Of all the technological advances of the information age, one of the biggest changes to how Americans enjoy entertainment has come in television.
"Network television is in the throes of a major evolution, or devolution, or whatever you want to call it. But it's a crisis, really," said Marc Guggenheim, co-creator of the recently canceled ABC show Eli Stone and showrunner on next year's Flash Forward, also from ABC. "And the crisis rises from the fact that people have choices in how they consume their product."
Not only have channel choices increased exponentially with cable, but new technologies have ushered in new ways to watch. From iTunes and Amazon to DVRs and DVDs, the world of television has changed from one where most people in America tuned in to I Love Lucy every Monday night to one where more than 30 percent of TV viewers watch their shows later on DVR.
As we continue our talk with Guggenheim and Michael Green (who also just had his show, Kings, canceled by NBC), we look at how the television industry is adjusting to new technologies, questioning whether the changes have put quality, scripted programming at an unfair disadvantage. [See part one and part two of our discussion here.]
Green and Guggenheim were working on the script for the Green Lantern movie with co-writer Greg Berlanti, and the two of them noticed they had a lot in common. Not only are both comic book writers – Green on Superman/Batman for DC Comics; Guggenheim on Resurrection for Oni Press and Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel Comics – but they will see both of their canceled TV shows finish this summer on Saturday nights.
As the two spoke to Newsarama about how reality television seems to be growing in popularity while fictional shows like Pushing Daisies and Life on Mars struggle to make it on network TV, the discussion turned toward how the current rating system doesn't favor serial television. For example, the DVD life for reality television is almost non-existent while shows like Lost or 24 have done well on DVD.
"With serialized shows, there are a lot of people who are waiting for the DVD box set to come out," Guggenheim said. "Imagine if comic book companies didn't pay attention to how many trades they were publishing, but rather only paid attention to month-to-month sales," Guggenheim said. "In fact, I'll go you one better. Not even month-to-month sales. They're only paying attention to how Amazing Spider-Man sold on the Wednesday it came out as opposed to the following Thursday, Friday or Saturday, right? So that's the problem. You have a lot of people who are either 'waiting for the trade' or picking up their comic book on Thursday, Friday or Saturday."
What Guggenheim means is that television shows are judged for renewal long before it's time for them to be released on DVD. While DVR and internet numbers eventually roll in, the potential for DVD and iTunes sales is rarely a part of the equation.
"The networks are starting to pay attention to that kind of data, but they're sort of in between two models of thinking," Green explained. "Here's an example of that. Literally the day Kings was sent off to die on Saturday nights, we were No. 1 on iTunes. We had achieved No. 1 status on iTunes. So we were all happy, thinking this was quite an achievement, and then we get a call that says, 'sorry, we're scuttling you.' And I asked, does that iTunes number matter? And they said, 'no.'
"It's still on the margins for them. It's an indicator," Green said. "So if [the show is] something they quite like and it's doing well [in ratings], then they'll recognize added success. But it won't turn around what they already perceive as a failure. It's also a numbers thing because iTunes doesn't represent the millions that they feel they need at this point."
The information that networks receive about all this new technology is also new. Nielsen didn't start including DVR numbers in its data until late 2005. Now, its ratings information comes in three versions: live, which is the traditional way of tuning in to TV; live plus 24 hours, counting how many people watch shows on DVR within a day of recording them; and live plus seven days, which includes those households who watch within one week of recording the show.
"But there's another factor here, which is perception," Guggenheim pointed out. "Nielsen is the company that has the monopoly, and I use that in the most pejorative sense, has a monopoly on reporting ratings. Nielsen comes out with preliminary ratings the very next morning. They're called overnights for that reason. That's the first data point that you get. And that is purely live viewing on the first night – no DVRs, no iTunes, no internet. Then over the course of the new two to three weeks, additional data comes in, and it includes internet and it includes DVRs. But here's the problem. Those overnights have set the tone. Those overnights have created the perception."
"It's already been reported on every news outlet by that point," Green added.
"I always analogize it to, it's like if you open the sports page to see how your baseball team did and only saw how they did up until the third inning, and you made a judgment about their success or failure in that case, based on three innings instead of nine innings," Guggenheim said.
"The illustration I saw of how they're learning to think in new terms but haven't quite achieved it yet is, I had a series of emails from NBC before Kings aired saying, whatever happens on premier night, don't worry about it. We're only worried about what happens once we get the DVR numbers and internet numbers. Do not freak out the next morning," Green said.
"And I thought that was very encouraging, because they were very realistic about it. But then, when the next morning numbers came and they were disappointing, everyone freaked out. It was exactly what we were told not to do. And it could be that they were more disappointing than they wanted, but it was almost as if to say, don't worry about it... as long as it's good news," Green said. "And it may have been a disappointment on the fault of the show or of their own creation or both, but the effect was the same. The next morning, it was an avalanche of disappointment and retreats and bad news based on those overnights."
It may seem like an antiquated system, but fans of serial television who cry foul because of DVR numbers should keep in mind that broadcast television is driven, for the most part, by advertising. The sponsors of television shows don't know if DVR viewers even see their advertising, and even if they do, the target date has been lost after certain amount of time. For example, if a retailer wants to promote that weekend's big sale, or a movie studio wants to advertise their new film, a DVR viewer who sees their advertising two weeks later does them no good.
Viewers are more likely to tune in live to reality shows like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, meaning advertisers can reach a targeted audience on a targeted date. Character-based, serial television, on the other hand, can be watched at a later date, or even watched many months later on DVD.
Yet fans of serial, fictional television can also find hope in the official news today that Dollhouse, the Fox show by Joss Whedon, another TV/comic book writer, has been renewed despite dismal ratings. Although the show had been assumed canceled by media followers who only consider ratings, the network took into consideration the huge bump the show got from DVR and internet numbers. And it's said that Fox also considered the fact that Dollhouse is a sci-fi show, a genre that tends to bring in strong DVD and iTunes sales.
This news is encouraging to writers like Guggenheim and Green who prefer working on serial shows, although their 2009 efforts didn't seem to benefit from that kind of thinking. For Green, his disappointment over having Kings dropped by the network is tempered by the enjoyment he got from making it.
"I take a lot of comfort in talking to people who really enjoyed and appreciated the show," Green said of his canceled show. "And I take a lot of comfort in how fun it was to do it. The more I work, the more I realize the process of doing something and seeing writers/actors/directors take an idea you had and turn it into something sparkly and wonderful, is what I like. So I focus on that, and the rest gets easy."
After Green's comment, Guggenheim joked that he had his own way of dealing with cancelation: "I self-medicate with drink."
But after the laughter, the writer said that while new technology may be confusing the ratings system right now, it actually offers solace to people like him and Green.
"It's the one advantage that writer/creators like me and Michael have doing television now than in days of yore," he said. "Kings will come out on DVD, Eli comes out on DVD, so those shows will exist for perpetuity. People can find them and check them out and they'll have a life beyond their broadcast."
The DVD set of Kings is available for pre-order on Amazon, while the four episodes that have already aired can be viewed on Amazon, iTunes or NBC.com. The remainder of season will air Saturdays at 8 p.m. on June 13 through July 25. The first season of Eli Stone is available on DVD, and the second season's DVD is expected to be announced soon. The first nine episodes of Season 2 are available on iTunes. Eli Stone will air its four remaining episodes from Season 2 on Saturdays at 10 p.m. on June 20 through July 11.