Now that the season is over and that people have retreated to their respective corners on the subject of the Lost finale (it’s times like this that I wish there were scientific opinion polling on TV series: I suspect that the majority of non-hardcore fans were pleased to see a reasonably upbeat ending, and that this was more important than answers to specific mysteries — but there’s absolutely nothing to back me up on that except a gut feeling), we can start looking at how shows did this year, where they ranked, and whether it’s better to be the #123rd show in the ratings than the #124th.
This Deadline.com post features two ranked lists of the 2009-10 shows on the U.S. broadcast networks. The first represents the shows’ average ratings in the Coveted Demographic of viewers aged 18-49, and hence is the list that represents how these shows are ranked in the minds of potential advertisers. The second list is based on raw ratings with all viewers of all ages; therefore it’s less important as an indicator of whether a show can survive, but is perhaps more important in the long run. (That is, when people write about how popular a show was, they almost never base it on 18-49 rankings, even for more recent shows where that information is available. The overall placement of a show — whether it was top 10, top 20, bottom 10 — is the measurement that lives on. That means, I have to say, people are going to look back at this era as one completely dominated by competitions and procedurals. Which, to a certain extent, it is.) Of course the rankings are affected by lead-ins, so that some shows seem to be more popular than they really are simply because they follow a hit show. This is one reason why the industry was so impressed with The Big Bang Theory this year: placed after a huge hit show, it performed almost as well as its lead-in overall and beat it in the Coveted Demographic.
I’ll have some thoughts later on the performance or under-performance of individual shows, because the numbers provide a good excuse to talk about what a show is doing right or doing wrong. One general point that has to be made is that the networks’ fascination with the single-camera, movie-style comedy still doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense. Looking at the 18-49 rankings, the most popular types of comedy appear to be, in order, a) Multi-camera with overly-enthusiastic audience; b) Mock-documentary, shot with two cameras and no musical score; c) Animation; d) Pure single-camera comedy. I don’t want to sound like I’m dismissing the value of category d), but the evidence over a period of years suggests, at the very least, that networks have an interest in not focusing on d) to the exclusion of everything else. Yet as noted in an earlier post, the ABC/NBC/Fox comedy orders mostly do just that, without even attempting to mimic the Office format that worked so well for Modern Family.
I have a couple of other observations, but I’ll save them for a separate post. I will say, though, that the performance of The Good Wife is a big disappointment, considering what a worthy show that is. In total viewers, it looks good — # 19 — but that’s because of the time slot, following the two NCIS shows. The Coveted Demographic performance shows how badly it falls off: it falls to # 56 because much of its viewership seems to consist of set-in-their-ways viewers who don’t feel like changing the channel. Maybe it’s just in an awkward place, though I don’t know what slot would suit it better; in any case, I hope it improves, because if it doesn’t, you just know that networks are going to conclude that nuance doesn’t sell.
Oh, and I might as well address this here because it isn’t worth a separate post: why does the Office documentary format have more ratings punch than the movie-style format? Partly, I think, because the style brands itself as a comedy in a way that regular single-camera has trouble doing. (If you look at a lot of single-camera comedies and then look at a light scene from Glee or Chuck, you’d be hard-pressed to explain why one is a sitcom and the other isn’t. But I don’t care how many “best comedy” nominations Glee gets, it’s not a comedy, it’s an hour-long light drama — and a lot of shows inadvertently brand themselves as half-hour light dramas.) Second, these comedies shoot fast and informal, more like the hastily-shot single-camera comedies of old, and wind up with a certain spontaneous feel to them. And third, the documentary format precludes the use of musical scoring; that’s the only thing saving Modern Family from being slathered in terrible mood music like every other ABC show. But I’ll save that last bit for my next “network shows have too damn much music” post.