Give the networks some credit

The closing of multiple Borders Bookstores nationwide has left me with some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I grew up going to Borders at least once a month and walking away with some shining treasure. Not only was Borders where I discovered the wonderful novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, but that is where I also picked up my one and only copy of Diehard GameFan magazine. That magazine is unparalleled to this day. It’s probably why I have such warped sensibilities about video games. I later went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which happens to feature the first Borders Bookstore right on its campus.

But on the other hand, sales speak loudly to my multimedia habits. It was difficult to hold back, but I refused to go until the minimum discounted price was 50%. My fiancee and I went and tried to find new treasures. By then the store was already picked apart by people who give in too easily. Scott Pilgrim books and DVDs were not to be found, nor were any of the more exciting graphic novels and manga. The science fiction was left bare once we realized that the only items present were derivative materials and new releases that had been pulled out of overstock. The only section that contained anything at all worthwhile was the DVD section, because their discounted material was still around the cost most stores charge for the items – which makes me wonder if one business failing of Borders was the fact that Borders is the only store anywhere that sells DVDs at MSRP.

Click for a Veridian Dynamics commercial from the show

I came across two of my favorite recently canceled shows: Dollhouse (Season 2) and Better Off Ted (Season 1). I think overall I saved approximately $8 on what they would cost me through Amazon, but I didn’t care. These were shows that belonged in my collection. It’s one of the few times in recent years that I ignored my $15 per DVD/set limit.

Interestingly, I had actually been thinking about canceled shows quite a bit. This was sparked by my reading too many comments on various blogs about enthusiast materials. There is an annoying aspect of fandom that seems to require everyone think the same way and regard all material in a similar fashion. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. New movies that get released require the same opinion, and only certain television shows require support. Then there’s the vilification of anything that gets in the way. The most common form of this is the canceled TV series, whose failure must be blamed on the television network.

Dollhouse is one of those canceled shows that I obviously championed. People are quick to blame FOX because there is a very brief history of FOX not working so well with Joss Whedon. FOX canceled Firefly, and FOX ended Angel after only five seasons. There weren’t any high hopes for Dollhouse‘s success as far as the fans were concerned. We heard about the network’s interference in the show’s presentation and requirement that the first episodes of the second season be more episodic so that new fans could come aboard. A common comment made by Whedon fans was, “I’ll wait and see how it goes before I watch it. I don’t want to get attached to a new show just to see it crash and burn because of how evil FOX is.”

This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dollhouse did not fail due to interference on the part of the network or due to a personal vendetta against the show’s creator. The series failed because viewership was low. Argue however you will about the Nielsen system, but low viewership is systemic. If no one is watching the show, no one is talking about the show. If no one is talking about the show, then no one else will take the time to watch the show. If no one else is tuning into the show, then the Nielsen numbers will be poor. Same for Hulu viewing, which is one of the reasons why FOX picked up Dollhouse for a second season. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Given the budget required to keep the show running (despite the low cost of “Epitaph One”), they literally couldn’t afford such a low viewership.

Better Off Ted is a more simple discussion. It was a critically acclaimed sitcom on ABC, and it aired in the time slot following Scrubs‘ final season. It received a second season based on its initial success, but that was canceled before its final two episodes due to low numbers. The budget was not as huge a concern as that of Dollhouse, but sitcoms are purposely made to be cheap and disposable. If it succeeds, the profits are automatically huge. If it fails, there is some complaint about the investment in sets and props, but it is still an altogether disposable product.

The failings of these series and many others is not necessarily due to the networks. I imagine that as far as most executives at a network are concerned, any show that requires a monetary investment deserves a chance to run and recoup the costs. Preferably go beyond breaking even. The idea that a network would purposely a sabotage a show or try to ruin its run is misguided. That’s like saying people enjoying throwing away millions of dollars just to have a laugh.

Click for Season 1 recap

Stories about network involvement in television series are told to vilify the people in charge, but they ignore the simple idea that these networks often have hit shows that display a certain trend in what does and does not work. They tweak shows in attempt to acquire mass appeal. (Similarly, movie studios tweak movies for mass appeal. Record labels tweak music for mass appeal. While I believe there is quite a bit more freedom in books, publishers no doubt have their editors on the task of tweaking aspects of stories for mass appeal.) It’s a matter of actually knowing what people do like, or at least have liked at some point in time. Dollhouse was tweaked to simplify the show, or dumb it down, for mass appeal. We see how well Caprica did without that guiding hand. For better or worse, the action was performed for good reason.

The truth is the networks should be commended for even airing some of these cult favorite shows, no matter how short lived they were. FOX is a network that takes major chances and gets crapped on every time a project fails. Dark Angel was undoubtedly an expensive series to make, but it didn’t gain the numbers necessary to keep it afloat. That was axed in favor of producing a series called Firefly, about cowboys in space. That’s a weird concept that few would easily latch onto, but they gave it a try anyway. (They tried to air the more fun episodes first to build fan interest, not to sabotage the show.) When that met immediate failure, they pulled the plug. FOX also aired Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Not only did this series require viewers to accept it as a separate timeline from the movie series, it featured none of the familiar stars, a little girl Terminator, and an incredibly complex plot. FOX gave that two seasons before canning it. FOX takes chances by airing these series, and it deserves a pat on the back.

Any network, especially a major broadcast network, deserves credit for airing high concept television shows – or basically anything that may be difficult for people to immediately grasp. Since we live in the era of reality television, crime dramas, and either vanilla or romcom sitcoms (I realize the latter sounds a little redundant), almost every idea is reaching the point of high concept. Science fiction has always been there, and that’s what makes it almost impossible for the mainstream audience to grasp.

Except for Lost, but my understanding of that series is that its mystery carried the show. From episode to episode, the audience was required to take away absolutely nothing and refer back to absolutely nothing. Response to the finale makes me think it was a nothing series; I’ll still get around to watching it someday.

I’m not giving in and saying that I love Big Brother before it ultimately renders me stupid with its banal entertainment choices. That is not what I’m saying here. I just think we are aiming our guns at the wrong people. The networks aren’t out to get us. They are more than willing to give us what we want if it means that they can turn a profit on it. Unfortunately, these shows we miss seem to only appeal to a niche audience. Well, initially. Look at the huge appeal of Firefly well after the fact. Instead of causing a stink about the network, try talking about your favorite shows and bringing more people into the fold. Like I said, Dollhouse failed because its own fans weren’t willing to give it a chance when the network itself actually did. How screwed up is that?

Author: Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

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