Thursday, April 08, 2004

Swearing and nipples*: Is there anything they can't do?

So Fox cancelled "Wonderfalls." Are the networks trying to piss me off specifically? First "Angel," now "Wonderfalls." (Don't forget "Jake 2.0!" -barely closeted fanboy multiple personality) Besides "Wonderfalls," the only appointment television for which I've made every appointment has been Bravo's broadcast of the cancelled-before-you-could-see-'em episodes of "Keen Eddie."

"Wonderfalls'" executive producer, Tim Minear (who, with "Wonderfalls," struck out on his own from the Joss Whedon stable), has said, "[T]he thirteen [episodes] taken as a whole tell a story and go to a place, so a run of this 'limited' series would not be unsatisfying elsewhere. It's a question as to whether the studio will want to invest in a DVD release of a failed series." Minear may find it questionable but it worked for his previous show "Firefly." DVD success has led to "Firefly" being optioned into a feature film (I'll believe it when I see it which I probably won't because the series didn't capture my imagination as it did those of others but the mere fact of being optioned at least keeps hope alive) and to the production of new "Family Guy" episodes. (This I expect to see but the logistics of an animated program pose less of a structural obstacle to revival, in particular bringing back a cast that has since moved on to other projects, than those of reviving a live action series.)

So, where is Jeet going with all this, given his inclination for structural explanations and invoking the economics of incentives?

In the short run, it's bad news, but in the long run, it could be good news. If reality programming supplants scripted programming as "mainstream," I expect (read: pray) that the American scripted program will

  • see more programs produced, albeit with trial runs of only a few episodes with lower production values, at least until a series has proved itself in the ratings
  • aim for a loyal niche audience of the demographically desirable and DVD-boxed-set-buying kind rather than as wide an audience as possible
  • shift away from mass-market blandness and towards risk-taking of the sort exemplified by "Wonderfalls" and "Angel" as a result of greater emphasis towards loyal niche audiences
  • move largely to cable, which is all about niche audiences and risky programming
In summation, a best case scenario for American scripted programming will involve a decisive and fundamental shift away from an economic model
  • decisively dependent on advertising revenue
  • where everything is oriented around getting picked up for a twenty-plus episode season
  • where cancellation usually means permanent death
towards a hardier economic model
  • with greater reliance on DVD sales
  • organized around shorter "seasons" not dictated by a network fiscal year
  • that, by anticipating and making arrangements for programs of limited duration instead of depending exclusively on continuous annual renewal, increases the likelihood of a program's survival of cancellation in some form
Take a look at what the Sci Fi Channel did with "Battlestar Galactica" or its "Farscape" follow-up mini-series or, better yet, what HBO does with its original series. "Sex & the City" needs an earlier, truncated fifth season because Sarah Jessica Parker's pregnant? No problem! "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" started out as a mid-season replacement whose first season was only 12 episodes, instead of the usual 22.

American scripted programming will look more and more like British scripted programming. The first season of "Spooks" ("MI-5" in the US) was only 6 episodes. Now that it's a bona fide hit, the BBC ordered a second season of 10 episodes (less than half a full "Buffy" season) shown almost 12 months after the first. The hiatus between the second and third seasons will be more like 14 months, which I think takes things a bit far. (As an aside, if there was ever an example of protection from competition leading to unreceptive service, this is it. I suppose the bright side is that few viewers are likely to complain about being sick of "Spooks.")

Or maybe this is all just wishful thinking on the part of someone who frequently relapses into fanboydom (The first two episodes of "Wonderfalls," I wanted to be Caroline Dhavernas or, at least, have the same fuck-you attitude about my overeducation and underemployement. The third episode, I wanted Caroline Dhavernas; anyone who can come off curmudgeonly, sympathetic and hot simultaneously is clearly someone to be reckoned with.) 'cause it seems that every program I like only has a future on Trio's "Brilliant But Cancelled."

*female nipples