Tuned In

quarterlife and What the Strike Did(n't) for TV

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I’ve heard a lot of excuses for failed TV series in my day as a critic. Usually they involve blaming the network, which is a good move because, hey, even people who love TV hate networks! The network didn’t promote us enough. They gave us a crappy time slot. They moved us to too many different time slots. They watered down our ideas. They should have launched us in midseason. Etc.

The explanation Marshall Herskovitz gives for the dismal debut of quarterlife, however, ranks as a true original: The network screwed us over by buying our show!

“If it was going to go on TV, it probably should have been on a cable network, and that’s probably where it’s going to end up,” Herskovitz said during a panel discussion, according to the New York Times’ TV Decoder.

Fair enough. And he’s probably right. But: Herskovitz has the television machine at home, right? One assumes he’s familiar with some of the names of the cable TV channels? Perhaps he even has the numbers of a few cable executives in his address book? Because if he had an issue with this, he might have wanted to give one or two of them a call before mean old NBC forced him to sell his show to them, is all I’m saying.

OK, I’m going to stop picking on quarterlife. The fact is, whatever problems I’ve had with it, it at least fails ambitiously, which I far prefer to a show succeeding at mediocrity. And I really hope other producers will be able to go the route of making their own shows online, owning them and selling them on good terms to TV networks.

No, what the stillbirth of quarterlife got me thinking about is that there were a lot of predictions about what shows would benefit and suffer from the writers’ strike. And most of them turned out not to be true. Instead, shows that you would have thought would be failures if there had been no strike were failures anyway. And shows that would have done well anyway did well.

quarterlife was supposed to be poised to benefit big from the strike. It was different, it was Web 2.0, and, hey, there wasn’t a lot of new scripted product. Instead, people turned out to be exactly as interested in a talky drama about navel-gazing videobloggers and filmmakers as you would have expected in a normal year. American Idol was supposed to grow even huger. It didn’t; the ratings fell off a bit, as you’d expect of a show in its seventh year. David Letterman was supposed to have a huge advantage because he had writers. But no: usually, more people want to watch Jay Leno, and as it turned out, they watched Jay Leno. There were a lot of reality shows. We were supposed to get burned out on them, or they would completely take over TV. Instead, some did well, and some didn’t, pretty much like always. [Update: Lost is one scripted show I can think of that returned notably stronger in the vacuum of the strike–but that may have had as much to do with ABC’s giving the show eight months off, allowing it to build up interest and excitement like 24 or an HBO show.]

What’s the lesson in all this? I guess this: people like to watch high-profile network TV. But they’re not desperate to. If a show they like is on, they’ll watch. If not, not: there are plenty of other things to do. This doesn’t mean TV is doomed, or that writers are irrelevant, or the opposite. It just means that, as it turns out, whether a show is scripted or unscripted, if people don’t want to watch it, they’re just not going to watch it, no matter how few other options they have.

For all the strategizing and analysis that came out of the strike, in other words, it turns out that the secret to successful TV is: make shows that people like. What an amazing concept!