It's almost fall TV season, which means just one thing — it's time to start second guessing the TV networks. Many new shows will be introduced, and most of them will die an ignominious death.
We will all struggle to understand. Theories will be bandied about. Browncoats will experience schadenfreude. The cold ruthlessness of the television networks will be discussed at length. But the truth is, most of us are groping in the dark when it comes to understanding how these decisions get made. Here are 10 myths about television that most of us buy into at times.
1. Every good show gets cancelled too soon.
This is clearly not true, and I'm sure we can all think of at least one show that lasted beyond its prime and kept going after it had run out of ideas. Plenty of shows do get led to slaughter while they've still got a few good years left in them — but there's nothing sadder than a show that lurches on and on, taking its umpteenth victory lap, long after a merciful network would have put it out of its misery. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.)
2. Fox is the show-killer.
One word: Fringe. Another word: Dollhouse. Look, Fox has made some infuriating decisions over the years, as Sarah Connor could tell you if Fox hadn't smeared her brains across a parking lot. But the truth is, Fox takes more chances than other networks, in picking up risky high-concept projects and keeping them on the air for a whole season. Even in the case of Sarah Connor Chronicles — the show was supposed to be cancelled halfway through season two, but Fox extended it for another nine episodes. Fox has given a shot to some pretty off-the-wall ideas over the years, and has kept shows with dwindling audiences on the air longer than it had to.
3. Everything is more successful if it's a police procedural.
This was a myth that was more current a few years ago, but you still hear it a fair bit. The truth is, a lot of police procedurals fail just like a lot of other shows — and most attempts to crossbreed the "police procedural" genre with other genres, like science fiction or fantasy, have mostly failed. Just look at Eleventh Hour, and a few other single-season attempts to do CSI with weird science, or The Mentalist with weird science. Or look at 17th Precinct, which was an attempt at a magical procedural that never even made it to your screens. Police procedurals are a pretty narrow genre, in terms of what works, and it's already a crowded field.
4. Cable TV always has cooler programming.
Sure, shows like Game of Thrones and the first season of The Walking Dead are strong examples of big, widescreen, edgy programming that you wouldn't see on regular broadcast TV. But plenty of cable fare is just as unadventurous as broadcast TV — for every True Blood, there's a Chloe King. And broadcast networks have tried some pretty ambitious, challenging stuff, like the aforementioned Sarah Connor, Kings, and Lost in its prime.
5. The British give shows a better chance.
Among American TV fans, there's a "grass is greener" feeling about British television, and a feeling that the Brits do some stuff better than we do. It's true that the British approach of having shorter seasons probably pays off in terms of quality control. However, the British are just as ruthless about axing shows as we are. Just look at Outcasts, which appears to be dead in the water. Or No Heroics, which was good enough to get its creator a gig writing the next Iron Man movie. Or plenty of other British shows that lasted just one short season.
6. TV shows don't care about science.
Many TV shows seem to make at least a token effort to get science right — as long as it doesn't conflict with the far more important goal of providing some silly escapist entertainment and selling some cleaning products. That's what I took away from the panel at this past Worldcon about working as a television science advisor, including Stargate Universe advisor John Scalzi. You can tell that some shows, like Fringe and Eureka to name just two, make an effort to use real science. I'm sure a lot of shows care, but there's other stuff they care about more.
7. You should watch a show "live" if you want it to stay on the air.
This is only a myth if you're not a Nielsen household. Look around the room where you watch TV. Do you see a box with a bunch of buttons on it, to record your TV viewing habits? If you don't, then it doesn't matter what you watch, or when. Because the networks and advertisers have no way of knowing. There's a household somewhere else, where someone who is supposed to represent you statistically is recording their TV viewing, and that person's television consumption will count as your vote.
8. Time-shifted viewings ought to count as much as live viewings.
When we talked to people who studied TV ratings, it became pretty clear that there's a lot of debate over how to "monetize" people who don't watch TV live. Here's the thing — television is not really free, even if it's on the major broadcast networks. You pay for these TV shows by watching ads, and everybody knows that DVR viewers skip over ads. And people who watch shows via Hulu and other streaming services apparently generate a tiny fraction of the revenue that live TV viewers generate. (DVD sales help in some cases, if the network is also the production studio.) So when you hear people say that less than a million people watched Caprica live, but tons watched it later via DVR — that still means less than a million people saw the ads that ran with Caprica.
9. "Sets are being torn down" means a bubble show is either canceled or renewed.
Sets can get torn down for all sorts of reasons, including just that these particular sets are no longer needed. Or that they're being put into storage during the long break between filming sessions. Or it can mean that the production company is going to build a humongous bonfire, using all of the sets in which your favorite scenes happened, on which they will light your dreams and wishes ablaze, leaving nothing but bitter ashes. But it's hard to tell, from the outside.
10. Fan campaigns always make a huge difference.
There have been a few huge success stories in fan campaigns, including the original Star Trek campaign and the Jericho peanut-mailing campaign. All of those sandwich-eating Chuck fans made a big impression, too. But fan campaigns for "bubble" shows often seem to make no difference whatsoever, and networks will only renew a show if they really believe that it makes sense financially to keep it on the air. And conversely, networks don't cancel shows because they hate them, or because they hate us — they're running a business, and if The Cape isn't moving enough donuts, then it's out, and we never get to find out the truth about Summer Glau's supervillain dad.
Thanks to Hannah Wilson, Jessy Randall, the One True B!x, IrrationaliTV, Simone Davalos, Daniel Thomsen, Zack Stentz, Grant Imahara, Chris Hill, Julia Carusillo, Poor Mojo, Lawrence E. Forbes, Allen Varney, Laura La, John L. Gehron, Michael Wilson, Veronica, Warren Frey, Tom Coates, and everybody else who gave feedback and suggestions!