Is this the end of good television?
This year was an especially hard year for me. I was forced to sit idly by while some of my favourite shows were getting the boot from network television. Even more sad was the fact that exploitation television - er, reality shows - like "The Bachelor," were pulling in ratings every week. I cursed the networks up until May, when their decisions were revealed and the deals sealed. Then I cried for a week straight.
It all began when I was fourteen, and a little show called "My So-Called Life" premiered on ABC. A then-younger Claire Danes portrayed teen angst like no one I had ever seen before. When she laughed I laughed, when she cried I cried, and when Jordan Catalano broke her heart I wrote bad poetry. The pivotal season finale was filmed before word from the network on whether they would pick the show up for next year. In an act of sheer stupidity, ABC pulled the plug. So on top of wondering for the rest of my life if Angela would end up with Jordan or Brian, I mourned the loss one of the best written shows in history (well, my history). I vowed from then on that I would never get attached to a show like that again.
And I didn't. Most of the shows I became accustomed to enjoying, such as "The Simpsons" or "Law & Order," don't follow a linear plot line, so if cancellation loomed ahead I would be content watching re-runs on A&E and FOX. I would miss those shows, but a voice in the back of my head would not nag me about how the show should have really ended. Besides, both had been on the air for well over ten years, so there's plenty of re-runs there.
This year was different. I started watching "Once and Again," a family drama starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell. Coincidentally, it was produced by the same team that created "My So-Called Life." Although it had been on the air for its third season by now, I had never thought much of it. From the first episode I caught, I was hooked. Simultaneously, I began following "Felicity" again. I had watched it when it first premiered, but I couldn't stand Julie, the Pink Power Ranger, so I stopped. She left the show in 2000, but since I don't get the WB, I had no idea. The drawback was that Canadian stations stopped playing "Felicity," but then a local station picked it up for a summer filler.
Before I digress even more about how much these shows really touched my inner being, you can guess the moral of this story - "Once and Again" and "Felicity" were cancelled by their networks, ABC and the WB respectively. I was flabbergasted. I was indignant. I thought, "Fools! Cancel it once, shame on you. Cancel it twice, shame on me!" When my world domination plan is implemented, you know who I'm coming after first. The most heart-breaking thing is that both shows had a loyal following - and I'm sure some deluded fans are out there somewhere hoping that there's a chance the shows can be saved and will return to the air. Well, here's the thing: Once actors are released from their contracts, they're just like any other unemployed person out there. They're scrambling for jobs, going to auditions, robbing stores. It's like being fired from a job and then trying to get your old job back. They're not looking to go back. Unless, of course, they're all out of work ten years from now and agree to do a reunion show ("The Facts of Life" and "L.A. Law," I'm looking at you).
Maybe I'm being too melodramatic. Or maybe some of you have become attached to a show in the same manner I have, and are also going through withdrawal. "Once and Again" and "Felicity" are not the only shows to get the axe. Here are some others: "The X-Files," "Undeclared," "The Job," "Dark Angel," "That's Life," "Family Guy," "Ally McBeal," "Roswell," "Leap of Faith," "That 80's Show," "Greg the Bunny," "Watching Ellie," "Dharma & Greg," and "American Embassy." Here are some stupid shows that are returning: "Baby Bob" (it's a talking baby, for crying out loud), "Crossing Jordan," "Crossing Over," "Grounded for Life," and "According to Jim." Now you know why I'm so traumatized.
E! Online columnist Wanda, of Watching With Wanda fame, lists five reasons why some shows get cancelled and why some stick around:
- Ratings are low: When advertisers buy ad time during a program, they're guaranteed a certain number of viewers by the networks. If the quota is not met, the network has to pay back the difference. And the Nielsen system, used to record shares of viewers, only had a 1% margin of error. It should also be noted that good ratings vary by network. A large network, such as NBC, reaches far more homes and has far more viewers than smaller networks like the WB or UPN. So NBC would expect higher ratings from its shows, while the WB is content with having "7th Heaven" as its highest rated show (in reality, "7th Heaven" would probably fall in the mid-fifties or worse overall). On top of that, even if a show has a large audience, it's the coveted 18-49 demographic that advertisers want. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," for example, pulled in a large share of viewers for its time, but the majority was of the geriatric persuasion, so ABC decided to retire it.
- A show loses its lead-in audience: A good example of this is the post-"Friends" slot, which has seen numerous shows come and go since "Friends" became a media darling. The general rule of thumb is that once viewers leave the network, they won't come back (I beg to differ, since I am the Queen of Channel Surfing). A show can still be in the top ten, but if it loses a chunk of the previous show's audience it won't last long.
- A show is too expensive: It used to be that television shows cost next-to-nothing to make. Of course, that was around the time that colour television wasn't even an option. Nowadays, a season can cost as much as a low-budget movie, and top stars make millions per episode. From cheapest to most expensive: reality/magazine shows (e.g. "20/20"), live-audience comedies (e.g. "King of Queens"), single-camera comedies (e.g. "Malcolm in the Middle"), one-hour dramas (e.g. "The West Wing"). One-hour dramas can cost anywhere between $1 million to $2 million per episode.
- Syndication: Some shows stick around because after 100 episodes, they're eligible for syndication. This usually takes around five years to achieve (that's probably why FOX kept "Ally McBeal" as long as it did).
- Show has no "big-name" hype: A show with no big names attached needs higher ratings to stay afloat. A lower rated show, on the other hand, with bigger names may stick around because of the buzz that it creates for the network.
The shock has somewhat worn off, and I'm left with an empty shell where my shows used to sit. It's a truly warped world when "Undeclared" is cancelled after its first season and "Big Brother 3" is set to assault our senses again later this summer. Don't even get me started on "Bachelorettes in Alaska" and "The Bachelor" - what a waste of space. I'm just thankful that, at least, I will get to watch the last season of "Felicity" (Mondays at 8:00 on CTV). If you want to become a soulless zombie, I suggest you look into being a network executive. ¤ C.Ho.