Tuned In

Saving Chuck: Don't Applaud, Throw Money

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It has come to the point where I should probably write an open letter explaining why I have not written an open letter pleading with NBC not to cancel Chuck. It’s that time of year, and this spring TV critics and fans are weighing in with arguments to save Josh Schwartz’s funny, sweet, computer-sales-geek-turns-spy caper. 


I love Chuck, I do; or at least I like it intensely. If I’m to be honest, its being canceled would not leave the truck-sized hole in my heart that the loss of Freaks and Geeks did, or that Friday Night Lights would have. But it would be a loss if it got canned, and I have occasionally done the save-this-show thing in the past. 

Mostly, though, I just have my cynical doubts about the efficacy of save-this-show columns. Let’s face it; by the time critics are begging to spare a favorite show the axe, we have already failed. We praise good shows when they debut; we flog them when they are having great runs in the middle of a season; and either we move enough viewers to watch or we do not.

But come April or May: well, I’m not going to say that saying, “No, seriously, we really love this one” makes no difference, but it doesn’t make nearly the difference that a million or two more pairs of eyeballs three months earlier would have. Nor am I going to change NBC’s minds about ledgers of numbers that they have studied far more closely than I have. 

And fan protests? They matter—I don’t think they matter as much as fans hope they do, but CBS paid attention to all those bags of peanuts and brought back Jericho. Which suffered even worse ratings and got killed again, so any network is going to take that experience into consideration. The sad fact of advertising-supported television is that, unlike cable, it still rewards breadth, not depth, of viewership. Four million people who watch a show really hard are still just four million people to an ad buyer. 

Unless they spend money. Which is the impetus behind what may be the best fan idea out there to save Chuck. 

This coming Monday—when the season finale of Chuck airs—fans of the show have reportedly hatched a plan to eat at Subway en masse. Why Subway? The show is an advertiser whose sandwiches have been effectively product-placed into Chuck. This, it strikes me, is a far more effective way to argue for a show than mailing in Nerds candy, unless there is a Nerds sponsorship for Chuck I’m unaware of. 

There are today more ways for networks to make money off shows other than advertising. There are downloads and DVDs. (One reader of my Twitter feed suggested yesterday that Chuck fans buy paid downloads of episodes they miss rather than watching them for free, and while this may not change the world, money talks louder than Nerds.) I still hope and pray that NBC might be able to work out a cost-sharing arrangement for Chuck, as it did with FNL and DirecTV, although the potential partners are still few. 

But network TV is still largely an advertising game. Plead as lyrically as you want; you ultimately keep a show on the air by assuring the network it will make money. And it does that by assuring its advertisers that they will make money—that an ad or placement on Chuck will result in real people spending real cash dollars. As Alan Sepinwall smartly points out in his own open letter to save Chuck, the show, being set in a big-box electronics store—in a wonderful fantasy world where Americans still purchase home electronics—is a haven for product placement. You want to get NBC to listen, make those product placements pay off, at least symbolically. 

So here is what I am going to do for Chuck. There is a Subway three blocks away from my home. I despise Subway. I have never stepped foot in this Subway franchise. At more than one deli even closer to my house, I can get a better deal on a giant mouthwatering sub with mortadella, capicolla and roasted peppers made on crusty bread by a crusty Italian guy. And that’s what I usually do. 

But on Monday—God help me—I will go to Subway, and I will buy a sandwich. I cannot promise you that I will eat that sandwich. But I will buy it. And if I can persuade you to do the same, it may just be more effective than my trying to recruit your friends who have not decided to watch Chuck in two years. 

Then I’ll go home and start working on my review for Glee, and hope that if I do a good enough job, I will not someday be forced to buy a crappy sub to keep it on the air.