Film, Radio and TV - 28 A
Television Programming - I
Probably the highest stakes "game" in the world is television programming. Hundreds of millions of dollars are won and lost each year.
The players are primarily the New York network executives who decide what programs should and should not be on U.S. networks, on what day they should be scheduled, and in what time slots.
The programs that come before and after each show must be carefully weighed, as well as what the other networks are offering in each of these same time slots.
Added to this are target audience demographics (characteristics such as age, race, sex and economic level), program promotions, and advertiser appeal. Each of these factors is crucial for having a successful show and a successful season.
In this module, we'll look at the strategies for this high-stakes business game. We'll also provide some insight into why some programs succeed and some disappear from television after a short time -- and even why many programs that are developed are never aired.
Considerations In TV
Show Success and Failure
Even though predicting the elements of a successful TV show is far from being a science, there are some guidelines.
First, we'll discuss some scheduling and success factors for prime-time dramatic shows and sitcoms. But, even before we get to that, you'll want to consider your own perspective on "good" and "bad" shows.
You Are Probably Abnormal!
First, you have to accept the fact that you are probably "abnormal." (Sorry!)
By this I mean that your taste in television programs probably doesn't coincide with that of normal (average) U.S. network viewers.
This is the LCD or lowest common dominator network target audience we discussed in a previous module.
But, don't despair; that's probably good. (Who wants to be "average," anyway?)
If you are in college and of college age, that makes you "non-normal" in itself. Most TV viewers do not have a college education, and they are older than you are. That means that they will probably like and dislike different things in life -- including TV programs.
Viewers who say, "That program is terrible, why does it stay on TV?," or, "That was such a great show, why isn't it on any more?", aren't taking this into consideration.
The Program Managers of TV stations where I've worked often scheduled programs they didn't personally care for -- but the ratings showed that a large share of the audience did like them. So, if they wanted to keep their jobs....
Even so, for some time to come network
television -- ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC -- will dictate the success or failure of TV
series -- including much of the programming that ends up on the cable and
satellite channels in the form of off-network reruns.
Zeroing In On Your Target Audience
In almost any game aiming at the wrong target can mean you lose the game. The same goes for television programming.
For example, if you are scheduling a program for a network or local station that's opposite "Monday Night Football" (an extremely popular TV series with men, in case you've just arrived from another planet), you will probably not chose another program that appeals to men.
Unless you have something that will draw more men than the major football teams -- and that would be difficult -- you would probably be better off scheduling a program that appeals to women who aren't interested in football.
This technique is referred to as counterprogramming.
Counterprogramming can also involve other demographic characteristics. For a program that appeals to an older audience you might want to counterprogram with something that appeals to a younger audience. For a program that appeals to a sophisticated audience, think about a program that appeals to a not-so-sophisticated audience.
Deciding on a target audience also involves your advertisers.
A show that has commercials for expensive cars, designer clothes, exotic vacation spots, and upscale restaurants will have to appeal to an audience that can afford these things. If you are trying to sell designer jeans, you don't want to buy commercial time in a show that appeals primarily to an older audience.
Although advertisers are interested in the number of viewers that watch a show, they are even more interested in the show's demographics. In fact, demographics are important to advertisers in any of the mass media: TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and books.
The audience that leads into your show is important. This is especially true for viewers who get TV free off of the air, rather than from cable or the Internet, where their many more options. If your show comes after one that has high ratings, your show will benefit through audience flow.
When a station or network schedules a number of programs consecutively that have a similar demographic appeal, this is referred to as stacking. Often, networks will stack a series of sitcoms together, assuming that audience flow will hold viewers for several hours.
By putting a new or weak show between two popular shows, audience flow will tend to bring up the new or weak show through what is called the hammock effect.
Rather than switch channels between two strong shows (and maybe join a program in progress on another network, or be forced to tune away from it before it ends) audiences tend to stay with the network, even if they try to do something else during the interval, like going to the kitchen and fixing themselves a ham sandwich. This, of course, helps the new or weaker show -- and may result in it "catching on" and becoming popular in its own right.
Somewhat related is the concept of tentpoling, or using popular, well-established TV shows scheduled in pivotal time periods to boost the ratings of the shows around them.
Related programming techniques include:
Hotswitching where programmers eliminate any pause between the end of one program and the start of the next one -- generally at the top of the hour. The idea is to immediately get viewers involved in the next program before they are tempted to switch channels.
Cross-programming involves the interconnection of two different shows. The story line of one program continues into a different program, generally with a mixture of the key people appearing in each.
Bridging is used when one TV program intentionally extends beyond the normal end point of programs on the other channels. With these programs already underway when the first program ends it discourages the audience from changing channels and joining another program "in progress."
Theming, when a block of shows -- maybe even a whole week of shows during a certain time period -- all center around the same theme.
Stripping is when episodes of the same syndicated series are scheduled Monday through Friday at the same time. Not having to wait an entire week to see the next episode of a series (as they would with first-run network series) is an attractive option to many viewers.
Marathons are popular on some local stations and on cable and satellite channels such as A&E. For example, a half-dozen episodes of Law and Order, Stargate SG1, CSI, or even the old The Twilight Zone series might be scheduled with the potential of holding loyal fans for several hours. Marathons often take place on weekends and during holiday periods when viewers are apt to have more time to watch TV.
In an effort to boost audience size you often see stunting (using special programming or plot gimmicks) by networks during sweeps (the four weeks or so when ratings are done)
For example, you may find that a key person in a dramatic series gets married, has a baby, gets shot, or whatever.
In the early 90s, it was discovered that weddings could boost a show's ratings by about three points -- so a lot of people in dramas suddenly got married.
Another stunting technique is to have a famous person appear in an episode -- typically, a famous actor, political figure, athlete, or singer. In each of these cases, "the event" is heavily touted in promos (on-air promotions for the show).
And then there are "reunion shows" that bring back the casts of popular series of the past for a special show.
One of the earliest and most famous instances of stunting (in this case to hold the interest of viewers from the end of one season to the start of the next) was in "Dallas" (an weekly drama, 1978 to 1991). The key actor in the series (a man who everyone loved to hate) was shot by an unknown person and rushed to the hospital just as the series ended for the season.
Over the summer, the secret as to "who shot J.R." was afforded higher security than classified nuclear documents, which only intensified the mystery.
It was rumored that the tabloid press offered a six-figure sum to anyone with the series who would reveal the killer's identity before the new season began. However, several versions of the subsequent episode were filmed and no one knew for sure which version would air.
When the series did start again, more people were watching in the United States than voted in the previous presidential election. And, in case you're wondering, a girlfriend, not to be confused with his wife in the series, shot J.R. -- and he lived. (How else could the series continue?)
Today, of course, we commonly see such "cliffhangers" at the end of seasons.