Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Cancellation Game

Here, as sort of threatened last time, is a longer version of an article Keith Telly Topping recently wrote for TV Zone, which appeared - in edited form - in issue two hundred ad thirteen. The contents should be fairly self-explanatory.

Keith Telly Topping looks at the increasingly desperate and ruthless measures being taken by American TV networks over failing shows and how this attitude seems to be spreading to Britain.

In American network television, success and failure are easily-quantifiable equations based on simple factors and principles - never mind art, numbers are beautiful. Popularity is, in almost every case, judged by statistics which would make Stephen Hawking weep. Neilsen ratings figures and age-and-gender demographics dominate a science that has taken on a life of it's own during the last two decades. Put very simply, if lots of people are watching your show, then everything in the garden is rosy. If they aren't, you might as well start looking for another job.

For a few weeks in October 2006, it looked as though Aaron Sorkin's return to TV might be very short-lived indeed. The acclaimed playwright, movie scriptwriter and creator of The West Wing's new series, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip looked, at the outset, to have everything going for it - including an impressive cast (led by Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Steven Weber) and an impeccable pedigree behind the camera via Sorkin and his collaborator, director Thomas Schlamme. However, Studio 60 had almost became a victim of its own high pre-series expectations. Thirteen million viewers watched the - excellent - pilot episode, which the media noted with a casual indifference because, frankly, they had expected nothing less. Nine million watched the following week. Now, that was hot news. By episode five, when the ratings had slipped by a further million and a half, many commentators were confidently predicting that NBC would be pulling the series sooner rather than later. One prominent media website even went so far as to opine that the show had always been likely to fail because it was 'too clever for it's own good.' This being, it would appear, the biggest crime that one can commit in television these days. Heaven forbid that viewers who, let's remember, have an attention span of seven seconds, should actually have to think about what they're watching. Thankfully, the expected cancellation didn't happen - although it still might - and, in early November, NBC confirmed that it was perfectly satisfied with the series' performance to date. And so, seemingly, were their advertisers. A full series of twenty two episodes was ordered.

Aside from the show's undoubted quality, it was always unlikely that Studio 60 would not be given at least a bit of time to develop an audience – after all, the huge song-and-dance that NBC made over getting Sorkin back to the medium in the first place must have meant something. Not that having a name creator automatically guarantees that the network will give you time to get things right. In 2002 Girls Club, a series about interns at a San Francisco law-firm, lasted just two episodes despite being the latest series from David E Kelley, the creator of such hit shows as LA Law, Ally McBeal and Boston Public. Consider, also, the fates of Joss Whedon's Firefly and Chris Carter's Harsh Realms to name but two very dramatic and public failures for a couple of men not previously used to the concept.

Back in 2006, Sorkin's West Wing collaborator John Wells wasn't so lucky as his former colleague. Wells's new series for CBS, Smith, was cancelled after three episodes, despite a cast that including GoodFellas lead Ray Liotta. Smith wasn't the only high profile victim of the early season purges, either. NBC's Kidnapped, a show which pre-publicity had suggested was being seriously touted as 'the next-Lost' went to the great TV graveyard in the sky after just five episodes has been broadcast.

Fights for survival in TV shows are nothing new, of course. Star Trek spent its entire three-year run under an almost daily threat of cancellation. And, latterly, it’s become an annual shooting match each October to see which of the latest intake of freshman shows will still be alive and kicking the following May. Recent examples of those that didn't make it beyond Christmas include Point Pleasant, The Lyons Den, Threshold (all three of which probably deserved their early bath), Wonderfalls and The Lone Gunmen (both of which certainly did not) – none of these ever got the ratings to match any decent critical reaction that they received.

Naked ratings figures, however, have to be looked at in some form of exterior context. Studio 60's average audience of around eight million, for example, is a figure that many shows would kill to get anywhere near. (Let’s put it this way, that's about twice the number of viewers, on average, who watched such long-running series as Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Angel.) Certain networks demand more of an audience than others. The opposition also has to be taken into account. CBS's CSI: Miami currently rules the 10pm Monday slot into which Studio 60 had been placed (though why, is the subject for another article entirely). And there's also the question of surrounding programming – one of the main reasons why Studio 60 was perceived to be in trouble in the first place was that its lead-in show, Heroes, had been so astonishingly successful so quickly.

In America, such cut-throat shenanigans have been part of the industry-standard process for decades. It's a way of life for all TV executives and programme makers across the board – you accept that some shows simply aren't going to build up an audience quickly enough, or to generate the kind of ground-zero buzz that kept, for example, The X-Files or Buffy or 24 going beyond thirteen episodes when their initial ratings suggested that they were teetering on the brink of the abyss. That these three shows, in particular, subsequently went on to flourish and survive, nine, seven and (to date) six seasons should, perhaps, suggest to those who make the cancellation decisions that it's never as black and white an issue as it may appear on paper. But, in common with many aspects of the US media, such exceptions to the rule are normally treated as surprising (though, admittedly welcome) abnormalities within a rigidly fixed framework. The little shows that could, if you will.

'Give it some time to achieve an audience' was always the way in which British television seemed to regard questions of success and failure in ratings terms. Shows – particularly at the publicly funded BBC, and to a lesser extent, Channel Four – would often be given space to develop an audience even if their initial ratings suggested that such an audience didn't exist. I'm sure we can all think of shows that began very unpromisingly in terms of popularity and went on become genuine television legends – Men Behaving Badly, Red Dwarf, The Black Adder and, perhaps most notably, Only Fools & Horses being prime examples.

These days, it’s not so simple. Television has become, more than ever, a market-driven commodity. The old rules of the independent companies – who more closely followed the American model of demanding more-or-less instant success – were, in the late 1990s imported wholesale into both the BBC and Channel Four's way of thinking. Sitcoms – previously the absolute province of a 'let's see what happens' culture that ran all the way back to Dad's Army and The Liver Birds in the 1960s, became one of the most visible and cut-throat area of British telly. Six-episodes-and-you're-out-of-here.

The last eighteen months have seen, in general terms, a huge revival in the BBC's fortunes. This has, in turn, put pressure on ITV to come up with some new big-hitters of its own. And, inevitably, this has led to demands for instant success or, equally instant, cancellation. The metaphorical crucifixion of that cause celebre of TV ratings failure Celebrity Wrestling on the sacrificial alter of Doctor Who two summers ago was loudly celebrated by those of us who prefer thoughtful dramatic TV as opposed to crass, unoriginal, lowest-common-denominator reality television, of course. But it also showed a willingness by British TV companies to be just as ruthless just as quickly as their American counterparts when it comes to failure.

Celebrity Wrestling had one job and one job only; to claw some of the - at the time - seven million viewers watching Doctor Who each Saturday night away from the TARDIS and into the ring for a rumble. It is alleged that ITV spent twice as much advertising the show than the BBC had on advertising Doctor Who's return. In four episodes, Celebrity Wrestling saw it's own ratings drop from an initial three million by over a third. Next stop, oblivion for it, and all those involved in it. Just what is Kate Lawler doing for gainful employment to justify her existence these days?

In 2006, ITV seemed to get even more desperate. Shows like Fat Families, The Real Good Life and Bad Lads Army were all pulled after just a handful of episodes when they couldn't find an audience quickly enough. This trend reached it's nadir in July when the Philip Schofield game show vehicle It's Now Or Never achieved embarrassingly low ratings of 1.7 million for it's début episode and the rest of series was quietly cancelled whilst ITV thought no one was looking. It's Now Or Never was, ironically, one of the first shows commissioned by Paul Jackson, ITV's newly installed Director of Entertainment and Comedy, who was appointed in January with a brief to make ITV competitive again – particularly on Saturday nights.

In a recent episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Jordan McDeere, NBS's President and Aaron Sorkin's beacon of integrity, honesty and professionalism in the sick and venal world of the US TV industry faces a crisis. A rival, the manipulative and sly Hallie Gallaway, is appointed as Vice President of Alternative Programming (or, as Jordan suggests, 'Head of Illiterate Programming'). Hallie's first programme pitch is All You Need Is Love, a sickly-sweet reality format which sounds, uncannily, like a faux variant on It’s Now Or Never. Needless to say, the network executives led by the money-is-my-only-concern Chairman nd thumb-breaker, Jack Rudolph, love the sound of it, as do the advertisers ('what are the odds?' asks Jordan sarcastically).

Art imitating life? Just what are the odds?