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How Network Television Executives Can Learn from Crack Dealers

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 8, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 8, 2014 |

The cancellations of Enlisted and Surviving Jack yesterday is just more evidence that the midseason replacement sitcom doesn’t work anymore. Maybe the network sitcom doesn’t work anymore, either, if you consider that the most recent lasting break-out sitcom hit on television was Modern Family, and that was five years ago. (New Girl was a minor break-out hit for a season). Of the sitcoms that Fox launched this season, only one will get a second season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and it was renewed because of critical success, not ratings success. The three new sitcoms NBC launched on Thursday night last fall are all dead. The two sitcoms it launched on Tuesdays during midseason — About a Boy and Growing Up Fisher — have suffered steep drop-offs and are both on the cancellation bubble.

I’d like to say that most of these sitcoms are getting canned because they’re bad, and most of them are, but for whatever ungodly reason, the networks continue to trot out their better new sitcoms during mid-season, and it just doesn’t work. The last mid-season replacement to get three season? Happy Endings, I believe, and it was perpetually on the cancellation bubble (and But even Happy Endings was an extreme outlier (and had the initial benefit of airing after Modern Family), because more often than not, these mid-season replacements are trotted out and cancelled before viewers even know they existed. They arrive in March or April, and are only given a few weeks before network executives have to make decisions about the next fall. So, instead of allowing these sitcoms to find an audience, they’re killed to make room for next fall’s failures.

It’s become a cycle that continues to repeat itself with fewer dividends, and each year, sitcom ratings dwindle because fewer people are willing to invest in a show they know is going to be cancelled. Why even bother with a midseason replacement? Here, for instance, is a list of ten (10) decent-to-great midseason replacements from the last five years that were either quickly cancelled, or briefly picked up for a second season only to be cancelled soon thereafter: Traffic Light, Bent, Best Friends Forever, Love Bites, The Goodwin Games, Enlisted, Surviving Jack, How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), Breaking In, and Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23.

Most viewers have never even heard of most of those sitcoms. Hell, Love Bites and Goodwin Games were cancelled before they even aired, while Bent and Best Friends Forever (both fantastic sitcoms) were simply burned off with little to no promotion. But every single one of those sitcoms (and I have seen every episode of all ten of them) are miles better than We Are Family or The Sean Hayes Show or Dads or Super Fun Night, and maybe if they’d had a little more time to find an audience — if networks would allow critics and the Internet to find these sitcoms and get the word out — then they’d be flourishing today in their third or fourth seasons. Or if not flourishing, at least attracting the 2.5 million viewers a week they’d need to land renewals. It’s no longer a huge hurdle to jump anymore, and if the networks simply let a good sitcom run four or five seasons, let it build up an archive or Netflix or get syndication deals, the audience eventually will come. If they’d kept Better Off Ted on the air long enough, for instance, for that Netflix following to grow, then they’d probably have reaped huge rewards by the fourth or fifth season.

The solution is this: Find great sitcoms that can inspire passionate fan bases, like Enlisted or Surviving Jack or Bent or Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23, and for two seasons, don’t even think about the ratings. Consider the first 25 episodes an investment. Build a catalogue of episodes. Then make those episodes available for binge watching. Give them a taste of your crack. Audiences don’t watch first seasons of television anymore. They wait until someone tells them about this great show, until they have a stack of episodes they snort over a weekend, and then they get hooked, and when the third season starts or the fourth season starts, the audience will be there, sweating and shaking, needing that fix of Van Der Beek or Meloni.

Right now, the networks have it all wrong. They create potent narcotics, give their viewers a taste, and then take it off the streets. People aren’t going to get hooked on those drugs. Why would you even try a drug that you know is not going to be available six weeks later? It’s bad business. Learn from the drug dealers, NBC, ABC and Fox. Put the blue meth on the streets, and the people will come. Fire all networks executives and hire Stringer Bell to run NBC, Marlo Stanfield to run Fox, Nancy Botwin to run ABC. They know how the system works.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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