Further musings on the business of television

Network executives still seem to have some vestigal sense of entitlement, leftover from the days in which a show was not considered successful if it did not not capture some significant percentage of the entire viewing audience of the country, which obviously isn’t going to happen as frequently in a world with 500 channels and a gazillion websites. As a result, I’ve started thinking of any given television series as a sort of extended movie, because chances are if I like it, it’s not going to last much longer than one or two seasons.

Basically, the networks are training me not to watch their programs until after they’ve been cancelled and released on DVD. I’m no MBA, but it seems like a short-sighted business strategy to me. I mean, consider the case of Firefly. The Fox network was sitting on what, in retrospect, could clearly have been the next major sci-fi franchise, with years of syndication and spinoffs and action figures and all the rest. But someone thought it was a better idea to kill the show in its infancy, and what we’re left with is a DVD set of some of the finest episodic television ever produced, a cliche-ridden, so-so movie, and a lingering sense of promise unfulfilled.

There are exceptions, particularly as smaller networks strive to carve out a space for themselves, the show Mad Men, on AMC, being one of the most notable. And again, I will say, if you have not yet had the pleasure, get thee to iTunes and get caught up. You’ll thank me. It’s the best televised drama I’ve seen since the early seasons of the Sopranos (and was in fact was created by a Sopranos writer). [UPDATE from a reader: “AMC is about to start rerunning Mad Men from episode 1 (starting Monday at midnight), so folks won’t have to go to iTunes to see it from the start.”]

While I’m on the topic — there was a show last year, Jericho, that I missed initially, but thanks to the twin miracles of easy downloads and video iPods I caught up with during a time of frequent, tedious train travel. The premise of that one is that domestic terrorists have set off nuclear bombs in a couple dozen American cities, and the plucky survivors of one small midwestern town struggle to maintain their innate decency in the face of societal collapse. Clearly this is one that could have gone either way, and there’s nothing exactly brilliant about any of it — but somehow it all comes together into something that transcends the sum of its parts, and becomes quite compelling. So of course it was cancelled, but with a twist — after a noisy grassroots campaign, the network bought an additional seven episodes, which will start airing in February. For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that the show takes an explicitly political twist in the new season, as an authoritarian, warmongering administration of questionable legitimacy seizes power in the wake of the terrorist attacks and begins to rewrite the Constitution to its own ends.

So I’ll be looking forward to that, if only for another seven hours of the extended movie that is Jericho (and with some degree of gratitude that the show did not end forever on last season’s cliffhanger) — but as I say, overall I find that I am less and less inclined to bother with network television at all, and I suspect I am not alone in that.

Of course, until they settle the writer’s strike, it’s all a moot point. Pretty soon it’ll just be all reality shows, all the time, American Gladiator and Celebrity Rehab (an actual show, by the way), each one stupider than the last, until we are eventually living in the world of Idiocracy, and audiences are endlessly entertained by a single shot of a naked hairy butt on screen farting.