Now that the American summer has officially wound down and millions of us have returned to our desks, another sign of autumn is upon us, one that used to be anticipated and celebrated as a kind of media holiday: the launch of the fall television schedule.
Sure the old hallmarks are still there. The networks have done their press tours, the entertainment magazines and websites are rolling out their annual previews and the commercials are bombarding your airwaves, your browser window and your commute. But with the possible exception of Fox’s Gotham there isn’t a single show premiering this fall with any kind of buzz (and it should be noted that Gotham’s buzz is all about Batman). What’s most troubling is not that the fall season has already landed with a thud, but that that is the accepted status quo.
Earlier this week Vulture ran an article celebrating the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the 1994-95 TV schedule. As odd as it may sound to celebrate the anniversary of a television season, there are many reasons that 1994 was noteworthy (the premiere of Friends, ER and My So-Called Life, and the careers that those programs would launch, etc.). But primarily it was one of the last times that the networks’ fall lineup was at the forefront of the zeitgeist.
What goes unsaid, but is easily inferred, is that it will never happen again.
The most shocking revelation in the Vulture article is contained in a chart (shown below). In the critical 18-49 demographic, the one television advertisers care most about, today’s runaway hits would fall in the nether reaches of a ratings chart for 1994. The Big Bang Theory, whose stars just negotiated a massive record-breaking pay increase, would fall at a lowly 57th. Emmy winner Modern Family would have ranked in the low 80s. What Vulture uses as a celebration of 1994 seems an awful lot like an indictment of 2014.
The 1994 season certainly had advantages over the current one. For one, the fall release schedule was still fairly uniform. Shows premiered in September (or even late August) and ran with only a few breaks straight through. Nielsen ratings focus on the viewership a show has in November, February and May, the theory being that you give a show time to gain traction, then check on it at midpoints and at the end. But business-driven ‘90s Hollywood came to see those months as the only ones that mattered and loaded their lineups for those periods with guest stars and Very Special Episodes.
Series debuts got pushed later and later into the fall, hoping that buzz (and ratings) could be generated by promotion before the launch rather than by the quality of the show. With the World Series and start of the NFL season seen as pitfalls to avoid, shows now sometimes premiere as late as mid-November. Series were broken up and shown in blocks. Episodes shown in non-sweeps months were designed to be morphine drips, keeping the audience on the hook until the all-important months when the big cliff hangers could be rolled out. Dickensian serialization became the order of the day.
The other big change occurred with network television’s last big spike, the reality television boom of the early 2000s. In the summer of 2000, a bizarre experiment called Survivor premiered on CBS and became a blistering success, ushering in a whole new genre of television (or at least expanding the already existing reality show we call “sports” to non-athletic endeavors), for better or worse. Survivor proved that a major hit could launch in the summer (thanks, air conditioning!). The relative routine of the television schedule was broken wide open, rendering the idea of the “new fall season” obsolete.
Obviously, the networks had much less competition in the ‘90s. HBO was just beginning to fire up its original content, AMC was still showing old Westerns, MTV was only dabbling its toes in reality TV (after pioneering the form with The Real World, which started in 1992) and Netflix was still the stuff of science fiction. This explosion of options over the last two decades is certainly a factor in the decline of the power of the networks, but doesn’t particularly explain their lack of influence.
HBO (and Netflix) have the obvious advantage of being able to display sex and violence without running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission, but AMC, which ran the table at the Emmy’s with Breaking Bad and continues to have hot properties like The Walking Dead and Mad Men on its slate, was a basic cable outlet mostly known for showing movies from the golden age of Hollywood. Why then were the networks (which had been responsible for some truly groundbreaking work) unable to move into the modern era, considering they had the captive audience and the budgets to produce more than their cable competition? In the end, a desire to play it safe is what undid CBS, NBC, ABC and even FOX.
No one believes the networks will simply go away. They all exist as entities within larger media empires, and broadcasting live sporting events remains an important part of their offerings. But the idea that the networks will ever again roll out a fall slate that anyone cares about seems about as farfetched as the zombie apocalypse.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: