HOW TV IS IMPLODING: SERIES, RATINGS AND NEW CONSUMER HABITS

This post is inspired by two sources: one, the article “The 2015–16 TV Season in One Really Depressing Chart” by Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro published online in Vulture (https://www.vulture.com/2016/03/2015-2016-tv-season-in-one-depressing-chart.html#); the other the collective non-academic volume Yo soy más de series (2015, https://www.esdrujula.es/libro/yo-soy-mas-de-series/) in which I have participated with, once more, an article on The X-Files. What these very diverse sources show implicitly is that the current boom around US TV series may well result soon in the destruction of television as we know it.

The article, quite brief, comments on the declining ratings for the “old-school broadcast networks” in the United States, or “Big Four”, regarding their current star product, namely, fiction series. They have lost “about 7 percent” viewers for “first-run programming” since the 2014-15 season, “continuing a pattern of substantial decline” in the last few years. The problem is attributed mainly to “a paucity of breakout hits” even though what seems more worrying is that “audiences appear to be abandoning established shows”, usually in the second or third season. You may next check the chart accompanying the article, which shows the ratings for a long list of series or, as they call them in the USA, ‘shows’. The authors claim that audiences have stopped being loyal to their favourite shows: “Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on”. Of course, the problem for the broadcasters is that Nielsen rates connect directly to revenue for, remember, TV is basically one long ad interrupted by programmes. Streaming services have started competing for what the writers call “eyeballs” (the part for the whole, you know?) seemingly forgetting that the money business companies can spend on advertising is not unlimited.

Now let’s turn to the really juicy part of the article. Yes, you guessed right: the readers’ comments–far more relevant and informative than the article itself. Here are some highlights (see with how many opinions you identify):

*(…) there is such an over saturation of shows that it is forcing people to really pick and choose what they want to watch and thus people are ditching poorer quality shows that don’t work for them anymore. Or ditching long running favourites that have run out of steam.
* [the lengths of US network seasons] 21-25 episodes is just ridiculous, it’s not conducive to making a good product.
*(…) ad-based business models result in content that puts audiences into a soporific state conducive to being influenced by ads, while subscription-based models favour content that locks in passionate fan bases.
*Networks need to cultivate small, passionate audiences for their shows and recognize that the audience is now so splintered that huge audiences will be rare one-offs for special events.
*Cable and streaming services are investing in creativity, giving writers and creators more freedom to make interesting things. The Networks are sticking to the old formula, and seeing fewer and fewer returns. It’s a loosing game. They’ll be gone in a few more years.
*By the time Nielsen’s gets with the times, broadcast will be defunct anyway and all the shows will be on streaming services, which know exactly who is watching what and when, but has no motive to share that info with anyone else.
*Not only are networks competing with cool streaming shows that are new (…) but there’s entire runs of old series to discover.
*I will never again watch a new network show. Why bother getting invested in a show that is likely going to get cancelled? I vastly prefer the Netflix way.
*Loyal viewers are going to be more important than massive numbers in the future.
*I have a lot of shows I love and a lot of shows I like. I don’t care if they are on networks or not. I’m not depressed by this. Sorry.

And my favourite comment: “Thank God for books”.

Look at the paradox: the networks have always broadcast series but something changed about 25 years ago (arguably) with ABC’s Twin Peaks (1990-91), which proved that audiences were willing to enjoy new kinds of TV fiction series. Then the TV model changed radically with the introduction of new local and national channels (think Fox), satellite and cable TV. The current model also includes internet streaming services of which, obviously, Netflix is the most popular one right now. What all these diverse ways of watching fiction on a smaller screen (TV, computer, tablet, cell phone…) have in common is their trusting series to keep them afloat–logically, since series have that strange quality: they may last for years and keep an audience loyal to a channel/service (or so it was assumed). What broadcasters of any type don’t seem to realize is that the personal viewing time of each spectator (eyeballs, argh!) cannot increase at the same pace, hence the new ‘disloyalty’. Spectators feel that the market is indeed oversaturated and, so, navigate it as well as they can: some give up TV for good, others give up certain series. All tend towards the same goal: controlling their viewing time regardless of network interests and desperately old-fashioned Nielsen ratings. What is at risk, in short, is not the fiction created to fill our smaller screens but any TV business based on advertising, even TV consumption itself.

Now to the book, Yo soy más de series, coordinated by Fernando Ángel Moreno. You will find in it articles dealing with 60 series, all of them American with a few British and Japanese exceptions (Spanish TV is represented by El Ministerio del Tiempo). The articles are very different, some are 100% academic, others 100% personal and informal, some (like mine) a combination. Having read its extremely appealing 472 pages, the impression I get is of a gigantic collective failure by American TV series’ creators to produce truly solid work. Actually, this is my personal point of view and, of course, I have sought confirmation in the volume.

I have often voiced my post-Lost opinion that a narration that begins with no firm plans about its ending is not to be trusted, which is why I very much prefer mini-series. When you try to stretch a series beyond its natural run, when the series ‘jumps the shark’, then the series is doomed and what started as an exciting tale ends up as flat as a bottle of champagne left uncorked for a week. And this is what I see again and again in the articles of Yo soy más de series: with the exception of the mini-series (I, Claudius) or of the series planned for a limited number of seasons (Babylon 5) and a few honourable exceptions, most series outstay their welcome. The reasons may be that, as one of the comments I have reproduced notes, the number of episodes per season is too high, but whatever the reason is very few series can maintain the same level of interest and creativity for long. After the second season, which is when ‘eyeballs’ start looking elsewhere, the plot lines get more and more twisted as writers and producers run out of ideas struggling desperately to go on. The shows enter then a sort of entropic process of decadence that leads to their final, eventual implosion.

Funnily, I’m writing this at a time when The Big Bang Theory is keeping me glued to my sofa for hours at a stretch at least once a week. Typically, we decide to watch a couple of episodes and may end up watching eight in a row (they’re 20 minute long). I am not following any other series and, frankly, after reading Yo soy más de series the only one truly tempting me is Breaking Bad; we’ll see… An advantage of sit-coms like Big Bang, I find, is that it’s somehow harder to feel disappointed for they do not make such high claims as drama series do to being avant-garde narrative, even better than novels… If there is an opinion I hate about TV series is that one. I feel, in short, refreshed by Big Bang but oversaturated by soap-opera products masquerading as great TV–like Game of Thrones or Homeland.

I’ll finish with the story I tell in my own article for Yo soy más de series, a story I have already told many times: TV is paying in Spain a high price for having despised spectators in the past. If TeleCinco had not cancelled arbitrarily The X-Files just when the internet was entering Spain, we would not have rushed to become TV pirates. Once learned, the habit will not be unlearned. Illegal downloading is, simply, a central aspect of TV consumption in Spain, which does not seem to be the case in the USA. Here satellite, cable and streaming are, I’m 100% sure, second to piracy, while this no doubt as popular as actual TV broadcasting if not more. I wonder how Nielsen is dealing with this when it counts Spanish ‘eyeballs’ for we all wear a pirate’s eye patch.

Soon, if not tomorrow, ‘TV’ series will drop the ‘TV’ part of their name to be called something else, perhaps just ‘series’, for they will no longer be connected with watching television at all. Nielsen be warned.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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