Each year, the Upfronts create a series of trends which show what the networks are really thinking for the following year. They take what was successful the year before, and they decide that they should just copy all of that into their own schedules. For example, Lost’s success led to three different sci-fi copycat shows the following season: Invasion (ABC), Surface (NBC), and Threshold (CBS). Similarly, after the success of Prison Break, networks switched to serial conspiracy/action dramas like Vanished (FOX), Kidnapped (NBC), and Smith (CBS). This season has seen a variety of different trends, and some of them actually seem quite good on the surface. However, I think that there is actually a number of bad precedents being set which we should all remain aware of as next season begins.
The Three Most Disturbing Trends of the 2007/2008 Upfronts
3. The Procedural Nature of Television Drama
I’ve expected it from CBS for many years, now: all of their dramas are unlikely to have any sort of serial aspect, choosing instead to stick to procedural structure. Law & Order really started it off, CSI picked up the ball and kept running, and there is surely to be a new franchise waiting in the wings with time. It’s a quality which the networks love, since it means people can just sit back and watch a single episode without getting too caught up in the previous week’s action. And, I like some of these dramas: they can be compelling and fun to watch, and they repeat well for the purpose of syndication. However, I don’t want to see all procedural and nothing but procedural dramas.
The problem is that networks, in buying pilots, are shying away from serial dramas in favour of entirely procedural ones. They’re unwilling to take risks, in many cases, and often pick up procedural dramas which look like absolute shit instead of serial ones with some real potential. Take for example ABC, which turned down two high-profile serial pilots (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, adapted from the hit movie, and The Footballer’s Wives, adapted from the BBC smash) in order to pick up…Women’s Murder Club, which has a team of four strong women battling crime in San Francisco which patriarchal justice is unable to solve. There is no way that this show can be anything but terrible given its premise, but yet they picked it up. Why? Because it’s a procedural drama.
NBC and FOX suffer from the same problem. While FOX claims K-Ville is a serial drama about the New Orleans police force, I’m not buying it quite yet. They’re not even trying to lie about Canterbury’s Law or New Amsterdam, however. It’s not that shocking that a lawyer show and a cop show are procedural dramas. NBC has a similar problem: it markets Journeyman as an epic adventure, but his time-travelling is certainly going to move in a procedural pattern. The same goes for Life, their police drama; the cop has issues, sure, but he’ll reveal them in a procedural fashion. Even Chuck, the quirky drama from Josh Schwartz, has the potential to go down that route.
Even existing shows will run into this problem: Veronica Mars was often criticized by The CW for being too serial and not allowing for casual viewers to stop by (As if it should be as accesible on a week-to-week basis as America’s Next Top Model). The result was a series of stand-alone episode which have ended the season…and have honestly been kind of terrible. And, in a last ditch effort to keep the show alive, Rob Thomas attempted to sell The CW on a procedural FBI show featuring Veronica. If the only way a brilliant writer/creator and a fantastic actress can get work is to whore out a procedural drama, this is a distinct concern.
I know that last year was a bad one for Serial television, I get it. Kidnapped failed, Smith failed, all of those shows failed. However, that doesn’t mean that people just want to see cop shows and lawyer shows on the airwaves. It means that people want serial drama that is meaningful. CBS, usually so terrible, actually comes to the table with a couple of decent options (Cane is an example), and ABC has Dirty Sexy Money from Greg Berlanti with a kickass cast. NBC has the balls to go with The Bionic Woman, while FOX goes all out with the Sarah Connor Chronicles. And yet, for the most part, these types of shows are frowned upon; some are buried in tough timeslots, while others are likely to be given the time they need to really shine.
I’m not against procedural television: I love House, I enjoy CSI, and I think that Pushing Daisies (A procedural about a pie baker who can bring people back to life for a minute to help solve crimes) has a lot of potential on ABC…but the networks can’t treat the failure of serial dramas as public disinterest in them. Rather, they need to see this is an impulse to make better dramas, and to schedule them better. And thus, I worry about the future of the industry with the networks reading this the way they are.
2. The Prevalence of Reality/Game Show Programming
Now, I have to admit this: I watch a fair amount of reality television. I watch Survivor and The Amazing Race fairly diligently, and pay more attention to American Idol than perhaps I should. However, what we’re seeing now is very different: rather than competitive game shows designed to be an event, the networks are throwing these shows together and using them as regular programming within their schedule. This season represents the first time since perhaps the post-Millionaire era where I am actually somewhat concerned about the state of reality television.
After Survivor, there was admittedly a move towards similar shows. Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog emerged on NBC, The Amazing Race joined CBS, ABC developed Extreme Makeover (And EM: Home Edition) along with The Bachelor, etc. And yet, when it came down to it, these shows weren’t dominating their schedules. They were certainly part of them, but it was still a testing phase. At that point, the lineup appeared to reach critical mass. Over time, only the best shows have survived: I would argue that Survivor, The Amazing Race and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition have all proven their worth as quality programming. The rest of the shows on the list, however, have all fallen off the schedule; even The Apprentice has lost its lustre due to its failing quality.
And yet, we’re once again at a point where reality programming is taking over the main networks. Why, just last night ABC attempted to launch National Bingo Night, which of course failed, but they’re unlikely to stop as the upfronts showed. At NBC, the entire 8pm Hour (On all weeknights except Thursday) is taken over by reality programming on their fall schedule, including two separate hours of Deal or No Deal. At ABC, Dancing with the Stars is scheduled to take up two and a half to three hours of their weekly schedule, with Wife Swap and The Bachelor renewed. FOX, meanwhile, has American Idol in the Spring but now has Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and Kitchen Nightmares on Thursday, followed by Next Great American Band and Nashville on Fridays. Top this all off with CBS’ Kid Nation and The CW’s Beauty & The Geek, Pussycat Dolls, and America’s Next Top Model being joined by Crowned and Farmer Wants a Wife, and…well, we’ve got ourselves a problem.
I’ve done the math: on the fall schedules, 17 ½ hours worth of primetime real estate have been devoted to reality or game show programming. When American Idol returns in the Spring, that number will likely remain the same as some shows end their runs…but it’s still a rather disturbing thought. Reality television has once again become the new it thing…and I think that this is a mistake. I think that networks are starting to realize that cheap, inexpensive game shows get as many viewers as something which costs three times as much to produce, and that helps their bottom line. While that’s fine with one reality show, 17 ½ hours worth shows that networks have lost sight of the big picture: making good television. Sorry, Howie: No Deal on the game shows trend.
1. Spinning Off and Extending Existing Shows
In the short term, six extra hours of Heroes is a fantastic thing. In the short term, thirty episodes of The Office (Five of them an hour long) and 25 episode of My Name is Earl is a-ok. And, in theory, Private Practice should be a decent extension of the Grey’s Anatomy brand. But, this can’t continue. NBC and other networks can’t keep turning to their existing shows as a source of further ratings stability. I don’t think they will no where to stop with this, and I think that the implications of it could spread like wildfire through the television development industry. And this makes it the most disturbing trend of the 2007/2008 Upfronts.
Heroes: Origins (The concept where six individual heroes each get an episode’s worth of back story, and then fans vote on their favourite who is added to the show’s 3rd Season) is a decent idea because it gives the network the opportunity to air more episodes of Heroes without paying all of the actors to do the extra six hours. I think that it could provide some interesting content, and should be a unique experiment with user-controlled media in a television world (This is the mass media student in me coming out). However, I don’t want Heroes to become a spin-off machine in the future. I don’t want this experiment to show to NBC that people might want all sorts of superhero shows, and they should spin-off one of the six characters into their own series. I think that television development, first and foremost, should be about developing new programming. What NBC is already saying here is that more Heroes is worth more than a new drama, and I think that if this attitude was to continue it would be a serious problem. I like Heroes, but I wouldn’t like it to become a multi-show franchise ala Law & Order. Leave that to the procedurals.
And the worst thing is that NBC is going even further with this. By extending the orders of The Office and My Name is Earl, the network is giving fans more of what they want…but I think that the network can’t ignore the need to also add new comedies into its lineup. I don’t think that The Office should be extended, placing considerable pressure on the shows writers and performers, just because NBC knows it will likely get better ratings than placing a new show into its lineup. NBC’s biggest problem right now is that they didn’t think ahead: they milked Friends and Will & Grace for all they were worth, but then didn’t build anything else to continue that tradition (And spin-off Joey was an abject failure). Rather than extending their comedies, they need to build new franchises to coexist with them. It’s part of the reason why the network should have let Scrubs go, but it’s also why instead of stretching out their existing shows they should have worked a new one into the schedule. Avoiding developing new shows is not a smart tactic for NBC if they want anything other than short term gain.
And then we have perhaps the worst offender: Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice. We don’t know for sure, but I believe that ABC asked Shonda Rhimes to write the spinoff which became Private Practice. The network turned down her proposed pilot about war journalists, and instead she churns out what ended up a carbon copy of Grey’s Anatomy. It will cover the same romantic territory, the same types of medical cases, the same neurotic personalities, and the same emotional arcs. And yet, ABC went with this show over any other because it’s the exact same thing 20+ Million viewers are already watching, so why bother developing something else?
I loathe the fact that Private Practice exists. I actually liked what I saw of the pilot, if only because it was a happier version of Grey’s Anatomy which has been plain depressing as of late. But, I don’t know if I’ll be able to justify watching the show full time based on that principle, as it supports ABC’s flawed logic. Just because something works doesn’t mean you can drive it into the ground: that’s just as bad as what CBS has done with CSI, or what NBC did with Law & Order. While Grey’s Anatomy is part-procedural, I don’t think that in any way justified spinning it off with almost no change in format and expecting people not to notice and just love it like the sheep we are.
This is the most disturbing trend from the 2007/2008 Upfronts because it’s a hidden concern: for most TV viewers, more episodes of their favourite shows or favourite formulas is great. But, if this trend continues, I fear for the future of these shows and the networks which air them. I fear that just as there are now game shows running wild, that we’ll eventually see spinoffs doing the same. And that’s not good for the development of original television programming, which is really what the Upfronts should be all about. I don’t want to see any of these shows, shows I like, be tarnished by greedy network executives, and I think that they need to take a step back and consider the ramifications of their actions.