It’s time for the seventh and eighth commandments of TV. As I’ve stated previously, these “rules” for developing hit shows were brought down from the mountain about 20 years ago and were a reflection of the correlation between program testing and ratings success. Although many of these commandments still apply, I think the seventh commandment has probably evolved more than the others.
The seventh commandment is:
SERIALIZATION IS AN OPPORTUNITY AND A RISK
By the 1990s we were at the tail end of the “Dallas”/”Dynasty”/”Knots Landing” era, and the vast majority of dramatic series on television were some version of an episodic series. With the exception of FOX, which targeted 18-34s with “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Party of Five,” there were no successful soaps on the major networks. There were attempts, but they generally failed, and even FOX had some clinkers.
The other genre that was in short supply during the ’90s was science fiction. I have talked many times about the problem with science fiction on broadcast TV. There were issues with rules and confusion. I would always tell my bosses that the horses left the gate quickly when it came to science fiction, and once the gate was closed there was no returning. As much as I personally loved “Fringe,” it was so confusing that by the second season there was no way it was going to recruit a new audience.
This commandment was intended to warn developers and network programmers that serialized television significantly increased the chances of failure. However, what we pointed out that there appeared to be a “formula” for success, and that was the family drama, which were reflected in the big three of the ’80s and in the FOX serials of the ’90s.
Along came “Empire” and “This Is Us,” and the serialized family drama is back.
I also think the emergence of cable dramas, starting on premium with shows like “The Sopranos” and flowing over to basic with “Breaking Bad” and “Sons of Anarchy,” have made this rule less relevant. When you add in streaming and the shortening of series from 22-24 episodes to 13 or less; and you factor in the luxury the non-broadcast platforms have to ignore ratings and allow shows to just exist, I have to admit that this commandment is less applicable to today’s media environment.
I still think it applies to sci-fi and high-concept shows like “Mr. Robot,” but maybe that’s me just trying to hang on to something.
The next Commandment still has relevance:
EVERYBODY WAS YOUNG ONCE
I have brought this up in several ways on this site. Regardless of age, the viewer identifies with youth, and the more youthful the cast the more demographic success you will have. Another way of putting this is that when you start a show with older appeal, you have little chance of broadening out to a younger audience. If you target youth, you can always get the older audience to eventually join the party.
The one caveat on this is that the younger audience is also the ficklest segment of the audience, and they are the quickest to move on to the next show. The best examples of this were the FOX and WB serials of the ’90s. Those shows started out with a solid base of teenage and young-adult viewers. The successful ones broadened out to the 35-49 segment, and then you started to see the younger audience bail on the show. That left with the older end of the audience, which could sustain the show for a few more seasons.
It took me a while to realize that what was going on wasn’t an age phenomenon but a cohort phenomenon. Those soaps tapped into a cohort that followed the show as the aged, but they were not replaced by a younger audience. They were looking for their own show.
Like the Seventh Commandment, this one has also evolved a bit, as the younger audience is less likely today to sample the network fare. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Two more coming up soon.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach me on Twitter @maskedscheduler.