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Fox, NBC, and Netflix: A difference in priorities

I recently found two great shows on Netflix as I am wont to do: The Finder and Awake. Lexi, my wife, actually prompted this post the other night by stating, "I want to watch more Finder episodes." Both of the aforementioned shows, as well as others on which I have become hooked, have solicited this type of response from me as well, especially given the fact that they completed their runs with unanswered questions and seemingly a lot of steam to continue moving forward. With the upcoming release of Arrested Development's newest season and MG Seigler's excellent post over at TechCrunch about Hollywood's fear of the digital age, I thought I would explore these shows and my explanation (or lack thereof) regarding why success or failure occurred.

Questions and Notes

What is the reasoning behind picking up a show for production and what then is the subsequent reasoning for cancellation?

  • Note 1: I have no insider information and may be way off the mark, but since I am part of the audience that networks hope to reach, doesn't my opinion matter? (Yours?)
  • Note 2: I discuss Fox and NBC as case and points in the cancellation of quality programming. However, every network on TV battles the same issues and has or will cancel a good show at some point for what I see as the wrong reasons.
  • Note 3: All below show links are to IMDB pages unless otherwise noted.

Fox and The Finder

The Finder was actually a spin-off series of the wildly popular series, Bones, starring David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel; or at least I think Bones is popular, I assume it is popular since it just completed its eighth season and is scheduled to produce a ninth. The Finder didn't even get more than its initial thirteen episodes to build a following. I will grant any nay-sayers the fact that, with the loss of Michael Clarke Duncan, the show would have been harder to continue, losing one of its stronger characters, both in his acting talent and his physical prowess. But the point remains that the show was unable to even get off the ground before the studio canned it.

My assumption is the show was picked up because it was familiar territory, as The Finder and Bones existed within the same universe, thereby opening up the ability for cross-overs, which fans love, and overlapping subject matter. In addition, The Finder himself was an interesting character, surrounded by mostly interesting co-stars who each brought something unique to the table. Gypsy culture, Florida keys weather, the impracticality of law in the process of investigating without a badge, and many other subject matters and subplots existed within the grander scheme of the show: a man who can find any lost thing in the world finding things all over the world. (Give it a shot; it's on Netflix here.)

Again, my assumptions on its cancellation regard the number of interested parties (we will call them, "viewers") being too small. However, Fox, just like other networks with similar shows that get cancelled have difficult decisions to make. Keep a good show around since it is a good show or cancel it to make room for shows that make more advertising revenue; become known as the channel to go to for good programming or the channel to go to for the most popular shows on a dying medium: live television programming. (Isn't syndication (read: recurring revenue) important to you people?)

The issue that I see with going after advertising revenue alone is in building a reputation for instability (part of the reason why I generally don't watch live television anymore) versus building a reputation as a channel with superior programming. In proper chicken and egg fashion, building a reputation for good programming brings people to watch your shows (even those that take time to gain a following), while shows people are willing to watch must be on networks they trust to bring stability and good programming to the table. Generally, I trust Fox to have good programming (no matter how I feel about their news), but each time they cancel a good show for lack of a following, I am forced to rethink that trust.

NBC and Awake

What I have quickly realized over the course of the last few cancelled shows is the fact that the cancellation process is rather arbitrary. No matter what the show, (no matter how critically acclaimed), the viewer numbers alone equate to a shows renewal or cancellation. NBC is on the other side of the spectrum for me: they had their time as the top network for good programming (I still watch their news sometimes), but I have no trust that any of their primetime shows will be around long enough for me to get connected and be satisfied; (I suppose I am not the customer the network feels obligated to satisfy.) The network is constantly looking for a way to boost ratings without putting in the time and the effort required to gain viewership through trust. How many NBC shows have been cancelled, only to be brought back because the viewers revolted? Chuck, Smash, The Black Donnellys, Awake, and many more have all had followings, but not hugely so, so they were taken out to pasture; hell, even The Office (US) wasn't supposed to make it past the six episodes of the first season. In a few cases, the love (and protests) of the viewers has brought back a show from the brink of cancellation, but most shows are not that lucky.

In the case of Awake (Netflix), NBC produced and aired all thirteen of the Season One episodes. After the decision had been made to cancel the series, viewers tried to start-up a "Save Awake" campaign to no avail. Personally, I believe that a "Stay Awake" campaign would have had better results, but that is just semantics at this point. Awake was a fascinating show, complete with two timelinesin which the viewers could become immersed. It was complex, cerebral, and intimidatingly engrossing. It was critically acclaimed and had millions of viewers. Word of mouth and the cliffhanger ending would have allowed this show to blow-up in its second season. We can only hope the actors went on to bigger and better things! NBC has a bigger problem than a good show being cancelled, however: NBC can't make up their mind regarding scheduling.

If a network is going to stagger new show releases, make it interesting and throw out the whole schedule and start over. It shouldn't be devastating to a new show to start a run in January, but each time NBC releases a new show in January, I dread the fact that no viewers will care. If NBC really cared about giving these new shows a good chance when they are fighting a viewer's loyalty toward other shows and networks, they would try something altogether new, something bold and different. Screw sweeps week, differentiate yourself!

Answer: Arrested Development

Amidst all of the failures, there is one example of an unconventional success: Arrested Development. Season 4 is set to be released in a few days and Netflix is sure to see a boon to their subscription numbers. Why? Because Netflix knows that the schedule is unimportant (and becoming an anchor that weighs down the old-guard) and that the content brings people; Netflix knows how popular shows are (because the viewers watch and rate things) and they have the unique ability to disregard the rules and do things the way they desire for the betterment of their bottom line and their viewership.

I have no knowledge of what is to come with the new season, but I find it apropos that a series with the rough situation that plagued Arrested Development throughout its initial production would have a large enough following, such that Netflix considered "saving" it a good investment. Nevertheless, Netflix is not like other networks, they are not beholden to the same rules; digital distribution is their trade, not a strange new world in which they are floundering, trying to grasp what was instead of what is or what will be in the future: a world without a specific time to be in front of the TV.

Next Step: The Crazy Ones

In the attempt to leave all of this on a good note, I have recently seen a featurette for a new show coming to CBS this fall, called The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams (his first role on TV since Mork & Mindy) and Sarah Michelle Gellar. While I have little trust that the show will be successful, as the majority of shows aren't at this point, I will watch it and we shall see what happens.