NPR logo Television 2015: The Future In Questions

Television 2015

Television 2015: The Future In Questions

The channel button on a remote. i
iStockphoto
The channel button on a remote.
iStockphoto

This is one in a series of essays running last week and this week about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters. The entire series is available here.

So now that we've taken a look at some of what's going on in television now, it raises the natural question: what's next?

How do viewers find what's good?

Whether or not you think there's a quantity problem with great television or good television, there's certainly a large enough shift in the sheer quantity of all television that people really do need strategies to find both the very best stuff and the stuff that's suited to them.

The traditional ways of organizing recommendations are things like "What's On Tonight" columns in newspapers and now on general-interest web sites, which certainly have a place in surfacing what people might have missed. But they've only got a handful of slots a day, and they have a funny reliance on airdates that feels out of step with the direction that on-demand viewing is going.

Recommendation engines like the one at Netflix – a part of their functioning in which they take enormous pride – can help inside of a particular service, as can "Recommended For You"-style functions on a cable box or an Amazon account. But as long as the record of what you've watched lives in separate places (streaming accounts, cable box, YouTube), no one source is even getting the right raw data to apply an algorithm to determine your taste, no matter how good that algorithm gets. And relying on this kind of data assumes you even want there to be some central location that knows about everything you've ever watched on TV. There's a whole tricky relationship between personalization and privacy that would gum up the most blue-sky version of what an automatically generated list of recommendations would look like.

There remains a need for good matchmaking between willing eyes and good content, beyond best-ofs and reviews of pilots. Where will it come from?

What kinds of viewing numbers are meaningful?

As we've talked about, measuring who's watching what is really difficult when you consider the sheer number of ways people can choose to watch things and how long it can take them to get around to it. But it's not even clear which of those numbers we should be trying to get. It's not clear which ones journalists who are interested in tracking "success" from a commercial standpoint should be willing to report on, or what they should expect in the way of evidence before they call something a hit.

In a sense, Nielsen ratings have always been two things at once: a cultural measure of what's striking a nerve and a business measure of what's making money. Without one number that combines everybody who's watching, it's harder to get to that cultural measure than it's ever been. Without carefully broken-out numbers and a more detailed understanding of different outlets' business models than it required to roughly translate broadcast eyeballs into advertising, it's harder to get to the business measure than it's ever been. Whether you're into the horse race or the capacity of TV to stand for What We're Into Right Now, numbers are slippery and complicated.

What's the best version of fan engagement?

Shows that are successful on social media are sometimes really successful. At the same time, everyone has watched as stars of struggling shows lifelessly live-tweet episodes as if there's a network publicist standing over them, glowering menacingly. While there are exceptions like Scandal where the social-media plan seems to have worked out perfectly, efforts to force hashtags into use by flashing them in the corner of the screen are often embarrassing and pointless. How ordinary shows without social-media superpowers should try to incorporate Twitter, for instance, can seem like a head-scratcher, because there's no way to fake or force the kind of enthusiasm that bubbles up naturally, but they sure keep trying.

Similarly, Twitter in particular allows fans to interact with creators and actors in a way that can be a lot of fun, and for the right creator or the right actor, can be key to building the kind of passionate base that little shows need. But there's ugliness, too, around the way the need to react at all costs can beat down nuance. We haven't had direct fan engagement at the level that Twitter allows it for long enough to really know whether it takes a toll on creative people in a broad sense, but there are certainly individual creative people who have either made it clear that it does or acted out in a way that tells you it does.

What about the never-pay problem?

Cable companies have long suffered from (1) bad reputations for customer service, (2) resentment over lack of choice of providers, (3) discontent about bundling that requires people to pay for more service than they use, and (4) the sheer frustration of bills that go up and up. In some cases, cord-cutting is a matter of shifting who you're paying – if you're still paying the same company you were paying for cable, only now you're paying it for broadband and a variety of subscription services and a la carte episode purchases, that's more a redistribution of your money than anything.

But there's a whole separate problem of people who are checked out of a lot of these systems entirely, where part of what they watch is just downloaded from torrent sites. When people are currently paying zero and they're happy with what they're getting, how do you persuade them to pay something, even if you put in place the kinds of a la carte systems they've been asking for? Why pay anything when you can pay nothing and you've had time to get used to paying nothing?

What's the right role of a network?

There was a great piece from Maureen Ryan the other day in which she expressed some skepticism about the claims from Netflix in particular that they never interfere with the work of their creators. What, she wondered, about quality control? I can't say it better than Mo did, so I'll leave it there.

What is success?

Maybe the most interesting question as we head into the 2015-16 season is this: what constitutes success on television?

Americans have a habit that people in many other countries do not have at all, which is to define a successful show as one that runs for years (or at least for absolutely as long as anyone wants to do it), is hugely popular, remains great forever, and then leaves at the very top of its game. In other words: we define the enormous majority of shows as unsuccessful, creatively or commercially or both. For a while, it seemed like the "limited series" might be an answer to some of this – take Under The Dome, for instance, which appeared to have an undeniably limited appropriate life, since there's only so long you can keep people under a dome. Networks are too hard-up for successes to deny themselves more of just about anything that works, and that means the open-ended model is very hard to walk away from.

But to step back a little in time, what about a show like Arrested Development? It ran for three seasons on Fox and walked away beloved, as something that people spoke about in largely glowing terms, despite the fact that it was never massively popular. It launched or boosted careers. That seems like a successful project to me. It then came back for a fourth season on Netflix that got, it's fair to say, more of a mixed reaction, and they're talking about doing more. Is the show really becoming more successful merely by finding a way, any way, to continue? We can get excited about a show like The X-Files or Twin Peaks returning, but are all endings automatically undesirable?

Look at something like Bunheads, a show on ABC Family that did remarkable work in 2012 and 2013 for 18 episodes and then was canceled. As someone who loved it, I'd have loved to see it continue. I'd have loved to watch more. But casting the show as somehow a failure feels bizarre to me; it succeeded in just about every task it set for itself: it was weird and fun and moving and different. It failed only in the one sense that the person making a show has absolutely has no control over, which is that not very many people watched it. That's a shame (mostly for them), but ... so what? That show isn't a sad story – it's a great story. People got together and made a thing that was wonderful. People who loved it can (and do) shake fists over not having gotten to see more of it, but particularly now, with shows available more easily for longer than ever, that work isn't wasted. You can still show your kid or your best friend Bunheads – I recommend it! And Trophy Wife, which I would have watched more of. And Happy Endings, which is manic and strange and not everybody liked it, but boy, I did, and they made a bunch of it. And maybe the only way to make it something everybody would have watched would have been to make it something the people who did watch it wouldn't have liked. So aren't there times when small audiences are expected, normal, functional and correct for shows that are creatively successful?

A creative work gets made, it connects with people who get something from it, and it ends. Not everything becomes a franchise, and not everything becomes a hit. We (and here, I mean critics and fans both) can be very outcome-oriented and do too much scorekeeping about TV in a way that serves it poorly. A seven-season series becomes all about "sticking the landing" at the end. A one-season series full of great work somehow becomes something to be sad about. In reality, everything that makes it onto anybody's television that's interesting, thoughtful, artful, funny, inventive – everything like that is a win. You get your weird little show on TV for 10 or 13 or 22 episodes, that's a win, and it can still be a win even if not every decision you make is one your audience would have made. (If it were, they might as well write and make it themselves.) You somehow put your passion project in front of people in anything like the form you imagined, that's a win. And it's easier than ever for it to be a win that lasts, at least somewhere.

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