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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The TV Tattler

Woot! Brand new weekly column on the Rouge Wave! The TV Tattler is written by my friend, the gorgeous, glamorous television aficionada Lisabeth Laiken. Feast on this, Wavers!

The third week of January there will be an unusual conjunction of events. Like Jupiter and Venus in alignment to make a smiley face with a crescent moon, Friday Night Lights has its third season finale on Wednesday and then its third season premiere on Friday. Time is not going backwards, despite what happens on some of our current TV shows - but it is occurring in order to save something precious. Last year trying to find a way to renew a critic favorite with a relatively small but very ardent audience, NBC went looking for a partner. This would give them a way to keep the show on the air despite the fact that the ratings were too low for them to continue to produce it. Luckily DirectTV was looking to increase its original programming, and, for first airing rights, took on the production costs. NBC is gambling that the relatively small portion of the viewing audience that has satellite will not take too much away from their ratings. Whether fans have also viewed it through illegal torrents in enough numbers to make a difference is yet to be seen.

TV is in the midst of a turbulent time, above and beyond the continued impact of the writers' strike last year. Look at FNL, or NBC’s Hail Mary play moving Leno to prime time, or the canceled Dead Like Me returning as a direct to DVD movie or Sanctuary - a show that started as pay to view on the internet, was picked up by SCI-FI and then renewed for its second season - or Childrens’ Hospital, original programming on the website for the defunct television network The WB. This is a time when a million viewers on one channel means success and major award victories but six million on another is cause for the cancellation for a critics darling. And speaking of ratings, are they counting the night's numbers or live plus three?

This is a time of continued erosion of scripted time-slots on networks, growing original programming on basic and pay cable, and a year-round TV season. Television is confusing right now, absolutely, and there are grave issues - but there is also new potential and exciting opportunities. And while it's been bumpy the last few years with no one place that seems to have a corner on the “Must See TV” market, like HBO did and NBC before that and ABC before that, going back to the early days of broadcast...there is great scripted television out there. Wonderful shows of all types that grab you and make you want more. The question now is where to find it, when to find it and how to find it. And does or will it even ever appear on your television set? What the landscape will look like in a year or five is still anyone’s guess, although it will no longer be dominated by a stand-alone box in our homes. But there are trends and decisions to be watching. And beyond the business aspects, there is what's going on with the shows themselves. What type of shows are being programmed and, more importantly, watched. And in this time of The Long Tail, where do the numbers come into play? But everything going on does have it’s own sense and logic. There is a "how" to the workings of television. Storytelling in this medium is a complex set of intersecting issues and challenges before you even get to the plot, theme, arc and character development. So these postings will aim to look at all that, to shine a light, to throw down an anchor or two in these unsettled waters.

And finally I’ll ask you the question: Why do we watch what we watch? With so much out there, what draws you to one show rather than another? Unlike movies, television is the writers’ medium. Showrunners, producers, are most often the writers. Television tells the long format story. Week in, week out, with great convolutions or none, with characters changing and growing or staying comfortably the same, with the acknowledgment of time passing or characters that don’t seem to age a day from beginning to end, it has to hold your attention for six episodes or 13 or 23. It has to hold the audience over time. And for that you need the wonder of the writers' minds creating a world that the viewers will want to visit — 100 times if they are lucky. And maybe some of you want to be lucky like that. Hopefully here there will be some good information, insights and explanations to help you.

-Lisabeth Laiken has been scrutinizing television since they got the breed of dog wrong on Little House on the Prairie. After ending her college years watching movies and television critically in a joint Film Studies and Semiotics program, she went on to use two VCRs to collect and catalog all her favorite shows (over 500 tapes) long before DVR was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very cool! yay!
-the red sheep