There is currently a pretty big disconnect, as far as I can tell, between the kind of tv shows that writers love to watch, and the kinds of tv shows that networks want to be pitched.
Ask anyone, the networks want episodic shows. They want shows you can tune in for episodes 5 and 8 and 11 and not feel you missed anything.
The kinds of shows I like are, oh, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and DEXTER and MAD MEN. Sure, each episode tells some kind of story that completes by the end of the hour. But you really can't appreciate what you're seeing if you haven't seen a few recent episodes.
For sure, serial shows are harder to write. We painted ourselves into one or two pretty tight corners on CHARLIE JADE. Expectations are higher. No one would have minded the mess at the end of BSG if it hadn't been the culmination of years of story arcs.
But serial shows are more satisfying to write. You get to take the characters places. We got the BUFFY boxed set and we're watching Willow change from Hacker Girl to Cute Teenage Witch to Power in Her Own Right to Big Bad. And that's on a show that strives to give you an hour's complete entertainment.
Network execs will tell you that even viewers who say they watch a show tend to watch only about 1 out of 4 episodes. (That's hard to fathom because when my friends watch a show, they watch every episode or stop watching it. They buy the DVD or TiVo the whole thing. But I've heard this from several people who ought to know these things.) The danger with a serial show is that every time you lose a viewer, they don't come back; while it's very hard to get new viewers in mid-season. Who's going to start watching 24 in the middle?
When I'm pitching, I'm continually trying to thread the needle. So are many of the writers I know. We talk about X-FILES and how there was always an episodic story but it often contributed a clue to the überplot; or VERONICA MARS. We try to stay away from mentioning LOST; apparently it doesn't count because no one knows why it's working in spite of its ridiculously complex story arcs. (Maybe because of the ridiculously complex story arcs? But you can't say that.) And we try very hard to make sure there is a strong episodic story motor in the template of the show.
It's frustrating, because you can point to any number of successful shows that are blatantly serial. Soaps, even. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. GRAY'S ANATOMY. GOSSIP GIRL. Anything on HBO or AMC.
I dunno, maybe there's a list of showrunners who are approved to write serials. Obviously, serials get made. Maybe it's like movies and hooks: it's not that movies don't get made without hooks, it's just that you
can't get a movie made without a hook.
But the moral of the story is: the TV you love may not be the TV network executives want more of. Serial shows are a pain in the ass. You lose audience when you preempt them. You lose audience when you move them. And then if you cancel then, people mail you boxes of nuts. Safer to license CSI: WASILLA.
Or you can just go ahead and pitch what you love, and hope it comes out all right in the end.
Labels: serial vs. episodic
Are there any shows worth watching, besides procedurals, which I don't watch anyway, that aren't serials? Hell, I stopped watching Law & Order when Law & Order: Parking Meter Attendants came on.
And network execs need to know that you move ANY show and you lose audiences. It's not just serials.
Besides, aren't serials the type of show that might actually make people watch more than a 1/4 of the episodes? Isn't that the whole point?
"Who's going to start watching 24 in the middle?"
Maybe that's why they've been doing 2-3 distinct arcs each season for the past 2-3 years. 24 has become a lot like a video game. You fight some thugs, work your way up to "the boss", kill him, then find out you've got to do it at least two more times before you "win the game".
I wonder if it helped?
I should have kept reading the post instead of stopping to comment.
"We talk about X-FILES and how there was always an episodic story but it often contributed a clue to the üaut;berplot; or VERONICA MARS."
I would argue that the danger there is teasing people too long which is completely unavoidable. The X-Files was positively boring by the time it finally died, and that was one of my favorite shows of all time.
As long as you get another year you're just going to keep kicking the can down the road, losing more and more people every year until the ratings demand that you clean up your mess and hit the road. But by then it's too late.
"We try to stay away from mentioning LOST; apparently it doesn't count because no one knows why it's working in spite of its ridiculously complex story arcs."
Is it still working?
This is a show that had 26 million people watch its second season premier. Last year it averaged 11 million, down from 13 the season before, and 15 the season before that. Lost has been losing viewers faster than Heroes, the only saving grace is that Lost started with a heck of a lot more people.
11 is good -- not great -- but you just know that a show like Lost has to be costing ABC an arm, leg, and both lungs to produce with a cast that size, heading into its sixth season. And how often does a network, studio, and talent all agree that a show should go away after only X seasons (when X is less than 7) when that wasn't the original goal (think Babylon 5)? I've always thought that this business about Lost only having two more seasons (one of which has now aired) was a tacit admission from all parties that this show was not working, and couldn't be sustained.
If it was making money then ABC would replace every single actor, writer, and producer before giving it up. We all know that.
My answer to that is that the reason some people don't know why Lost works is because they don't see that it isn't working at all. You could easily compare Lost to Heroes and Prison Break, two other unsustainable dramas of that class, and the only difference between them is that Hereos and Prison Break never started with as many viewers as Lost did, so they hit the cellar much faster.
"It's frustrating, because you can point to any number of successful shows that are blatantly serial. Soaps, even. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. GRAY'S ANATOMY. GOSSIP GIRL. Anything on HBO or AMC."
I guess that would depend on your definition of success. Desperate Housewives began with stellar numbers – better than Lost – but has been falling every single season. S1 averaged 23.7 million viewers, this year it's closer to 15.5, down every single season.
Grey's is an odd one. It started at 18.5 for the first season, went up to 20.3, and 21.3 for the next two seasons (wow, you don't see that very often, do you?), took a pretty serious fall to 15.9 for S4, lost another 1.4 million to S4, but is up strong this year with 17 million and change. Maybe that crew is just that damn good.
And Gossip Girl...well, that's on a netlet. They've lost viewers every single year and are averaging 2.3 million this year. Maybe that's good for The CW, but it's junk everywhere else just about.
And the premium channels live in their own little world.
I had to split my comment into two pieces, seems Blogger limits comments to 4096 characters now.
For a site that exists for no other reason than to allow you to write whatever you want to limit you to 4096 characters is..ironic.
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"I dunno, maybe there's a list of showrunners who are approved to write serials. Obviously, serials get made. Maybe it's like movies and hooks: it's not that movies don't get made without hooks, it's just that you can't get a movie made without a hook."
Pardon me for being presumptuous but I think you're over-thinking the deal Alex. It's like trying to figure out why 9/10 movies fail at the box office. If you pick nine failed movies you'll probably get nine different reasons why they failed.
Some serials have a great cast and great writers but the audience simply isn't interested in the premise. Sometimes the network screws the show over by putting it in a death slot (10pm Monday for NBC, Friday night for FOX). Sometimes the network is handicapping itself by not giving more shows a chance during pilot season, being too picky or too stingy. Maybe the networks are simply incapable of determining whether or not a serial will work based only on a pilot, in which case that's a serious and fundamental problem that maybe can't even be fixed.
Sometimes they simply suck.
"But the moral of the story is: the TV you love may not be the TV network executives want more of."
Fire the execs :p
- LOST also makes up by having those 11 million people be liberally peppered with the juicy demographics they really, really want.
Canadian networks are trailing edge on this, but in the last couple years, studies have shown something predictable: if you make your show missable, people miss it more. So now even most of the networks don't mind a little light serialization. So long as it doesn't take up too much time in the ep and isn't too complicated. Witness GOOD WIFE. They do it really well.
You can't really build a mythology that lasts multiple seasons that way, though. Then you hit the XFiles or Veronica Mars problem.
In the Canadian case, they trail current thinking also because, remember, they want to preempt you whenever the simulcast dangles. They really don't care about you.
@PWT: Where are you getting your very helpful viewership numbers? Is there a handy site?
@Alex: TVByTheNumbers is good, but I got all that info from the respective shows' Wiki page.
Lost, Greys, Housewives, and Gossip.
They seem to come from these rankings that ABC does, which I've never seen anyone else do. Very nice if you can figure out what the heck it all means.
Looks like they do them regularly.
Dibs on CSI: Wasilla!
I don't quite get what Veronica Mars is doing there with The X Files in your example. What interested me about VM is that it *did* resolve its major plot arc in the first season.
Of course, I didn't think either of the other seasons -- particularly the third -- could live up to that first great season at all. But I wouldn't at all characterize the show as episodic with threads of a years-long plot arc that only got wrapped up at the end. Not at all.
Paul -- completely disagree on the Lost points. The old joke about Lost simply ignoring big mysteries and introducing new mysteries to distract started in season three, which was easily the worst season. But the the writers credits, what they said was absolutely true -- Lost is a finite story, and if they had to stretch it out over ten seasons, they'd need all that filler. How do you tell the middle of a story if you don't know how far you have until the end?
After that third season, they talked to ABC, that realized they'd rather have six seasons of a great show than eight seasons of a mediocre one, and agreed to the end date -- and since that finish line has been in view, the show has picked up tremendously, improving every season since.
Here's what I've always found interesting: networks and studios get all excited when writers and producers figure out how to make hybrids of the episodic/serial thing - like, it's not a cop show, but it's the kind of thing with a weekly story you can tune into at any time and understand! PUSHING DAISIES. THE EX LIST. REAPER. CUPID. I can't think of any show that made it work.
It sounds cool on paper, but here's the problem: the kind of people who want to watch serials (especially romantic ones like PD, THE EX LIST or CUPID) don't give a shit about the weekly stories. We want to follow what's happening with our main people. That's why HOUSE is on my DVR but BONES is not. HOUSE is never really about the guy who's dying; it's about Greg House.
Do shows like TWO AND A HALF MEN really get that great of ratings because people randomly start tuning in at season 4 episode 7 or season 5 episode 9?
This was a great article. I really enjoyed it. Look at Burn Notice. It's very popular because it threads the needle better than any show out there. Serial and episodic without pissing the audience off. But a lot of that is the story. A spy story is great for threading the needle. That's what spies do!
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