Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Patience is a Virgin

The title of this post is a quotation from All in the Family, a show that, had it premiered this January, would already be canceled. A lot of shows are being renewed, canceled, time-shifted and pre-empted right about now, and I wonder how many good shows or potentially good shows will not survive.

If you make a list of your favorite long-running series of all time, it is almost certain that at least one of them began its life with poor Nielsen ratings. All in the Family for example, which went on to be arguably the most popular show ever on television, began as a midseason replacement with low ratings for its thirteen episodes. The controversial subject matter got it some attention in the press, some good and some bad, and when the thirteen episodes were repeated over the summer, the show became a blockbuster, staying at number one for five years. Cheers was notoriously rated last among all television series on the air for its first episode. It went on to be a ratings success for eleven seasons. The Dick Van Dyke Show was canceled after its first year because ratings were so low, but executive producer Sheldon Leonard personally lobbied the sponsors to insist the network renew the show, which went on for four more successful seasons. The list could go on, but the point is that shows' fates are not determined from day one. It can take time to build an audience, and there is often a financial, to say nothing of artistic, benefit to taking that time.

There was a time when a show was guaranteed at least half a season, no matter what the ratings. If it was a failure, then the show was cancelled. If it was a success, or seemed to be building toward success, then the show would be renewed. I am not sure whether television has grown too expensive for that commitment, or if decision makers are less confident in their choices, but now shows are often pulled after three or four airings. In some cases, a single low-rated telecast will end a series.

I understand that television is a business and low-rated shows are bad for business. But low-rated shows can become high-rated shows. Sometimes it just takes a little while. In the Motherhood, an ABC comedy that premiered this month is an example of the trend. Let me begin by saying that I didn't care for the show. I am not championing a personal favorite here, as I probably won't watch it. ABC ordered thirteen episodes. After showing two episodes, they reduced the order to six episodes. Now, it seems that the show has been canceled after running four episodes. How many potential fans never got to see the show? To be fair to the show, what if it got better? As long as you have that list of your all-time favorite long-running series from two paragraphs ago, look it over and see how many were wonderful in their first four episodes. Some probably were. But some weren't.

In fairness, there have been recent examples of networks giving a show every possible chance. Arrested Development, a series I liked very much, was given great time slots by Fox, renewed for three (well, two and a half) seasons despite abysmal ratings, and well-advertised throughout. People just didn't want to watch it. I wish the show had stayed on, but I can't fault the network for jumping the gun. They tried and tried and America just didn't want to see it. That's fair enough. I don't begrudge networks their profit motive--just their itchy trigger fingers.

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