NEW YORK – Jason Mittell had other things to do last month when ABC aired a two-hour debut of the drama “Red Widow,” so he set his digital video recorder to capture it.
Then the Middlebury College professor and Just TV blogger saw the show’s disappointing ratings the next day. He deleted the DVR file. If the show already appears to be on thin ice, why bother watching?
Skittish viewers who guard their time are making the already difficult task of establishing new dramas on broadcast television even harder. If the show becomes a hit, technology offers many ways to catch up later. It’s just one more advantage for cable networks at a time when they already seem to have the upper hand with dramas.
“Zero Hour,” the series that Zack Estrin helped produce for ABC, debuted on Valentine’s Day. Starring Anthony Edwards, “Zero Hour” demanded a viewer’s attention as it laid out a complex conspiracy that began when the wife of Edwards’ character was kidnapped.
The first of 13 filmed episodes reached 6.4 million people and did particularly poorly among the youthful demographic that ABC targets. The second episode was down to 5.39 million viewers, the third 5.05 million. Then ABC pulled the plug.
The reluctance of viewers to try something new feeds a vicious cycle, he said.
“Audiences don’t watch because they fear it’s going to be taken off, and it’s taken off because audiences don’t watch,” he said. “It is a challenge for these types of shows going forward. You wonder if ‘Lost’ came on today, would it have as many viewers right off the bat? Or would the audience be too gun-shy?”
For viewers who did become interested in the story, Estrin said ABC plans to air the rest of the filmed “Zero Hour” episodes this summer.
When ABC decided to ax the military drama “Last Resort” earlier this season, creator Shawn Ryan was given notice and the chance to write an ending for the series in its 13th and last episode. It led to some furious final minutes of loose string-tying. Ryan was lucky; not all creators get that luxury.
So far this season, Fox pulled the series “The Mob Doctor” after 11 episodes and ABC canceled “666 Park Avenue” after nine episodes. People barely had a chance to become familiar with CBS’ “Made in Jersey” or NBC’s “Do No Harm”; both ended after only two airings, according to the website TV By the Numbers.
Meanwhile, cable networks like HBO, AMC, TNT and USA haven’t taken a series off the air in the middle of their planned runs. Ever. HBO came close with its series “Luck” last year when the production was criticized for its treatment of horses, but the full first season ran. Production was canceled for the second season.
This doesn’t mean some cable series don’t end before fans are ready to see them go. But the decisions are to not make any more seasons instead of yanking them off the air.
The industry’s economic structure explains the difference. Broadcast networks primarily rely on advertising for revenue, and if a show isn’t meeting expectations, executives often must act quickly to stem financial losses. Sometimes they can afford patience, sometimes not.
Besides advertising, cable networks’ chief revenue sources are payments from the systems that provide cable and satellite service. Premium networks like HBO and Showtime get subscription fees, so executives can take the long view. Cable networks also make fewer series with shorter seasons, so they can concentrate more on making the shows work.
With all the networks, shows and ways to watch them, dramas can quickly come and go before people are aware they exist.
“So many people are not watching in real time,” Mittell said.
While developing new dramas for broadcasters is difficult, it’s not impossible. “The Following” on Fox and “Revolution” on NBC indicate that even stories that stretch from week to week can work if done right. Critics love ABC’s “Nashville.” “Downton Abbey” is PBS’ top-rated drama ever, and its success also shows the technology-fueled hallmark of a modern show: People are catching up to the series at their own pace in between seasons, so there’s a built-in larger audience when the show returns for a new season.
CBS has a reliable machine for developing new dramas, particularly crime procedurals, that appeal to its audience. “The Good Wife” is one of those rare broadcast dramas that excites critics as much as cable fare like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.”
“Frankly, I think it’s a great time for scripted television,” said Jeffrey Stepakoff, a television scriptwriter and professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Yet broadcasters are hurt by the pervading sense that, on a regular basis, cable is now the first choice for quality. That’s reinforced at awards shows: Except for Maggie Smith’s supporting actress award for “Downton Abbey,” broadcasters were shut out at this year’s Golden Globes. The last broadcast program to win the Emmy for best drama was Fox’s “24” in 2006.
Veteran TV critic David Bianculli said he often records several episodes of new broadcast dramas, waiting to see if it looks like the show will stick around before wading in, even though “I hate feeling that way.”
“Broadcast television has incrementally but increasingly insulted the intelligence of the audience,” said Bianculli, editor of the TV Worth Watching website and a teacher of film and TV at Rowan University. Cable shows “are getting smarter and more complex all the time.”
In seeking the best creative minds, broadcast networks have always had the advantage of reach: No cable show gets the nearly 20 million viewers that “NCIS” draws for each new episode. Many cable networks would have been delighted with the “Zero Hour” audience that ABC found wanting. Those distinctions may be slowly breaking down, too: Only four broadcast dramas had more viewers than AMC’s “The Walking Dead” two weeks ago, and the horror show often wins among younger viewers.
Don’t think Fox executives didn’t notice that successful series when they gave the go-ahead to “The Following,” or NBC with its upcoming drama on Hannibal Lecter.
Broadcasters are in the midst of their annual rite of spring, reviewing pilots to determine which will become series over the next year, an exercise with the same hope of crocuses pushing through a layer of snow.
They only hope that television viewers will notice their work.