The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Losing Your Affection

How to get a hit show axed

There’s many reasons why a successful show might be taken off the air. The main one being, an executive whim. But how to turn a success into a failure? There are several methods. You may notice that all of them were used on Doctor Who during the 80’s – and even then it kept on going for four years (a decent run!) after being axed.

Cut the budget - The number one way of killing a show. Not just by preventing it from using exotic locations, special effects, night shoots and from featuring guest stars. The real way a budget cut hurts a show is it means you can’t afford to throw away scripts that aren’t working, you can’t afford to commission spare scripts, you can’t afford to hire the cast for more rehearsal time. Money equals time. But if a show is a hit, the reasoning goes, why can’t it still be a hit with a slightly smaller budget?

Cut the lead time – Due to a commissioner being late with making a decision, or deciding the show should be ready in time for a broadcast date which is only a few months away; this has all the effects of a budget cut without cutting the budget, as it reduces the amount of room for manoeuvre; particularly regarding script preparation and pick-ups and re-shoots.

Change the time slot – If a show is doing well, keep it where it is. Deciding to put it against stronger opposition of a similar demographic – or to play some scheduling version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the competing channel – and you’ll start haemorrhaging viewers who have lost track of when it’s on and fallen behind.

Change the lead – A show needs continuity; viewers get to know the characters, that’s why they watch, so you want to change them as little as possible. No more than, say, a third of the cast per season. Anything more than that and not only will the viewers lose interest, but you have too many new cast members who haven’t quite settled into their parts and a team of writers who haven’t quite got a handle on the new characters.

Change the tone – Obvious one this; if it all becomes too flippant, that will put off the viewers who take it seriously. On the other hand, make it too portentous and that will put of the viewers who tune in to be amused. The tone can evolve, but sudden all-or-nothing shifts just makes people think they’ve tuned in to the wrong show.

Change the format – Similar to the above; if people have got used to a certain type of story being told, then it’s a gradual shift to telling an alternative form of story. And if a show’s USP is a certain location, or a certain profession, etc. then that’s what people will be expecting to see. The same goes for pace, episode duration, frequency etc.

And finally

Disappear up its own arse – When a show is all about itself, where each episode requires the viewer to have seen previous episodes in order to understand what is at stake, where pay offs and explanations are endlessly deferred, where characters and concepts are revisited rather than developed or given original twists, where a show becomes shackled by its own past and inward-looking.

Seven ways to kill a hit TV show. Bear it mind, it make take more than one of these. But all seven, and you’re guaranteed to turn a popular success into an overnight flop.

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