We’re at that time of year when networks unveil their new shows. As I look at the long list of new shows that are out there, I see an alarming trend towards shows that are destined for failure.
In North America, we are accustomed to prime time shows that are series. In a series, the main character(s) experience a new adventure each week. They usually resolve the story arc by the end of the episode and then start all over the next week with a new story arc. Many (most?) prime time TV shows have been like this: Cheers put a bunch of funny characters in a bar and the story arched over the half-hour. The same with The Cosby Show. And Seinfeld. Law & Order (and all of its iterations) did the same thing for the hour-long police procedural. So did MacGyver. So did Magnum PI. So did The A-Team. So did Hart to Hart. So did House. So did CSI (and all of its iterations). The Simpsons even joked in one episode about wrapping up their story arc in 30 minutes or less.
The conflict in these stories was often external. That is: Some new, external situation would enter the main characters’ lives and force them from their comfort zone. The conflict would be resolved (with high adventure or lots of laughs, or whatever the TV show’s recipe was) and the characters would face another situation the following week. Once in a while, the writers would dial in a larger over-arching theme (Is Higgins really Robin? Can Wilson overcome his battle with cancer?) but for the most part, these story lines are secondary to the main story arc, which is new each week.
Because the conflict was external, the main characters didn’t have to grow too much. Each week, the characters were “reset” so that they faced another story and acted true to their character’s pre-established personalities.
But the networks looked around and they saw viewership was eroding as people surfed channels for new entertainment. We viewers are a fickle bunch! Networks wanted a way to lock viewers in and get them tuning into their favorite shows each week. So they raised the stakes; they made our favorite main characters face even bigger conflicts… conflicts that require several episodes to tell the main story arc.
This shift in the scale of conflict and the “size” of the story arc causes some problems in story-telling:
- First, it creates a new “high-water mark” that increases what we expect in conflict. A one-story-per-episode show that turns into an ongoing-story-over-several-episodes show. The Office struggles with exactly that problem right now. And I predict that Bones will struggle in upcoming seasons for the same reason. (Bones used to be an excellent one-story-per-episode show that has now become an ongoing-story-over-several-episodes show. How can they ever go back to one-story-per-episode? They can’t.)
- Second, that higher level of conflict compels change in the main character. They grow as a human being and learn from the conflict. They’re different than the person we first knew them as. Sometimes that’s okay but sometimes the change is too much for viewers. (What would happen if House became less like House? What would happen if Magnum became less like Magnum?).
- Third, and even more importantly, is the issue that all conflict needs to be resolved. Viewers demand it and are not satisfied if it isn’t resolved. It’s a problem because networks want to prolong their highly profitable, viewer-attracting TV shows for as long as possible but viewers want to see the conflicts drawn to a close so they have a sense of closure. The result? Lost is probably the best example of how ridiculous it can get. But shows like 24 and Jericho and Alias were similar. This season’s shows Revolution and Last Resort look alarmingly like they will fall into this camp: If they become successful, the networks will drag out the show as long as possible.
So viewers start off with a show that they like but the story can potentially change too much — more than a viewer might accept.
Networks, then, have a challenge: They might start with a great premise but they need to consider how they plan to conclude the main conflict in the story. If it’s a storyline that can be concluded each episode, with a new story introduced in the next episode, fine. That’s a series.
But if the main conflict can’t be concluded in one episode then the networks need to stop trying to prolong the show as long as possible. They should instead look at the serial model, like what is done very well in the UK, and purposely create a show that has a preplanned lifespan — a beginning, a middle, and an END.
That’s the key to creating TV shows that are less likely to fail: Networks need to plan when the show’s story arcs will end. One-story-per-episode shows can go on for a long time (Dick Wolf’s Law & Order series, which has been running since the dawn of time, is a perfect example of this). Shows with a story-arc over multiple episodes should be planned out in their entirety before the show begins. And if a show decides to switch from the one-story-per-episode model to the multiple-episodes-story-arc model, the show needs to be planned out and drawn to a total conclusion.
I’m not a TV programming expert (obviously). But I am a viewer who is becoming increasingly pushed away from prime time because there is nothing worth watching.