Due mostly to comments on this blog, I've thought a lot more than I otherwise would've about why some shows appeal to a broad audience and some shows don't.
For purposes of this discussion, I am making no commentary regarding the quality of shows. Quality is a very subjective metric. There are many factors at play beyond quality anyway. There's a show's time slot, what it's competition is, and yes, how much money the network spent promoting a show.
Networks are often derided for the same old same old. Whether it be crime procedurals or unscripted reality contests. But who can blame the networks for sticking with formulas that generally work? What some fans want to know it seems is "why" it works out the way it does.
At a general level, it's pretty simple. The easier the buy-in, the better the chances of success. Here's something we buy into easily: competition and contests. So whether it's American Idol or Survivor, if you can make it entertaining and interesting a relatively large portion of the audience already buys into the premise. This buy-in is a very critical factor.
This is why many law, crime and medical procedurals succeed with broader audiences. The premises are bought into easily. Good guys, bad guys and cunning and cool forensic technology to solve a crime? People saving lives and falling for the people they work with? We buy into this easily, because it does happen (even if it probably happens with a much higher frequency on television than in real life).
A guy who can briefly bring someone back to life simply by touching them? But must touch them again quickly or *someone else* will die? Much, much harder to buy into. And it's easy to understand why that's harder to buy into: we aren't aware of anyone who can do this in real life. Not one, single, solitary person. And so, under the *best* of circumstances (and I'm not suggesting in any way that the best of circumstances existed), a show like Pushing Daisies has an uphill climb. No matter how much *you* may enjoy the show, the multitudes will have difficulty buying into this premise.
A future where robots kill off humanity? That's hard to buy into for a couple of reasons. One, it's fantastical and even if you can suspend disbelief, for many people an apocalyptic future spelling doom for humanity is not their idea of entertainment. That's pretty easy to understand. So under the best of circumstances the odds of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (or , for that matter, Battlestar Galactica) resonating with a relatively large audience were not good.
What's more surprising, are the exceptions that prove the rule. It's not 100%. There are some pretty fantastical shows like Heroes, LOST and Fringe, and these shows perform relatively very well. Though Heroes is way down off of its freshman glow, it was still a top 10 show among 18-49 year olds the week before last and will certainly be in the top 20 for some time to come. Fringe isn't generating huge viewer numbers, but among the 18-49 year old crowd that advertisers tend to focus on, Fringe has performed very well early on. Fringe takes an interesting approach, the premise (overall, and each week) is typically fantastical, but the main characters are archetypes we are familiar with and relative to the fantastical premise, the interpersonal relationships are fairly normal.
Heroes and Lost are fantastical in every way, but are serial shows rather than procedural. Their success may be hard to pinpoint and bottle up, but due to such success the networks will at least try (try, try again) to replicate their success. Fringe and Pushing Daisies are more procedural - they can (have, and will) have weekly installments that don't focus much on the back story and can stand alone. My sense is Fringe, as a procedural, works better than Pushing Daisies because though the premise is generally something on the fringe (duh, the show is called Fringe!), the main characters themselves do not require as much buy-in as Pushing Daisies.
So what about a show like NBC's Life? Life doesn't really have a fantastical premise. It's not quite a typical premise in that the central character was a cop, who spent a fair bit of time in jail for a crime he didn't commit, winds up being exonerated, receives a huge ($50 million-ish) settlement from the city of Los Angeles and, rejoins the LA police force. You have to buy into the premise that a guy who has spent years in jail and is now free with $50 million plus in the bank, wants to go back to work as a cop. Okay, perhaps that is a fantastical premise.
Life in my purely subjective opinion has improved this year. I think the problem with Life is that it has been too much of a hybrid between a serial and a procedural. Last year the back story was long, intricate and often with a plodding pace. It seems this year they've tried to move to more of a procedural bias, and I think that's smart. The problem is there is still a fair bit of focus on the back story and it would be hard, for example for people to tune into last Friday's episode and understand the intricacies of the relationship between Crews and Jack Reese. Fortunately for me and the rest of the fans of the shows, the show has been snatched out of the Friday night ghetto. While it will have very stiff competition at 9pm Wednesdays beginning November 5, 2008, I like its prospects on Wednesday better than Friday.
What about Life on Mars? I think sadly, this was a show that needed to be on cable and was never going to appeal to a broad audience for two reasons:
- The buy-in isn't easy. The central character just winds up in 1973. Buy in would be hard even with a time-travel device of some sort, but this requires a high suspension of disbelief
- Even if you can get over number one above (and I can) then what you're looking at is a cop procedural set in 1973.
Since I like science fiction and also really like the premise of a cop procedural set in 1973, but seen from the eyes of 2008, I really hope Life on Mars can catch on with a wider audience. But I think the wider audience is going to basically say, "Hey, if I want to see crime drama from 1970s, I'll just watch the Dirty Harry movies from the 1970s, and use my own 2008 eyes to observe the differences!"
It's hard to find fault with such an approach.