That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m above suggesting some self-improvement goals for others — specifically, the people who make the TV shows we watch. The Mentalist aside, It’s been a rough year for television, the broadcast networks in particular, so I figure the networks could use all the help they can get.
I, in turn, have the editors of TV Week for this idea. The magazine’s semi-annual critics poll asked us to offer up a resolution for the business. That one, along with eight others, are below.
For the entire business: Remember that audiences care more about the quality of the material on screen rather than whether you’re maximizing its revenue potential.
That was my answer to the TV Week poll question. Yeah, times are changing, and the way you used to make money doesn’t work all that well anymore. DVRs and online viewing and iTunes have changed the business model. But the content model hasn’t. The audience isn’t dumb: People recognize when programming feels more like packaging than storytelling, and for all the times we heard this fall about how this show or that represents such a great cross-promotional opportunity, if people don’t watch your shows it really doesn’t matter.
For CBS: Find a way to make a successful drama that’s not about solving mysteries.
CBS doesn’t really need a whole lot of advice. It’s once again heading into 2009 as the most-watched network on TV, it’s No. 1 among adults 18-49 and it has the only true new hit of the season (the aforementioned Mentalist). It does what it does — broad-appeal comedies and bevies of crime-solving dramas — really well. And its recent attempts to color outside those lines (last year’s disastrous Viva Laughlin, this year’s there-and-gone The Ex List) haven’t worked. CBS used to be pretty good at this — think Dallas, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences — and surely the folks there can crack the code again.
ABC has three top-10 shows this season in Dancing with the Stars, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. But when those shows aren’t airing new episodes, its numbers drop pretty badly. The network’s decision to bench most of its new series after the writers strike last year hurt it badly. Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone are all circling the drain, and Private Practice’s ratings are way off.
ABC needs a couple of its midseason shows to take hold. Early buzz on Cupid is good, and I’m intrigued by Castle (starring Nathan Fillion) too. The latter, along with another newbie, The Unusuals, are both crime shows, which tend to hold up reasonably well in reruns. The network could use a little bit of that help too.
For NBC: To rediscover its soul.
As my colleague Lisa de Moraes astutely observes, NBC has a way of turning its missteps into statements of the New Television Paradigm. It’s had a lot of practice in the past few years, and I’m sure that a lot of those moves have made economic sense for GE, the network’s parent. I — and I’m guessing most of you — don’t really care about that. If the network would bring the same passion to its programming as it does to its profit margins, and not try to pass off junk like Momma’s Boys and Knight Rider as worthy of our time, it might find its way out of the mire it’s in now.
Arrested Development was great, but for all its adoring cult, it never broke out. The Loop was pretty funny, but no one watched it either. ‘Til Death, Back to You, Do Not Disturb, The Winner, Free Ride? Yeah … no. FOX’s comedy roster (non-animated division) in recent years has been pretty underwhelming — yet several of its dramas (especially Bones and House) are at times terrifically funny. Sic a couple of those writers on a comedy concept, and see what happens.
For Showtime: More people.
Dexter, Weeds, Brotherhood and new shows The United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie have made Showtime the near-equal of HBO in terms of its original programming. Critics and awards-givers have noticed; the network received 21 Emmy nominations this year. Yet the premium cable service remains stuck with fewer than half the subscribers of its rival. Maybe something like that just takes time, but Showtime’s programming deserves to be seen.
For Battlestar Galactica: A little respect.
Sci Fi’s signature series has deservingly won a couple of Emmys for its visual effects. But as the series embarks on its final run of episodes, it’s taken over from The Wire as the most overlooked show on TV when it comes to awards. None of the show’s fine ensemble of actors has ever sniffed an Emmy or Golden Globe nomination, and it counts no series honors and only a couple of writing and directing Emmy nods. I really hope that A) the final episodes live up to the series that has come before it, and B) the folks who bestow awards recognize it.
For HBO: Something new.
As I’m writing this post I’m checking out a screener of HBO’s new series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling novels. It’s charming, and different, and a bit of a departure from the dense, somber shows the channel has tried out in the past couple years. HBO made its bones doing series that no one else would or could do, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There are signs that the Sopranos hangover is wearing off, though; True Blood was fun, if crazily uneven, and a recent spate of series pickups sound promising.
Finally, for the audience: A little hope.
The first few months of the 2008-09 season, in a word, stank. Only a handful of new shows proved worth our time, strike-sidelined shows crashed, the formerly very fun Heroes continued its slide. Bright spots like the amazing finale of The Shield and the way Chuck hit its stride were hard to find.
Things can pretty much only go up from here, but the good news is, it looks like they will. The midseason shows I’ve seen so far are as a whole much, much better than what was thrown up in the fall. Old favorites like Lost, American Idol, Scrubs and 24 — which is as 24-ish as ever — will be back in the next few weeks. It’s going to get better.