Pop Culture — What I learned from watching TV

What I learned from watching TV

by Amy Diaz

Lesson 1: A graceful out-with-the-old and an intro to an edgier new

May is my Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.

Actually, May was my Dec. 31. Once upon a time, all television networks began their season somewhere in the vicinity of September and ended them somewhere toward the end of May. But Fox, HBO, FX, reality television and the rise of TV-on-DVD changed all that. So now May is more like the end of a college semester — some students graduate, some students change classes and new recruits get ready to join the fray.

But in this brief pause, we in the television audience still have an opportunity to take stock, to consider what we’ve learned and, like any good graduation speaker, offer advice. So here are my list of “Five things I learned from the 2004-2005 broadcast network television season.” Now if I can only find a college to offer me an honorary degree…

Five lessons of 2005

1. ABC wasn’t dead, just really really still.

Sure, it looked like ABC was ready to ask UPN for some loose change and canned food when we headed into fall 2004. But shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost helped bring new life to the network and put it back in the ratings game. Both of these shows benefit from being a bit screwy in some way — Houswives is camptastic, Lost is a multi-layered mystery — which will hopefully show broadcast networks that they weren’t losing viewers to HBO and Showtime because of the premium channels’ nudity and profanity but because their programming was different and eschewed the normal drama or comedy formulas.

Advice: Don’t be afraid to get a little weird.

2. Man can not live by reality show alone.

The more popular reality shows became, the more reality shows there were on-air and the more reality shows had to work to stand out, thus the more unsettling they had to become to get noticed. Also, there’s something of a finite number of basic concepts out there. What does this all add up to? A reality show bubble. This year saw something of a sloughing off of reality show duplicates — the market will not bear two boxing shows or two pretty-girl shows (Top Model, The Starlet). Next year? Ask the dotcommers — all bubbles burst eventually.

Advice: Focus on improving a few of the more successful reality shows and work on developing the writers and directors who will create the shows to take their place.

3.  Dump the dinosaurs; do it with class.

NYPD Blue might have lived on about two seasons longer than it needed to, but it ended with the same scrappy aplomb that marked its much-publicized nudity-sprinkled debut. West Wing felt fresher than it had in a long time and should have definitively ended its career with the up-stroke of this season (as it is, West Wing will limp back onto the field for what I can only hope is the absolute last season next fall). ER, which ran out of creative juice some five years ago, will be back for two seasons but wouldn’t it be kinder at this point to pull the plug?

Advice: Don’t wait for the former greats to decay; let them go out on top. (Or, at least, before they’re scraping the bottom.)

4. A late start can lead to a strong season.

24 started its season in January and, as a result, has run without interruption with new episode following new episode week after week (no repeats, none of those damn clip shows, a-hem ABC dramas). Couple that broadcasting strategy with a strong plot line and you have a reinvigorated show that builds its audience without giving it time to get lost in repeats. Following HBO’s lead, this strategy of airing a series weekly, without a break, until its season finale could help any show keep an audience (even if its timeslot changes) and get more series on air.

Advice: A shorter, sequential season beats a traditional but broken-up season (remember that, like, six-week period without a new Veronica Mars?) any day.

5. Monday is not a morgue.

Sunday may be the new Thursday but Monday is taking over the old Friday position (remember the days of The X-Files and Homicide?) as home to shows with a less-than-American-Idol-sized but still rabid following. The aforementioned 24 has given new life to the most depressing weekday as has the pluckily entertaining Medium. Meanwhile, the former powerhouse of Thursday night has seen itself reduced to the horrors of The Apprentice as the most compelling example of Must-See TV.

Advice: Especially in the age of TiVo, TV real estate can be what you make of it.

- Amy Diaz

 
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