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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Lifespan of a Television Show

My dear friend and mentor Jeff Lyons, and independent writer, producer and bon vivant has been deep in the trenches lately, developing a TV series with producers foreign and domestic. And it's been one helluva ride. Today he shares a particular frustration with us: the natural lifespan of a television show:


Forgive me for letting off steam, but I’m pissed. I’m working on developing a TV series with a company, and it is a grand, fun, fulfilling, and educational experience. I’m really having a great time. Yes, you hear the “but” coming a mile away, don’t you?

But--the mindset that rules how TV series operate is crazy making. First, let me make clear, my middle name is not Pollyanna. I have been trying to produce film and TV content for a long time and have been around the block, swum with the sharks, danced with the devil, and shoveled my own share of s@#it to get projects down the road to development. TV exists to sell soap; it is not an instrument of entertainment, it is a sales tool. TV shows are aired by networks to create a reason for people to watch commercials, not because they are pursuing high-art. This is not true for the Internet (yet), but it is the nature of TV. In short, I have no illusions. I really do get it.

But--with that said, why can’t we just let a TV show have it’s natural life span? Why do we have to drag out a series for nine seasons because economically it makes “sense”? My beef with this comes up now because I’m currently beating my head against this wall with my colleagues. I’m telling them that the show we're trying to put up is a one season killer-diller, any more than that and it will be diluted. They insist it has to “have legs” past one season, otherwise there will be no incentive for the suits and executives to do the show. They simply won’t spend the money if they can’t get it back eight billion fold; meaning the show has to have a multi-season potential.

But--what if it doesn’t? What if it’s just a perfect one-season show? Why can’t it just live its lifespan naturally and die with dignity? Why does it have to go on life support with cranked up subplots, dumb-ass new characters, and forced plot lines? Whatever happened to a dignified death? Well, the answer, of course, is what I’ve just been describing. The damn show is making money! And, actors, directors, writers, etc., are making residuals! Now, certainly this is not a black and white situation. There are mini-series, limited series, etc. And these work fine. They make money and the trend for limited series is actually increasing (in cable anyway).

But--The problem I’m describing is still the prevailing zeitgeist. I’m a bonehead for suggesting this, but aren’t we all just drinking the network/advertiser Kool Aid? Isn’t there an alternative? Yes--Virginia, there is.

But--It will take guts, courage (the two aren’t the same), business savvy, and creative moxie. The solution is to let a show end naturally. Don’t push it, don’t extend it, and don’t put it on life support. If you limit shows to 13 or 26 weeks max, then two things can occur: first, viewers have a truly satisfying experience with the show, because it doesn’t fizzle out and “die” from being forced past it’s natural lifespan. Rather, the show follows its natural course and, like a good book, ends right on time. Viewer is happy, happy, happy. But, advertiser is pissed, pissed, pissed. They’ve just lost a cash cow. Right? Not necessarily.

With shorter series, networks have more space for more shows. With shorter series, more producers get their shows up, more writers are working, more revenue flows, more dollars are out there to buy more soap, and there are more and varied shows on the air to show advertising. Shorter shows don’t have to mean lost revenue. More shows means more creative work is available to be shown. How many great shows never see the light of day simply because networks won’t pull their cash cows from the airwaves to make room for new blood, simply because they are afraid of losing ad dollars? If they are smart (and they are) new product can be put up each season, with more in the pipeline. It can be win-win! If, if, if the creative will is there and the business savvy is in place to make it work. And I believe both those things are out there … somewhere.

But--I hear the wail of despair, “How can we pull performing shows from the air, when they are performing! Are you nuts?” Yes, I am. But that’s beside the point. What I’m suggesting is that even though these shows are performing economically, they probably stopped performing creatively a long time ago. I think that artificially sustaining shows that have died creatively by grasping for new story lines to keep viewer interest only shows that a show has stopped being its intended form and is not being “forced” to keep going despite the fact that it has really ended. Viewers watch anyway, because they’re hooked. That’s a good thing, but why not just hook them on something new, maybe something even better? And in the hooking, more work is generated, more revenue spent, etc., etc., and the great wheel of life in Hollywood continues profitably.

But--I’m not totally pig-headed about this. Seinfeld was the kind of show that could have gone on forever. It’s just the nature of the beast. It wasn’t about anything anyway, so there was not storyline to blow up or mutilate. But, how about Lost, which has been lost for seasons. It was done after its first season. What a perfect example of a show that had nowhere to go after thirteen shows. And then there is Battlestar Galactica, one of the best reborn series in TV history. Three seasons and the producers had the sense to end it. BRAVO! But, it’s spinoff , Caprica, is in the works, so we’ll see. We’ll see.

Be clear that I am not lumping all shows together here. Some shows naturally extend, most don't. What I'm railing against is something like the following:

Cheers, popular 1980s sitcom. Great show, great audience, but as with all great things it started to come to it's natural end. But, not wanting to lose the demographic and the time-slot that was generating lots of cash, the producers and network decided to "give the show legs." The decision was made to make a change so they could come up with new story lines to keep their audience. So--what did they do? They had Sam, the womanizing bar-keep fall in love with Daine, the snobbish intellectual waitress. That their mutual antagonism and oil-water banter was the heart of the show and it's success was of no consequence. Some brilliant exec probably thought, "Hey, if they get on each other's nerves as co-workers, how much more fun will it be if they're boyfriend and girlfriend?" Nice idea, lousy reality. The change altered the shows dynamic and it died faster than the first round Bush bailout bill in Congress today. They killed the show to save it, rather than just letting it go out with dignity. This is what I'm talking about ... stupid changes in a show to try to keep it alive. This is the norm, not the exception. This is the problem.

So--To summarize: Shows are like life forms. Some are meant to be Galapagos tortoises (daytime soaps) and live forever, while others are more like a Gastrotrich (multi-cellular bug that lives 3 days). Most shows are more like the Gastrotrich. We can still have profitable shows if we are smart enough to know when a show REALLY needs to die. Viewers can have a better experience, more work will be generated with more slots to fill, more work means more advertising and soap selling, and residuals continue to flow. And creatively things can grow exponentially. It’s a Win Win Win.

But--all the pragmatists and my grounded-in-the-real-world contemporaries out there will, without doubt, come back on all this with, “You’re dreaming! Good luck selling that argument. If they buy this, I’ve got a bridge in Alaska!”

A boy can only dream.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff, I'm not an expert in the entertainment industry, but I think the logic for stretching a lifespan of the TV show is the bottom line. Got the most money for the least effort. From the producers and writers point of view (you and I), it totally makes sense that more shows, more works, more creativity, more entertainments. But the Executives have different goals, have they not? If you make more money with less stress, what would you do? The same can be said for sequels in movies business.

Kirkland said...

Yet another reason why I refuse to write TeeVee.

And the suits which run the TeeVee world are still clinging to that business model of the past, e.g. a show runs X episodes so there's enough in the can to make to syndication...

But, I say (to borrow a lyric from Semisonic) TeeVee should think more like this:

Closing time - every new beginning comes from some other beginning'send...

But it doesn't, and the suits won't change.

Seth Fortin said...

Well, I couldn't disagree more about Lost (though I do think they'd be well-advised to end it in the next season or two), but yeah, in general this is true. In fact, I've often thought that some shows (Greg The Bunny, Sports Night) were better off for having been cancelled before they peaked. Even Firefly, a show I would have liked to see more of, could easily have gotten very bad very quickly, whereas now all we have are thirteen fantastic episodes with a maddeningly incomplete story arc. And Family Guy absolutely proves your point -- it should have stayed brilliant and off the air.

On the other hand, some shows lose their way and then find it again. Rescue Me seems to do this practically every season -- it devolves into self-parody, then rediscovers its reason for existing. And The West Wing, in my opinion, actually really soared in its last two seasons, becoming much tighter and smarter, if not as funny as it had been in earlier years.

And there are always creative ways to rejuvenate a set of characters or a situation -- think about the two-year time jump in Alias, or the tantalizing spec episode that was created for a fourth season of Veronica Mars, which jumped a few years into the future to show us Veronica working at the FBI.

TV DOOD said...

You need (roughly) 100 episodes before you can syndicate it, which is where the money is. The network run is a loss leader.

This is really TV 101. Someone should have told you this, and saved you two thousand words.

James said...

Yeah, I gotta say --

The network wanting to give your show "legs" shouldn't be your biggest complaint about television. If anything, it should be the exact opposite.

The networks have plenty of failed pilots and shows that never get past the first season (and hell, sometimes not even past 5 episodes) --

Are you really surprised they are looking for shows that have the potential for longevity?

And they aren't looking that hard --

Look at PRISON BREAK. The premise really shouldn't have been able to sustain itself for more than a season. But it has.

I have to say -- I am completely with you on the way television is run and how studio execs, essentially control content --

BUT -- a show lasting LONGER than it should wouldn't be my first complaint. In fact, it would be my very last.

Jeff Lyons said...


There's hope I think. Chances aren't good. It's hard to move the monolith especially when the economics are positive. Creative arguments really don't stand much of a chance. You always have to be able to make the business case. Amazingly, I think there is a good business case to be made.

Thanx for your comment.

Jeff Lyons said...


Great comments. Re West Wing, which is one of my favorite all-time shows, I do disagree a little. After Wells took the helm the show changed... still great... it's John Wells after all, but the best seasons were 1 & 2. I won't go so far to say (as some have) that Wells just turned into a political form of ER, but the whole show changed. And this is a perfect example of how great producers and great writing can still keep a show alive, even though it morphs into somethng else. My comments about this "problem" are not black and white. There are tons of exceptions (thank goodness). I agree with another comment here that the least of my problems with TV should be that a show goes too long (LOL). My point is really about diversity, opening up the windows of opportunity for others, and doing it so that we all still make money. I'm not convinced that we can't do that.

Deb said...

I couldn't disagree more about LOST. The show just had its best season. THE CONSTANT was one of the best individual episodes of any show I've ever seen.

And the creators have limited the run, even though it could have probably gone on longer than the projected six seasons. The same could be said of other shows like SEX AND THE CITY, THE SOPRANOS, and certainly that was the case with DEADWOOD.

It's so rare for a show to connect with audiences. With all the money spent on pilots and shows that fail, not to mention the cost of producing a show for a whole season, I can hardly fault networks for wanting shows with "legs."

Jeff Lyons said...

TV Dood:

Well, 100 episodes is the magic number. Certainly that's what everyone buys into. And it's a nice number. A round number. And there are metrics that support why it's 100 vs. 200 vs. 98 vs. 2. This number is usually hit somewhere in season 5... the magic season. It's all very magical. As TV should be.

And you're not wrong in pointing out this important point. It does figure into things, prominently so. But--there are lots... and I mean lots... of shows that have gone into syndication without hitting the magic numbers. Many of those were well under 60 episodes. In fact many were well under 50. In fact, some were as low as 12! And I'm not talking back in 1950 (syndication has been around in its present for for 75 years).

"Wonderfalls" and "Firefly" were around a dozen each. The original "Battlestar Galactica" was bought after only 20 or so, and "Arrested Development" was picked up after only 50. So, shows can get sold after one or two seasons. Would it be bad if they went 100 shows and 5 seasons? NO! Honest, I like money as much as the next guy/gal. But, it just doesn't have to be 100, or 50, or 26. Depends on the show and how smart the producers are. So--maybe a show does have to have legs to sell, but those legs can be more like Mini-Me's rather than Ella MacPherson's. Kind of takes away a little of the magic from the magic number--eh?

I guess it all depends on who's Kool Aid you want to drink, mine or the Networks. (Hint: mine isn't laced with anything and I use all natural ingredients.)

BTW... it was 1399 words, not two thousand. But who's counting.


Jeff Lyons said...


I don't disagree about a Network wanting a show to have legs. Legs are a good thing. I just object to the network slapping on a pair of legs that don't fit, forcing me to watch a show wobble and collapse under its own weight. If its legs wear out... let it go.

On Lost... well, we'll just have to agree to disagree on that one. :)


Jack said...

It sounds like you're pissed - clash between artist and bean counters. Classic. From my perspective, a simple TV watcher, I see it as more complicated. First what about HBO or Showtime, they don't have advertisers. Aren't they free to create whatever will simply bring in an audience? And even in the world of commercials is it that different? I mean people watch because they're entertained and at the same time also happen to watch the commercials (unless they have TiVo). As to show longevity it's pretty clear some shows go on too long but I say so what. Sorry. For example the West Wing, I felt it went down hill after the first few seasons but I liked the show so much I watched it anyway even past it's prime. My complaint about TV is the lack of smart shows. I'd like to know is it because it is very difficult to do or is it that the audience is just not smart?

Jeff Lyons said...


Yes, I agree with you... actually.

The difficulty here is that I'm coming off as a real curmudgeon and cry baby, but I'm really not a cry baby. I'm not opposed to Networks having shows that go on more than two weeks, honest. And yes, they get to put up whatever will bring in an audience. And hopefully that will be something I write!

But--you finally hit the nail on the head! You say you watch a show (like West Wing... which I agree with your comment) even though it's past its prime. Are you stupid for doing that? NOOOO! Audiences aren't stupid. And it's not hard to put up smart shows. Smart shows don't go up because Networks don't kill their babies soon enough because people keep watching even though a show is really over. THAT'S MY POINT. I say stop pandering to the nostalgia of a viewer who stays hooked even though the show is dead (kind of like those sad chimp mothers who carry their dead babies around with them in the wild...ok bad analogy, but you get the point).

Have the fortitude to kill a show and put something new up. But it won't be as good? Who says? You've got a whole development department and a creative team. Figure it bloody out and do it. How many creative independents out there are lined up to give you something good, but you don't give them the chance because your viewers are carrying around the dead... never mind.

So, no, viewers aren't stupid. We watch what is available. And rather than give up the ghost on a show long dead, we cling to the ghost of its memory and watch and watch and watch.

My point is it doesn't have to be this way. We have alternatives and those alterntives can create work for writers, producers, and still generate money for networks.

Make sense?


Christian M. Howell said...

Jeff, what a refreshing sentiment. It is amazing how selection processes work for the new TV seasons. I personally don't watch a lot of network TV as I already know what soap I'm going to buy.

Even classic shows wear out eventually. People always want something new. The newness will bring in more "new" viewers than the 7th season of a show.

It's just like movies. Throw up a good trailer for a good show(read:relevant, funny, scary) and people will watch.

I guess if they were to do daily instead of weekly, shows would end faster and make more room for new shows. It also allows you to know what 5 episodes "looks like" without waiting 5 weeks.

TV Dood said...

""Wonderfalls" and "Firefly" were around a dozen each. The original "Battlestar Galactica" was bought after only 20 or so, and "Arrested Development" was picked up after only 50. So, shows can get sold after one or two seasons. "

There's a huge economic difference between having a cable channel put your show in rotation for a few months and being sold into syndication. Syndication is local stations all around the country paying big bucks to show your show every weekday night at a certain time. That's where the studios recoup their costs.

You're talking about a studio trying to wring some money out of a loser.

"I don't disagree about a Network wanting a show to have legs. Legs are a good thing. I just object to the network slapping on a pair of legs that don't fit, forcing me to watch a show wobble and collapse under its own weight. "

Here's the bottom line on all of this - no one's forcing you, or any viewer, to watch anything. There are plenty of examples of hit shows that had their ratings dive when they outwore their welcome.

What you're saying is that there are shows that you no longer enjoy watching, so you're angry that the rest of the American public doesn't have your exact same taste and is still enjoying the show.

Lighten up. Create your own hit show, then go argue to have it cancelled. Business wise, your argument is on wobbly legs and collapsing under its own weight.

Julie Gray said...

TV Dood - I'm going to wind down this conversation. You make interesting points; the dialogue about this blog post has been provocative - as was the post itself. Jeff is not speaking from the POV of a viewer as much as that of a creator with a project that has great potential for a limited number of episodes. It's about finding the right home for that project. Jeff bemoans something that is a real issue on network television programming; the priority of televised ad space over story content at any cost. He is aware that this is an entrenched paradigm at the networks and he is aware that he is shouting into the wind. His alternative, fight-the-power point of view and frustrations along the way are worthy of respectful discussion.

Now have a cupcake and get back to work, everybody.