Tuning Out

After missing last weekend’s debut episode, I’d considered checking out NBC’s Kings — as network TV goes, an alternate history retelling of the Biblical story of David starring Ian McShane sounds surprisingly ambitious and intriguing. But now I wonder if I should bother: The ratings for last Sunday’s series pilot were abysmal, which iO9 takes as a sure sign that the show will quickly be canceled. Same goes for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. I’ve got every episode stored on my DVR, but I can’t muster the energy to tune in when the lackluster ratings indicate that it will almost certainly be canceled.

This is a problem for TV-viewers: investing time and attention in any show is risky when there’s no guarantee that the series will stay on the air. Think of it this way: How many novels would even the most dedicated fiction reader ever pick up if there was no guarantee that the concluding chapters — or even the middle, for that matter — would ever be there?

For procedurals like Law & Order, this is obviously less of a problem, but for ambitious serials it’s a major hurdle. It’s a collective action problem, really: Viewers may want to tune in, but they’re not willing to do so until enough others tune in to guarantee that the show will be around.

Networks, of course, are in a tough spot too: They can hardly be expected to carry on airing expensive shows with poor ratings. HBO, thanks to its revenue model, can afford to shoot entire seasons before they air. But that doesn’t work on a big network. As a result, I suspect that, occasional successes like Lost, 24, and the first season of Heroes aside, we’ll see fewer and fewer of these shows on the major networks, which simply can’t afford to make big bets on shows that viewers see as risky.

And of course, there’s the related problem of consuming serials in installments in the world of DVR and DVD, which Michael Hirschorn described aptly in the February Atlantic:

Speaking at a screenwriter expo in Los Angeles, Tim Kring struggled to defend his sci-fi-tinged show, which has endured two seasons of faltering ratings. Heroes is presented in a serialized format, meaning that stories “arc” over the course of an entire season rather than conclude at the end of each episode, as in a sitcom, or a police procedural such asCSI or Law & Order. The serialized format is “a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now,” a blogger quoted Kring as saying, “because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was, you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on-air.”

Then, in a fit of pique for which he is still apologizing, he said: “So on-air is [relegated] to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.”

Kring later claimed that his quote had been “slightly mangled,” but the damage was done. He was blasted by fans and critics (“Try, you know, not sucking,” Time’s television blogger, James Poniewozik, bloggishly advised him), and certainly there was something gloriously self-destructive about a 50-something show creator, at the apex of his career after decades of slogging through hack work, publicly attacking the very people who are keeping him in business. But his profane evisceration of his own viewers is of a piece with NBC’s decision to sully the sanctum sanctorum of prime time with a talk show: both are signs of an old television order dying and a new one starting to come into focus.

… In his Howard Beale moment, Kring had things basically correct: his show requires many hours of commitment to understand and fully enjoy, and it’s much, much easier to watch the whole thing in a marathon on a rainy Saturday morning—most likely on DVD, via your remarkably cheap Netflix subscription.

Cable channels will likely pick up a lot of slack: Shows like Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Closer, and Breaking Bad have, in recent years, become prestige properties that have helped to define their home networks. And of course, HBO and (increasingly) Showtime will continue to churn out premium grade scripted TV. Still, I wonder when even those production budgets will become unsustainable, and the whole enterprise will move to the cheaper, freer frontiers of the web. Shows like Battlestar Galactica have already crossed over with their minisodes, and Joss Whedon recently announced that, whether Dollhouse succeeds or not, all of his future projects will be based on the web.

Whedon’s move stems largely from a desire for creator freedom, and I suspect it foreshadows a larger trend toward web-based production — and with that move, a lot of experimentation and innovation. And not just because of the lack of studio oversight, either. The formal constraints of television are familiar, but they’re awfully strange when you think about them: 42 minutes divided into five acts (and a teaser) aired once a week, with somewhere between a dozen and twenty-four episodes a year. As TV moves to the web, no doubt these formal constraints — along with many of the rest of the medium’s habits — will be discarded. What we’ll see, I hope, will be something familiar, but unbound, far more than even HBO can manage, by all the traditional constraints of network TV. Will such changes make room for interesting concepts like Kings and Dollhouse? I don’t know, but hopefully it will expand and reform the medium in such a way that viewers won’t so often find themselves quitting on shows before they even start watching.