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Heroes: Serial Killer?

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The Heroes panel at a recent Screenwriting Expo was a strange event, reports IGN: creator Tim Kring was scheduled to be on the panel with two of his producer-writers, but they were fired before the panel took place. Naturally, discussion turned to what Kring might change about the show to save it. He made a puzzling suggestion: revising the show so that it’s no longer a serial (i.e., a show telling a long, ongoing story). 

According to Kring, much of Heroes’ ratings troubles can be blamed on DVRs and other shifts in the way people watch television, which he says makes it hard to get people to invest in a weekly basis in an ongoing story. Serialization, he said, is

a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dips**s who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.

Uh-huh. Let me offer a few responses, in descending order of smart-assedness:

1. Yes, you can blame technology for siphoning all the smart viewers away from your series. You could try revamping your show so that it becomes the complete opposite of what it was conceived as. Or you could try, you know, not sucking. A story arc or two that doesn’t inspire ridicule could go a long way with the saps and dips***s, is all I’m saying. 

2. OK, more seriously: maybe I shouldn’t be criticizing Kring’s efforts to salvage his show, seeing as how I’ve already given up on it. But if you’re going to go that road with Heroes—with its gigundous scope and cast—then you should probably do some major paring down of characters. Which may be an unanticipated benefit—or an unspoken goal—of the move, since a nonserial Heroes might well be a cheaper show to produce. 

3. All that said—and I recognize I say this as a critic biased toward serial dramas—the idea that DVRs and streaming make it harder to follow serial shows is so transparently ridiculous I seriously wonder if Kring even believes it. I mean, OK, maybe in the sense that alternative platforms have driven down live viewing across the board and made it more challenging to make the same kind of money off advertising. But that’s hardly limited to serial shows. And time-shifting, streaming and watching on DVD are precisely what has made it more attractive for viewers to watch serial shows. 

First, the requirement of watching live was, in fact, the greatest impediment to serials in the past. If you missed an episode and couldn’t catch a rerun, you were off the train, and it was that much harder to get back on. If you can watch on Hulu, or a second run on cable, or a replay on your DVR, it’s easier to catch up. Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who will only watch serial shows on DVR or DVD, so they can watch several episodes at a stretch. Take Lost: it may never draw CSI numbers, but it does well enough to be well worth ABC’s investment, precisely because of an intense fan base, many of whom DVR it to rewind and catch details—and its huge sales on DVD are not exactly a liability to anyone concerned. 

Look, I’ll grant Kring that pulling off a hit serial is hard: when they hit big, it’s a jackpot, but they often fail big too. (It was also hard when Heroes was a hit, all of two years ago.) And who knows: I have a hard time imagining Heroes succeeding as anything other than what it is, but if he can revive it as some kind of Justice League anthology, more power to him. But it does no one any favors to rationalize its problems as the fault of technologies that have mostly benefitted media consumers, or a storytelling format that has produced the best television of the past decade. 

Whatever problems Heroes has, the fault lies not in its DVRs but in itself.