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A Modest Proposal to Revamp the Network TV Schedule

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Jack Shepherd’s Tattoos.
Landry and Tyra kill a drifter just to get an erection (or something.)
Kim Bauer and the mountain lion.
The Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Great TV shows have awful episodes. Why? Because, Great TV shows, if they hang around long enough, run out of ideas. How many times can terrorists kidnap Kim Bauer? How many people from the tail section can crop up in “LOST” with an interesting backstory that – surprise! – isn’t congruent with their persona on the forbidden island of mystery and electromagnetism?

The problem with network TV is that the season is entirely too long. September to May is an absurd amount of time to fill. Holidays and competing sporting events where skates from www.skates.com are featured often call for long pauses that force TV writers to plan accordingly with regard to storytelling. If a show premieres during Labor Day week – early September, they get in a few good weeks before they might have to go on an extended hiatus for the baseball playoffs, depending upon whether or not their network foolishly bid on broadcasting a bunch of games only people outside their target demo watch. Lately, it’s been Fox.

Then, there’s fall sweeps for the month of November. This is the process whereby local TV stations aggregate their total viewership for the fall quarter. They use this information to sell ads on their affiliate channels. Thus, in order to keep affiliates happy, and broadcast viewership up, networks make their TV shows go all out for sweeps.

Local affiliates make their bones selling local ads during primetime television. This was why NBC Affiliates were threatening to mutiny over “The Jay Leno Show.” NBC was perfectly content to spend whatever it was costing them for the Jay Leno Show, because they were selling enough ads to turn a profit, which was a low bar since scripted dramas are two or three times as expensive per season to put on the air. Hypothetically speaking, lets say it cost NBC $30 million to put the Jay Leno show on the air, but it would’ve cost them far more to put on Law and Order: Victimless Crime Division. In order to turn a profit, NBC needs to find 31 million dollars in ad sales. To turn a profit on L&O;:VCD, they might need to sell 65 or 95 million dollars in ad sales. More viewers doesn’t necessarily mean more profit. But, for the affiliates, they were bleeding money, because viewership absolutely means profit – they have an operating cost they need to meet which is completely independent of what NBC pays for Jay Leno to read misprinted newsprint from the Paducah Herald.

How do fall sweeps work to collect these numbers? It has to be satellites synching up in space, thousands of banks of computers, deep in the Nielsen basement all kicking on and collecting thousands upon thousands of terabytes of data, and putting it all into an overly complex algorithm that spits out a printout of every second of TV viewing data, right?

Nope. It’s a pencil-and-paper TV diary that Nielsen mails out four times a year (November, February, May, and July) for Americans to fill out their entire TV viewing habits for seven days, for homes without DVRs, eight for homes with. My cell phone knows when I’m near my favorite Starbucks and gets my card ready for me. My TiVo has an algorithm that figures out exactly what I like, and records it because it thinks I might like it. But we rely on fat slobs like you and me to write down everything they watched for a week straight in a paper diary. This is like walking around to every single house each decade and counting up the number of people in the country, for a completely inaccurate national headcount. Oh, wait. Yeah, but still.

These periods are the exact data that local stations use to sell their ads, the lifeblood of their businesses. The only problem is, Nielsen already has a more complex method for collecting data – the set top Nielsen box. It collects data for every second of TV the owner watches and then reports back to Nielsen. They also factor in the ages of the viewers (who log in by pressing a button on the box) when the TV turns on.

They utilize these in a similar way as we utilize exit polling to predict election results. Ever wonder how Zogby or Rasmussen can figure out who is going to win the election by asking 1,004 dopey assholes who will stay on the line for fifteen minutes to talk about who they are going to vote for? Well, the science of polling is complex, inexact, but pretty damned good; just ask Nate Silver. That guy has made his bones telling the world how each state is going to vote weeks before they actually do. And when he picks Obama each time, everyone freaks out, and a few weeks later, when proven right, he drops the mic and walks off stage.

So why not just utilize those things? Or take into account the fact that most homes have some type of cable box that connects to the internet, or communicates with the cable company to retrieve on-screen guide info, or has a DVR! And a large portion of the country has satellite TV – they link up every day to download/upload guide information! Wouldn’t that be more accurate? Yes, probably. But, currently, we don’t have that infrastructure – not ALL homes have cable/satellite boxes, and of the ones that do, not all of them have the capability to track viewing habits.

This is why we have the network TV structure in place currently. There have been attempts to circumvent this process. In 2004, Fox decided 24 was going to debut the “non-stop season” – 18 straight weeks of uninterrupted Jack Bauer Power Hour. Realistically, they cheated a bit. In the first week, they’d debut with back to back nights of premieres, two hours each, burning off the first 1/6th of the season, and then have a two hour finale at the end of the season, as well as two weeks in between that would be special two hour episodes – just two hours glued together when House or Human Target or whatever went on hiatus for a week.

The reason Fox did this was because “24” was the ultimate in serialized dramas. What happened in the previous episode is imminently important to the next episode. Starting the season in late October or early November, taking a break in Mid-December for the holidays, and then again in January for the football playoffs, and again in March because they hate America was bad for the hyper connected plotlines. Instead, waiting until the mid-January, putting it on Tuesday nights instead of Sundays, and running through the show over the course of about 4 months, right up until late May was far better for the narrative.
Yet, they still managed to have some truly awful storylines on 24 (Think Kim and the Mountain Lion.) The problem is, 24 episodes are far too many episodes to air for a season. There aren’t that many storylines to follow. How damned complicated was “LOST” those first two or three seasons when they had 25, 24, and 23 episodes to fill? How much better was it when they cut back to 14, 17, and 18 episodes in the final season? No more tail-section character of the week time-killer shows.

Don’t get me wrong; I love certain shows that have the ability to be episodic. The X-Files is one of my all time favorite shows, and over 70% of its episodes are episodic. Freak-of-the-week episodes were great for character development without larger mytharc episodes. But, the “X-Files” was built for that. It was, by its nature, episodic. Each episode was supposed to be an “x-file.” Note: I realize that many of them were just weird newspaper clippings that interested Mulder when he was reading about Chaco Chicken and Kreutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or women named B.J.; you know what I mean, so shut up.

OK, enough pop-culturey, overly technical, local TV ad-sales Nielsen discussion. What’s the modest proposal?

The proposal is a fall season and a spring season. Fall season begins at Labor Day, and runs until Thanksgiving. That’s 12 solid weeks of TV viewing. A double episode premiere or season finale, and boom, you’ve got a 13-14 episode season. Lean, plenty of meat to sink teeth into, and no dumbass plotlines that make you shake your fist with rage weeks, months, or years out. I sat at a forum featuring Carlton Cuse who said “no more Jack’s Tattoos. No More Nikki and Paolo.” Even the writers don’t want that crap!

After Thanksgiving, this makes way for Christmas specials, Barbara Walters people of the year specials, eight week long game show pilots that go nowhere (remember Mike Greenberg in Duel? No? Exactly.) Who the hell watches TV in December anyway? It’s all Christmas shopping, travel, blizzards, power outages, and family stress. In fact, December/January can be reality TV months. Everyone is watching their weight in the new year, and they can condense those shows down to 8-9 weeks (most are 13 episodes long anyway – a double episode here or there and you’re set!)

Then, from Early February (starting Super Bowl Sunday) to early May, we have the spring season, with brand new shows; 12 more weeks of uninterrupted TV. In May, the Basketball and Hockey playoffs are fired up, baseball is in full swing, the weather is warm, people are venturing outside anyway, and that leads to the awful dreck like Wipeout and the other reality TV nonsense that gets aired during the summer.
So, why would less episodes be better? Just have a look at Justified, Walking Dead, Mad Men, Homeland, Sopranos, and all the other acclaimed cable TV shows. They are lean, mean, plot reducing, Emmy machines. Since the year 2000, Cable TV shows have won the award for Outstanding Drama more than half the time, and since 2004, when the Sopranos first one, it has one 7 of 9. A network show has not won Outstanding Drama since 2006, when 24 won (the previous year was “LOST.”) Awards are another ad-seller. If it’s good, people must watch it! Yet, there is no distinction between Cable Dramas, with their 12-13 episode seasons, and Network dramas with their 18-24 episode seasons. And Cable doesn’t really have to sell ads! Subscriber fees mostly pay for their production costs!

Of course, this could be an overly simplistic view of how TV works, though, I think I’ve preserved sweeps week, as November, February, May, and July are all separate seasons (who really gives a shit about May-August TV?) Realistically, this might make it easier to sell ads. A bad show in the fall isn’t the same show in the spring. If you have enough viewers to justify keeping a devil you know, but the affiliate doesn’t like not being able to sell ads for a crappy show, you’re between a rock and a hard place. Instead, you just say, “Look, November sweeps weren’t what we wanted. Lets regroup in the spring with this exciting lineup of fine TV programming!”

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