Serial Killers

The big media story lately is the death of all the new serialized dramas the networks have launched over the past two years in an attempt to captue the success of LOST, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and 24.  Basically, nobody seems to have the time, energy, or trust to commit to a deep, lasting and meantingful relationship with more than one or two of these series. After the death of shows like SURFACE, KIDNAPPED, REUNION, THIEF, INVASION, SMITH, and the anemic ratings of VANISHED, THREE DEGREES and THE NINE, The New York Times reports that the networks are finally getting the hint:

In every television season
some new lesson about the American audience is imparted. This season’s
lesson was clear within the first weeks of the fall: you can ask people
to commit only so many hours to intense, dark, intricately constructed
serialized dramas, to sign huge chunks of their lives away to follow
every minuscule plot development and character tic both on the air and
on Internet sites crowded with similarly addicted fanatics.

“The message we received was that people have strains on their
lives,” said Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment. “People
are saying, ‘I’ve got my handful of shows like this, and I don’t want
more.’ ”

[…]Dana Walden, president of the 20th Century Fox Television studio,
said: “What the audience seems to be saying is: ‘Enough. We can’t get
involved with more of these.’ ”

Logically this result should have been expected. But logic often
runs aground in the offices of television executives who endlessly try
to anticipate the future by repeating the past. Or, as Preston Beckman,
executive vice president for entertainment for the Fox network, put it,
“In this business we always overcompensate.”


Even LOST is feeling the heat. The Los Angeles Times notes that CRIMINAL MINDS, which is in the same time slot, is drawing almost as may viewers these days.

…conventional wisdom would dictate that "Criminal Minds," now in its
second season, should be moldering on TV’s rubbish heap.  So why
is the series growing into a bona-fide hit that last week delivered its
most-watched episode ever, with 16.8 million total viewers, just a
shade behind the still-formidable "Lost" (17.1 million), according to
Nielsen Media Research?

"This was the year of serialized dramas trying to recapture lightning in a bottle the way
that ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘Lost,’ ’24’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ did,"
said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for
Minneapolis-based ad firm Campbell-Mithun. "But almost all of them were
rejected by the audience."

The growth of "Criminal Minds" is
maybe the most convincing proof that not everyone wants to be chained
to a dense, character-packed drama that unspools like a Dickensian
novel. And even those who do have their limits. There is a reason why
formula sells, why genres become generic in the first place.

17 thoughts on “Serial Killers”

  1. It’s what I keep trying to tell people who ask me “have you seen this? Are you following that?”
    Look, I’ve got a day job, a family, and a book to write. I can’t commit to several hour long shows a week, damn it!

  2. On the other hand, you also have “Heroes”, which is very much in the Lost vein and is turning out to be one of this season’s first bona fide hits. So maybe the lesson is more that people aren’t all that interested in following a bunch of half-baked knockoffs, but they’ll invest time in something that’s really enjoyable. (Disclaimer: I’m a recent convert to Heroes, and casual Lost fan. I don’t bother with any of the extraneous stuff, though.)

  3. There’s a popular thread about “Lost” over at the Straight Dope message board. A good number of people are realizing that they’re not getting a payoff from the elaborate setup and they’re bailing.
    When you have the producers admit in print that ABC’s going to keep the show running as long as they want, it becomes pointless to watch it.

  4. On further reflection, it occurs to me that I may be being unfair: I never watched any of those shows, so I have no idea if they are half-baked or not. They may be superbly well-written and acted, and suffer more from the *perception* that they’re half-baked knockoffs. Not to mention a deficiency of indestructable cheerleaders.

  5. I have a hunch that Lee, with his experience will agree with me on this, but it’s ALL a crap shoot. ALL.
    77 Sunset Strip worked; Bourbon Street Beat tanked. Mannix worked; Longstreet failed. The X Files worked, Dark Skies lasted less than a season. Hill Street Blues worked, EZ Streets tanked badly.
    Back in my day, if someone, anyone, had ever said to me a series about lifeguards in California would work, I’d have laughed out loud.
    William Goldman nailed it. “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.” Possibly the most oft-quoted piece of movie wisdom, and I’ll go with Goldman on this. “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.”
    It’s all a roll of the dice.

  6. The thing that they forget is that we the viewer appreciate a variety of shows in genre and story – once one show’s a hit, they make ten more like it instead of just making good stories that work, regardless of whether it’s a serial or a sitcom.
    After FRIENDS hit, remember the wave of bad sitcoms that washed over us?
    It’s like making a bad carbon copy of something good – why would we waste time on it when we can see something new in addition to something we already know we like?

  7. It’ll be such a shame if the networks decide to stop trying to make shows that are good and interesting because of this, though. I hope the tendency will be to make stuff that’s catchy and enjoyable, but I fear that dumbing-down may be the actual result, life being what it is…
    Another point – have they considered DVD sales? Sometimes I’ll avoid getting hooked on a TV show because it’ll be too frustrating if I miss an episode – but I’ll buy the DVD so I can watch it at my leisure, knowing I won’t miss anything.

  8. Actually, I’m hooked on VANISHED, and if they don’t resolve it, I’ll be disappointed. I enjoy SIX DEGREES and THE NINE, but won’t be crushed if they get canceled either.
    At the same time, it does get frustrating. I need some shows where I can miss a week and know I’ll be able to catch up next week. I use my VCR’s religiously (yes, I’m too poor for Tivo. Something about a book and DVD addiction). But I still occasionally miss something. There needs to be a balance between good serializations with interesting characters (most of what I watch) and shows that are mostly self contained, like CSI or MONK.
    Ey-up – DVD sales only can compensate for so much. And I’m sure they can judge how much they’ll make in sales based on the rates. So if a show isn’t doing well, I doubt many people will buy the DVD sets to catch up. I think the only way to keep a good show going is to watch it every week.

  9. “The thing that they forget is that we the viewer appreciate a variety of shows in genre and story – once one show’s a hit, they make ten more like it instead of just making good stories that work, regardless of whether it’s a serial or a sitcom.
    It’s like making a bad carbon copy of something good – why would we waste time on it when we can see something new in addition to something we already know we like?”
    So, so right! Diversity’s the key! Not ten shows that are similar to Lost or DH – yawn! – but ten shows that widely differ in texture, colour, tone and character.
    Not that I’ll watch them on TV, though. But I’ll buy them on DVD. 😉

  10. Okay, Hollywood, here’s Walt’s short list on how to make a serial drama work:
    1) Hot women who have something to do besides go into haunted attics alone.
    2) Strong male leads that do something besides whine.
    3) If #1 isn’t working, add another hot actress.
    4) Make sure hot actress stays sober and out of jail (in real life)
    5) Occasionally show us a villain or two.
    6) Make sure villain has henchmen or devices that can be defeated by strong man and/or hot woman.
    7) Throw in a villain’s henchman/woman who’s a turncoat – this is a throwaway part, usually.
    8) Finally, hire Betty White, and have her murder someone. Never fails.
    Most hour long dramas that aren’t procedurals have some of the above, and dramas like LOST that are sagging in the ratings have remarkably forgotten what got them there. Specifically, more action, more leg from Kate, and some clarity as to who is the villain.
    Studio 60 has none of the above, no matter how much I wish it did.
    HEROES, on the other hand not only has hot heroines, last night revealed the perky one is a henchwoman (not that big of a secret, but I’m keeping in the mythos of the show here)
    And bringing this back to books, I think it was Lawrence Watt-Evans who had a successful adventure series where, while the publisher liked him, asked him specifically for a book that WASN’T the next in some series he was writing. The series had fans, but the readership declined, and there wasn’t enough hard core fans (again, according to the publisher) So Lawrence Watt-Evans wrote other stuff, and I think posted the previously unpublished series book he had written online (fee based?? not sure)
    So, some series are so involved the audience almost has to decline; the cost of grabbing new fans seems too steep.
    24 initially got a huge publicity boost by a “nearly naked lesbianic Mandy” cavorting around. Guys tuned in just to see if she was going to “do that again”
    24 also benefits from the reboot of the concept from year to year. In theory, even this had to be shortened for VERONICA MARS from a year to what, six weeks?
    Oh, and VERONICA MARS producers?
    See Rule #3.

  11. Nobody seems to have noticed that CRIMINAL MINDS big ratings could be related to … drum-roll, please … a continuing plot thread. Which would seem to refute the “CRIMINAL MINDS proves audiences want self-contained stories” argument.

  12. Call me stupid, but I was totally lost in Lost with too many characters and when do we see the Monster. RKO Radio did a movie in the 50s with a very similar plot with Keith Andes, Robert Ryan and Anita Eckberg. Can’t remember the name. Smith had a good cast but vanished from the schedule in a nanosecond. Desperate Housewives is very accessible because even if you miss episodes you can still get into it. Ugly Betty is the best new show. Otherwise I watch Smallville, Supernatural, Veronica Mars and Studio 60 but what happened to that? I don’t stomach the corpse d’jeur on the numerous autopsy show. The OC is wonderful trash with beautiful cast.

  13. Mark C.,
    I believe both Vanished and Kidnapped have been told to wrap up their storylines in 13 episodes. Granted, the remaining eps will air on dead nights for their respective networks, but there should be some resolution for both series, unlike Reunion, for example.
    I believe you meant SIX DEGREES (aka 6°), not THREE DEGREES. Speaking of which, the problem I see with this show is that it’s the norm in TV for the characters to have even less than six degrees of separation. So, unless you have some additional hook–e.g. Heroes or The Nine–it seems like much ado about nothing.
    Oh, and on the other side of the argument we have Jericho and, since we’re going back to last season with Surface, Invasion, etc., Prison Break. So serialized dramas can work. And I think the case for them will be more compelling once the distribution model changes to VOD.

  14. I think the networks are failing to take certain things into account.
    First – a human being can only watch so much TV. Even assuming that a person watches three hours a night, between the many, many, many options offered by having so many channels, one has to accept there’s going to be something people give a miss. And given the existence of DVR, Tivo, and DVD box sets, well, that’s going to shrink your nightly numbers even farther.
    Second – it helps if a show is actually good, or enjoyable. Even at its peek, Lost was never a GREAT show – it was simply an okay one with that sometimes had a great episode, generally written by a former Buffy writer.
    Third – Frankly, too many of the shows are too similar to one another. It’s like the two big asteroid movies – people are generally only going to pick one, and both are going to lose at least some of their audience.
    Heroes is a good show, I think, but if there was a second superhero show on the air right now, chances are pretty good they might have eroded each other’s ratings just enough that both of them would be scrapped, if not soon, then probably by the end of the year.
    And finally, TV is a total shot in the dark. Every year sees a few great shows cancelled before they got a chance to live (Wonderfalls) and shows that go on and on and on despite the fact that I’ve never known anyone who watched them (According to Jim).


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