Friday, February 4, 2011

Only the Good Die Young

I've recently been watching (and studying) several cancelled television shows. For the purpose of this post, I don't need to go into which ones, but suffice it to say that they carry strong ratings in online forums and databases. The question is: why do these highly regarded first and second seasons not warrant further development?

I think they do. Now, I know that I lack a full understanding of what happened in each case, and it is the purpose of this post to discuss the general reasons that these shows (or any worthy ventures) fail. In fact, to say they "fail" might be a misnomer—in some cases, they're killed.

Like a lot of mainstream media, broadcast and basic cable are largely funded by ads. Whenever ratings take a dip, someone loses money. I don't know if there is a standard for whose responsibility it is to lose said money, but there really are only two choices. Either, the network loses money if the advertisers pay for results (less eyeballs = less advertising), or the advertisers lose money if they pay for time (less eyeballs = less value per dollar).

Either way, a show with falling ratings represents a liability, rather than an asset. Therefore, the same rules that govern any investment govern television production as well. Network executives, whose job it is to grow the bottom line, are in a hurry to cut liabilities—often at the first sign of difficulty.

However, in any business venture, this behavior is short-sighted and destructive. Long-term assets create stability for an enterprise, however, they are not easily identified by short-term market response. Often, assets of long-term value either start out with little success or enjoy a good reception but then suffer a dip when the bubble created by marketing hype bursts.

This is because stories—those of unique people, products, and services or those of an artistic nature—are about more than easily quantifiable facts. Facts are easy to put together, but what makes a story compelling is how and why a certain combination of facts is important. No one becomes loyal to a list of bullet-points.

The only way to identify long-term assets is to consider the potential of a project, not just what currently exists. If the fan base (or customer base) is small for the first two years, that's not a sign that it's a failure, but a sign that more explanation is required. By that, of course, I don't mean more bullet points, but more depth.

It seems to me that any story which acquires even a small loyal fan base, has the potential to be valuable. In fact, this should be the clue to executives that the project needs to be promoted, rather than cancelled. It may not be a short term moneymaker, but building on existing loyalty with existing projects would save the company "startup" costs.

Traditional ratings don't measure (or don't care about) loyalty, just overall numbers. It may be that the number of overall viewers tends to indicate loyalty, but this sort of numbers view is too remote to accurately measure loyalty in all cases. For this reason, this system is hostile to art, which is unpredictable.

Because art is about breaking new ground, it is in art that value created. This is important not just for a media company's stability, but also to society as a whole. Unfortunately, art cannot be rushed, and too many people are afraid of losing their jobs over a bad call on risky artistic programming.

It's just too bad they don't realize that slow growth is never risky.

Jamie Klueck

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