A lot of debates have sprouted up recently regarding serialized shows, which have become more prevalent on the networks, and the long hiatus mid-stream they often experience which seems to sap their audience. Last night’s return of The Event is another data point in the argument: it was down a whopping 26% in the overnight ratings over its last original episode. With the networks trying various strategies to set up the programming, why can’t they figure out a way to program a serial drama?
In the old fashioned models with “compartmentalized” dramas – that is, ones where the story fits within each hour of programming and little changes over the course of the series, the season was spread through most year with blocks of new episodes cut up by repeats of the same show. People often complained about getting only one or two new shows before more repeats would air…but it generally carried a show through the year (except for the “off season” summer reruns). You also didn’t need to worry about missing an episode as it was sure to be rerun, and you could generally deal with episodes out of order. Fact is that the interlaced reruns actually allowed them to spend more time on the production – it takes more than a week to get an episode in the can, and even if you get a bunch of episodes ready before the start of the season, you eventually run through your bank and need to build it up again.
Enter Babylon 5.
Well, I don’t know if B5 really was the harbinger or not of serial dramas, but it did make the case that viewers were willing to put in an effort – even with the old frequent rerun breaks. Even with the pseudo-network holding back episodes at the end of a season. Even with some stations attempting to bury the show in the wee hours. At any rate, it seems to have led to an increasing number of SF&F-based serial dramas. I’m actually having trouble thinking of one that isn’t right now.
Soon, serial dramas started popping up. And networks started to play around with schedules more. Longer strips of new episodes followed by longer strips of reruns. Various amounts were tried. Heroes was a little more traditional, with more frequent breaks – it seemed to have trouble holding on to the audience. Lost went for longer runs – the audience seemed to hold better, but there was a new problem – viewers needed to be reminded where they left off with a recap show. Fox, in a (rare 🙂 ) show of brilliancy, did a complete run of 24 straight through. No breaks means not forgetting. And another change – reruns were often sporadic or non-existent, instead replaced by alternate programming or even another series filling in the blanks.
Is it that the longer breaks make people forget where the story was, and don’t want to have to invest time in catching up? Or forget when a program comes back on the air, missing it completely? What about missing episodes? In theory in the TiVo world, you should never miss new episodes but lots of data problems lately result in episodes not being marked correctly as new – can’t trust it (I’m in the habit of verifying the evening’s recordings each night). And if they don’t show repeats…well, then, you’re waiting for the DVD set. So why watch to begin with?
Are there alternatives? The 24 model seemed to work, but is difficult – you have to have nearly the whole show in the can before you start, which is an expensive proposition to networks as you can’t cancel a show you’ve already paid for. Perhaps by breaking the story into smaller, self-contained segments – say, quarter or half seasons – and running them straight through would work.
Serials make for good storytelling and character development – perhaps what fans of the genre prefer, but not so much the mainstream public. Perhaps that’s why the genre seems to suffer more for ratings.