Fall and mid-season premieres are tough. On top of competing with dozens of shows for publicity, show runners must appease critics to score good reviews. Then, between marketing, publicity, buzz, and (potential) critical nods, they still have to secure large enough ratings for a renewal next season.
But something happened this year: few shows became hits. Sure, CBS's "Elementary" became a breakout hit (scoring 7.31 million viewers this week), and FX cleaned up with "The Americans," which has already been renewed for another season. Every other show, however, was a flop with audiences. There's NBC's "Go On," that, while well-received by critics, went out this season with only a 1.1 rating, and 2.66 million viewers. Add to that "The Carrie Diaries" (0.4 rating, 1.07 million viewers), the sliding "How To Live With Your Parents (For the Rest Of Your Life)," and the already-cancelled "Ben & Kate," "Last Resort," "Zero Hour," and "Partners." Put simply, 2012-2013 wasn't exactly a banner year for new television.
What's the problem?
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First, shows like "The Americans" and "Elementary" capitalize on historic events and works of literature. With "The Americans," a show about the cold war is unique, and the spy factor is in-step with already successful series like "Homeland." Meanwhile, thanks to BBC's "Sherlock," "Elementary" has a few built-in fanbases -- one that accepts a unique interpretation of the books' beloved characters (see: Lucy Liu as Joan Watson), one that wants a more mainstream alternative to the BBC series, and one that's hungry for any Arthur Conan Doyle they can get. (Though let's not forget NBC's failed "Do No Harm," based on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" that was anything but beloved or historic, and was cancelled after two episodes.)
On that note, NBC likely plans to renew "Hannibal" -- despite its not-that-impressive ratings (4.34 million people, 1.6 share) paling in comparison to series like "Glee" and "Two and a Half Men," which draw over 10 million viewers combined. But this is NBC we're talking about, and they'll take whatever ratings they can get right now.
Then there are series like "Go On," and "The New Normal," which both had similar trajectories this year: they premiered this season to relative hype (thanks to Matthew Perry on "Go On" and "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy helming "New Normal") but are now currently on the fence between cancelled and renewed for later this year.
So, how can network TV get its groove back? While cable dramas are arguably reeling in fans (such as HBO's "Game of Thrones" and AMC's "The Walking Dead"), Netflix has learned to abandon "appointment viewing," opting instead to run series in their entirity online for audiences to watch at will. Earlier this year, it was "House of Cards." On April 19, we'll get "Hemlock Grove." And soon (but not soon enough), "Arrested Development." Is that what it takes? Making TV more of an event, like a movie premiere, as opposed to a typical one-episode-a-week formula?
Perhaps that's the key. While networks all have their own mandates, it's arguably more "alternative" programming that's drawing more ratings, audiences, and discussions (just see how many think pieces go up on a Monday morning following Sunday night's "Mad Men"). Would networks do better to shape their own series in the spirit of cable?
Maybe networks need to acknowledge that they're dying; that their traditional approach to television is outdated and not working. Yes, PVR and DVR allow for the recording of shows, but with more and more people using their computers for TV streaming, the networks' refusal to post series in full (or as they air) will leave viewers to stream and download illegally. Or else they'll seek shows elsewhere (like on Netflix), where "appointment viewing" isn't entirely necessary.
Furthermore, the networks should realize that TV is growing increasingly niche-driven. Cable networks like HBO and AMC have a specific approach to television (AMC is cinematic, while HBO is edgier, still), so instead of appealing to mass, mainstream audiences, networks like NBC (who used to have a veritable monopoly on comedy) may have to do the same to survive. ABC Family, TLC and The CW succeed in developing programming for specific types of viewers, and by divying up comedy, action, and even reality amongst the likes of NBC, ABC, and CBS, they can develop unique programming that will appease a loyal following.
Obviously, this would require a massive overhaul of the network system, and anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows that such a huge change will take time and a lot of effort. But still: changes need to be made and networks need to adapt, or else next season, we'll watch again as good, worthy television fails to take off. And good, worthy television deserves more than that.
The real question is: will the networks survive long enough to make it happen?