turned on him.
The co-executive producer of “The Event,” an NBC drama about the repercussions of a government cover-up of an alien landing, was watching an episode with his daughter, Taylor, when she yelled in frustration about all the flashbacks the show employed to tell its story.
“She stormed out of the room and never watched the show again,” Wong said, laughing.
Taylor wasn’t alone. Many tired of having to pay such close attention to all the plot twists in “The Event.” “I kept hearing, ‘After a hard day’s work I don’t want to have to think,’” Wong said. The show premiered to almost 11 million viewers, but this week’s episode had less than half that audience, and “The Event” probably won’t make it to a Season 2.
The sci-fi show wasn’t the only new drama to struggle this season. In fact, of the 22 dramas that have premiered on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW, only five are likely to make it to a sophomore year.
Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don’t just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.
“Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs,” said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery “Castle.” “If you don’t capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don’t have a chance.”
Indeed, research conducted in 2009 by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design backs up the theory of the distracted viewer. According to the center, about 20% of television watchers are also playing with computers or other media at the same time. And that study was conducted before the iPad was released and the iPhone really took off. The figure is certainly higher now, said Michael Holmes, the center’s director of insight and research.
If a computer or iPad is on, the television quickly becomes “the second most important screen in the room” Holmes said. “The Internet is a very engaging, interactive medium, so your attention is on that and the television recedes into the background.”
The challenge has forced producers to become even more creative in trying to keep viewers engaged. Robert and Michelle King, the married co-creators of CBS’s “The Good Wife” go with the hostage approach. Typically, “The Good Wife” runs at least eight minutes before the opening credits and a commercial break, much longer than most shows. Last week’s opening act ran 15 minutes.
“When do you want to let people have a bathroom break, one minute into telling them the story or 15 minutes?,” said Robert King, who added that the goal is to “get the viewer pregnant with the premise of that episode.”
Shawn Ryan, the creator of Fox’s drama “The Chicago Code” about police and politics, made it a point to avoid having recaps of episodes at the start of every show.
“There is a feeling that those things can turn off casual viewers,” Ryan said. “They start to watch and go, ‘Oh, I need to know all this other stuff, this isn’t worth my time, I might as well turn on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’” Unfortunately for Ryan that still happened a lot, and this week Fox pulled the plug on “The Chicago Code.”
The rise of the multi-tasking viewer has reminded producers to keep their stories simple.
“If you had to explain the whole season, it wouldn’t take you more than a couple of sentences,” quipped Bruno Heller, executive producer of the CBS murder mystery “The Mentalist.” “Any scene that has to begin with, ‘As you know…' or where you have to explain previous events, we avoid.”
Viewers with attention deficit disorder aren’t the only problem. While cable channels are accustomed to smaller audiences and usually have the patience — and financial wherewithal — to let a program blossom, cash-strapped broadcast network executives often have itchy trigger fingers.
“There is a cynicism that if it is good and complicated, it is going to get cancelled,” said Ryan. “People don’t want to get emotionally involved.”
“Network television has to be the Bruce Springsteen, while cable can be Patti Smith,” said Heller.
Some cable networks, however, are also backing away from the art-house approach. FX cancelled “Lights Out” and Ryan’s “Terriers” after one season even though both had the love of critics.
“Three years earlier, FX would have kept both on,” said “Lights Out” executive producer Warren Leight, who added that FX President John Landgraf had told him before his show premiered, “Don’t get me ‘Mad Men’ numbers and ‘Mad Men’ acclaim, that’s not what I need.” (AMC’s “Mad Men” is a critical darling but has a relatively small audience even by cable standards.)
The new technologies, which include the DVR and iTunes, present other headaches for networks as well. More than one-third of the audience for NBC’s family drama “Parenthood” tunes into a recorded version of the show. “They know they can watch anytime,” said the show’s executive producer, Jason Katims.
The problem though is that the audience that uses a DVR, iTunes or Hulu isn’t nearly as valuable to the network and advertisers as those viewers who watch live because commercials are either fast-forwarded, out-of-date or not even in the program.
Even top industry executives sometimes prefer watching on their own schedule.
“I watched the first two seasons of HBO’s “The Wire” on DVD and once I caught up, I was annoyed because I didn’t want to watch one episode a week, I wanted to watch three or four episodes a night,” said Katherine Pope, a former NBC executive who now oversees the television operations for Chernin Entertainment.
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