Last week I wrote about the lessons television has been teaching us during the early weeks of 2013. I had a largely positive response to the piece, although I did hear from a few people that some of the lessons I singled out were too obvious, as in “nothing new.” Their comments brought to mind something I once heard Maya Angelou reveal on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”: “Lessons repeat until they are learned.”
Angelou’s wisdom seems to escape many in the television industry, who never learn the most basic of lessons about programming, no matter how often they meet with failure. Success comes with understanding the viewing public and giving it what it wants. In our expansive media landscape, it’s clear that the public wants something new, even if it’s a new approach to something old. (ABC’s “Modern Family,” for example, is a fresh take on the traditional family comedy. Fox’s “The Following” is truly a new approach to the procedural crime drama.) This is especially true of young viewers, who are always looking for the next new thing even before the last new thing starts to fade.
Granted, broadcasters are more restricted in their efforts to try new things than basic cable networks, in part because of bizarre government content restrictions that allow for violence galore but draw the line at even the most fleeting glimpse of a bare behind. Advertiser sensitivities can also be of concern, although I think that is less of an issue than it was 10 or more years ago. The playing field isn’t level, though that isn’t necessarily an acceptable excuse. Broadcasters should be held to higher standards and expectations of all kinds. That’s what makes them broadcasters. And they should be able to rise to those challenges and succeed more often than they do. But too often they don’t, and the results can be quite startling.
There is no more profound example of a network suffering because it hasn’t learned these lessons than NBC’s current crisis. Despite a surprisingly strong showing last fall, it calamitously slid during the February sweeps into fifth place among adults 18-49, behind even Univision. We could talk for hours about NBC’s many mistakes: keeping its two hottest shows (“The Voice,” “Revolution”) off the schedule for almost three months in midseason; keeping too many played-out shows on its schedule for too many years; developing too many single-camera comedies that appeal to niche audiences, etc.
Here’s just one of many dreadful realities for NBC of late: Last Sunday’s edition of AMC’s super-cheap live one-hour chat show, “Talking Dead,” scored a higher rating with the 18-49 demographic than anything on NBC during the previous week! (“Talking Dead” also beat a number of programs on the other broadcasters, making it one of television’s hottest shows.)
I have previously noted in this column that “Talking Dead,” which follows each new episode of AMC’s white-hot “The Walking Dead,” is actually a pretty smart television show, since it fosters live interactivity between the network and its Sunday-night audience while also giving the feverish fans of “Walking Dead” a reason not to turn away from AMC once they’ve had their zombie fix. Anyway, it’s one thing for an expertly produced scripted cable drama that knows its audience (“The Walking Dead”) to score bigger ratings than its broadcast competitors. It’s quite another for a live cable talk show that looks like it’s one step up from public access to do the same.
While AMC continues to benefit from its basic understanding of its audience, CBS just poked itself in the eye with “The Job,” a reality series as out of touch with real life as an unscripted television series can be. Five years into a continually corroding economy in which the working class (or what’s left of it) continues to be beaten down while the one percent continues to thrive, somebody thought it would be a good idea to put together a show in which people desperate for a job compete to get it, their fearsome fates resting squarely in the hands of higher-ups who are quite comfortable financially. Mercifully, “The Job” was let go after only two episodes. It will be replaced by the returning “Undercover Boss,” a program far more in tune with the times because it reinforces basic truths about corporate America: Business leaders could learn a lot about their companies and enjoy greater success if they paid more attention to their workers and treated them like human beings.
Don’t worry about CBS’ latest goof. This is a network that has largely learned the lessons of broadcast television and reaped the appropriate rewards. It has winningly identified its viewers and figured out how to please them, mostly through skillful variations on three-camera comedies and procedural crime dramas. Also, it knows how to refresh an aging series (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Two and a Half Men”) and when to pull the plug. Most importantly, CBS can handle the occasional misfire or two without losing too much ground. That’s an accomplishment every network would be wise to learn from.