TV schedules for next fall were released this week and we can see several dynamics at work in the television business. Some issues are old battles finding new solutions and some are new phenomena brought on by the internet and other emerging technologies.
Serial vs. Episodic
TV shows where one episode leads to the next (serial) are more difficult for viewers to follow than those in which each episode is a self-contained unit (episodic). It's human nature to give up on shows if you missed a part of the story, and this has caused networks to steer away from airing this type of show (soap operas being the most notable exception). Reruns used to fill the gaps somewhat but now the Internet and TiVo are making it easy to catch every bit of your favorite show, encouraging networks to give the serial drama a chance. 24 and Heroes are examples of serial dramas.
Scripted vs. Reality
With the expectation of a writers' strike next year, any show with a script may be held for ransom. Thus networks are hedging against this with a glut of reality TV shows, now that they have the tools (game shows and other unscripted fare) to do TV largely without writers. The writers, on the other hand, know that some scripted shows are truly irreplaceable and sooner or later the networks will have to give in. However, in my opinion most writers are replaceable and every other person in LA is trying to sell a script. If the networks were able to bring in scabs during the strike, not only would it be almost unnoticeable to the audience, script writing might actually improve.
Formulaic vs. Avant-garde
Next year will include all of the Law and Orders, CSIs, and ERs you could ever want. Not only are there multiple iterations of these shows, but many of the new one hour dramas are virtual clones of the older shows. But cops, lawyers, and doctors have been the recipe for TV drama success for decades now, with precious few exceptions, for a good reason – it's far and away the easiest way to explore human conflict. Shows like Lost and Heroes are usually difficult and expensive to produce, making them rare… and rarely successful.
24 (Fox) – After encountering every conceivable type of terrorist attack, the next season of 24 is supposedly going to be "different." Hmm… I've been told I would like this show, maybe I should start watching.
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi) – Knowing how to go out on top, Galactica's fourth season will be its final season. If true, this would be a rare example of a show ending for artistic and dramatic reasons instead of for financial reasons.
Heroes (NBC) – Heroes, yet another show that breaks from convention, gets a second season to capitalize on it's outstanding success. It will also have a six episode spin-off, Heroes: Origins.
Lost (ABC) – I don't watch Lost, for those who do, I've heard they're finally going to start giving you the answers you've been pining away for with three more seasons of 16 episodes each, ending in 2010.
Scrubs (NBC) – One more season for NBC's successful but neglected comedy. In fact, the seventh season was almost sold to another network before NBC finally pulled the trigger.
Survivor (CBS) – Next season Survivor will be in China instead of a tropical island. Cool!
The Unit (CBS) – This is my guilty pleasure. I'm just such a hopeless military nut, starved for a positive portrayal of those who serve. This show hasn't always been great but I'm really rooting for it to mature and succeed.
And finally every possible version of CSI, Law and Order, and ER has been renewed – Jay-rod calls the CSI shows by their dominant color: Grey, Yellow, and Blue. You have to have some way to tell them apart.
Drive (Fox) – Poor Nathan Fillion, we hardly ever get to know you before your shows get canceled.
Extreme Makeover (ABC) – I'm kind of glad this show is gone. I was always worried for people who were so emotionally dependent on changing their outward appearance. Self-worth and acceptance shouldn't come from physical appearances.
Jericho (CBS) – Cancellation is the punishment for taking an interesting premise and failing to deliver. The next time you do a show about Kansas town, don't populate it with Southern Californians.
Stargate SG-1 (Sci-Fi) – The longest running science fiction show is finally over… almost. Two more movies are already in the can and some of the cast and crew will migrate over to Stargate Atlantis.
The most important factor in future television programming is the drop in viewers. Last year, 44% of American households were watching the four big networks during prime time. 25 years ago that number was 83%. TiVo, cable networks, the internet, video games, and who knows what is limiting the number of people watching the commercials on major networks. Without the commercials, there's no money to finance the shows we enjoy. This alone will dramatically change television in coming years.