In an ongoing attempt to provide some analysis of the fall of Jericho and the subsequent rise of its fans, I’ve been fielding a wide range of questions, comments, criticisms, and attempting to provide a perspective for them. I’ve dealt with CBS’ logic for the cancellation, along with documenting the rise of the ‘Save Jericho’ campaign; however, as many have rightly pointed out, I have yet to properly address the claim very succinctly stated in a comment on this very blog by James Denison:
“Jericho was an excellent drama that suffered from the 3 month hiatus, going up against [American Idol], and poor promotion by CBS.”
In doing so, I might have to defend certain decisions CBS made, and I think that this is just: the network is not entirely at fault here. But, by investigating these issues further, I believe that was can increase CBS’s accountability for their own role in this problem. What I want to investigate are the following series of questions:
– Why do shows go on hiatus, and what other options are available?
– If CBS had shifted the show’s timeslot to avoid Idol, what would the effect have been?
– Is Jericho an easily promotable show?
In answering these questions, I believe that we can further understand the series of events that took place, and delve yet further into the questions of New Media, New Advertising, and just about everything in between.
The Hiatus Hernia
Back in March, a large series of shows were on hiatus. I would be sitting in my residence room, and someone would stop by to ask me if their favourite show was on that week, and I would have the unfortunate task of informing them that it was on hiatus. I also got a large number of blog hits informing me that people were starting to get antsy for Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes to return. As a result, I wrote a blog post about it.
Now, you can read the entire piece for a better idea of the entire gist of the argument, but to sum it up: there is too many weeks in a television season, and producing enough episodes to avoid a hiatus would be impossible financially for any network. This problem has existed ever since TV became a high-priced, lucrative industry, and it is in recent years (With the rise of the internet and the New Media we discuss) that people have become impatient.
The old method was just to randomly switch new episodes on and off in order to spread them out throughout the year. This was fine until television dramas started become more serial in their nature: specifically, when Lost arrived on the scene. The first drama of its kind in years, the constant repeats began to erode their once Top 5 viewership down into Top 8. As a response to this, new types of programming emerged. There are really four solutions to this problem, and the problem for CBS was that their options were limited when dealing with Jericho.
Jericho was in a tough position. As a new show, CBS couldn’t bet the house on its success, and yet it was by far their most-hyped new drama entering into this season (There’s a reason it’s the only one that lasted an entire season). Launching without Jericho wasn’t an option for CBS, especially since it was their only young-viewer focused pilot. As a result, when they debuted the show in September, they had already eliminated one of their scheduling options. That option, airing the entire season without interruption, is not possible in the Fall because there is not enough weeks and it would inevitable run into the deadzone that is mid-December. Plus, for CBS to put a financial commitment of producing and stockpiling episodes during the summer would have been far too risky for them, especially with the show being quite unproven.
The option that they chose for Jericho, meanwhile, was one that had been proven itself successful just a year earlier when Prison Break split its season into two parts and had a “Spring Finale.” While there are other ways of dividing up the season, they all involve a hiatus of sorts except for that first option…which wasn’t really one that could have worked for CBS a year ago. In hindsight, the hiatus was a killer for Jericho, but hindsight is 20/20. Considering the risks involved, CBS made the logical move in this instance.
No show, unless schedule like 24, can avoid a hiatus. Every show has to take a break over Christmas for the cast to rest, and all shows usually come back to lower ratings. Jericho got blasted more than others, especially amongst younger viewers, but I don’t think CBS was in any position to stop this from happening from a scheduling perspective except in hindsight.
The Idol Factor
Now, there’s no question that being up against American Idol was a problem for Jericho. Hell, it’s a problem for any show. However, I want to ask a hypothetical question here: if Jericho had moved timeslots, what would have happened? Would the show have continued on rolling, or would there have been a completely different set of problems for the network?
When a show moves timeslots, especially after a hiatus, it is going to lose some viewers. Some people will have something else to watch during that hour, some people will be busy on that evening, and perhaps moving it into a later timeslot would have taken away some of its young viewers. The reality is that moving a show’s timeslot is almost more dangerous than pitting it against the Idol juggernaut.
And I don’t know where CBS could have moved the show to. Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays were all nights where it would have competed with American Idol in some way; heck, even Thursday would have had that for awhile. That leaves only Friday and Sunday, one of which is already a television dead zone and the latter would be a tough place to establish the series against all sorts of other competition. I think a later timeslot would have limited viewers, much as it did for Lost, while any earlier timeslots would end up against Idol at some point. In short, I don’t think CBS had a single “safe haven” on their schedule where they could safely slot in Jericho. No show airing on the first three nights of the week, or even four, can possible avoid it entirely. Prison Break only got away with it because it airs on the same network, and thus didn’t have to compete with it.
That’s a fact that CBS forgot to take into account with its decision to schedule the show in the same manner, but I don’t think that CBS was in any position to tremble in fear at the Idol juggernaut. They had nowhere safe to move the show to, and anywhere they did would result in ratings decline for both it and the show that switched with it. CBS hedged their bets that the same hardcore fanbase sending peanuts by the truckload would stick with their favourite sci-fi show instead of watching Idol…and that didn’t happen. The show shed three million viewers.
Since we can’t rewrite the first part of the season easily, CBS’ opportunity to “save” the show from Idol was in January…when they really didn’t have a lot of options. Moving it away from Idol was both a difficult and risky task, and for the sake of the rest of their lineup Jericho was left to man the defenses.
Promoting the Unpromotable
In responding on the Official Jericho Boards to some discussion on this very topic, I stated the following:
It’s a distinct marketing challenge especially for CBS, who has never really dealt with a show like this before. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama…kind of. It never quite found its groove until the end of the season, and by that point people had moved on. CBS had missed their window of opportunity.
Television promotion is, and always will be, about image. Very few people, percentage wise, will ever fully research a show or scour up copies of episodes to catch up. Instead, a majority of viewers are casual: they’ll hear about a show through word of mouth, see a commercial, read an article, or any of those such things. While the internet is certainly changing this, I do not believe that the internet could have saved Jericho from being an indecipherable mess of a concept. While it came together at the end, the beginning of the season was plagued with a distinct problem: what the hell is this show about?
Is it about the apocalyse? Is it a conspiracy drama? Is it about survival? Is it a romance? In its opening episodes, the show didn’t have an identity: it became a high-paced thriller in its conclusion, but by that point CBS had indeed lost their window.
I won’t say that CBS couldn’t have done more, but how do you possible describe the early episodes of Jericho to prospective viewers. And really, with a show like Jericho, it’s about that opening promotion. Through the season the network dropped the ball, but the problem was that they didn’t know what it looked like. That first half of the season was, in my opinion, middling: it went nowhere, did nothing. The network had very little to promote, and the result was a second half promotion that never quite had something to grasp onto. And the result was a lack of new viewers, and the loss of existing ones tired of, well, all sorts of things.
And yet, this happens to all Sci-Fi dramas: people lose interest over a hiatus, and no amount of promotion can bring them back. I think that Jericho is different from simple shows like House or Grey’s Anatomy, and the result is that CBS could never have saved it with promotion.
This all boils down to the level of awareness CBS had at the beginning of the season. A majority of these problems stem entirely from that moment, the moment where CBS picked up a show it really didn’t know how to handle. A weak opening few episodes didn’t help matters much, but the fact remains that with the pieces put before them CBS put together the puzzle as best they could. However, with no clear picture of reference and executives peering over their shoulders, they made mistakes. These were not malicious mistakes, I believe, but rather honest ones. And, after this debacle, ones they are unlikely to make again.
And, as many have pointed out, CBS is learning with Swingtown, their serial drama debuting in the Spring. They’re giving it time to develop, which many see as being a slap in the face to Jericho. However, CBS can’t go back in time and fix their error, and they want another shot at getting it right from the beginning. And, Swingtown is an easier sell: Sexed up 70s-era adults is perfect for the aging baby-boomers and young viewers looking for a Desperate Housewives equivalent without Susan’s idiocy. If Swingtown succeeds, CBS will pat themselves on the back for a job well done. I figure it’s our job, no matter what Jericho’s fate may be, to make sure they remember what was sacrificed for them to gain this “knowledge”.
Well, there we are: that’s my views on these three key issues in Jericho’s eventual cancellation. If there is anything else you might want covered or considered, leave a comment below or drop me an email at cultural.learnings @ gmail.com. The more discussion we stimulate, I believe the better the results we will get out of this, season two or no season two.