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How to Incubate New TV shows

It’s October — that time of year that new shows debut, and three episodes later they’re canceled.

This has been going on since the dawn of TV, but incredibly, all of these years later, nothing has changed — networks aren’t trying to incubate new shows.

The reason why shows get canceled so fast does make some business sense.

Advertisement rates are driven by ratings.

The first casualty of the Fall 2013 television season

If a low performing new show can be replaced another show that will garner more viewers, keeping the new show on the air cost the network potential revenue — the difference between what the new show is bringing and what the alternate show could be making.

So even if someone at a network really believes that a new show is quite good and could become popular, keeping it on the air week after week despite its bad ratings results in money left on the table. There are only so many hours of programming a day; you want to go with the shows that will produce the highest viewership, and thus, best ad rates.

I’ve always felt that there is a business argument against that. An incredible amount of money and time is spent creating a show — everything from assembling a cast and writers, to building sets, all the work that goes into writing scripts, etc. And then networks throw that investment away at the first sign of adversity.

More importantly, it’s just really hard for shows to capture people’s attention in just an episode or two, and creatively, shows need time to find their groove. With few exceptions, when I look back on what I consider great shows, the first season or two are typically a bit mediocre, or at the least, nowhere near as good as later seasons.

Very few shows hit their apogee in season 1.

There’s definitely a way that shows can be given time to develop while minimizing the financial risks.

What I see as the major problem is that new shows on broadcast networks are expected to have 20+ episode runs. If ratings are bad in weeks two and three, what hope is there for week 18? Better to kill the show fast and start working on replacing it.

If I were in charge of new shows at a network —honestly, this is not a dream job — I’d cap first seasons to twelve episodes, and shoot half to all of them at once. I’d commit to airing the first three episodes no matter how bad the ratings are. If the ratings are good, air the next three; if they’re bad, post them online. And then make all six episodes available online for free.

Unless ratings are through the roof, I’d take a break on airing new shows. I’d spend a week or so evaluating why people who watched the show liked it, and try to generate some buzz about it — allow some time for the water cooler effect to play out. After a two-month break I’d shoot and air the remaining six episodes. If ratings go up when the second batch of episodes air, then I’ll have some good evidence that the show has potential — I’ll know that word of mouth and reviews were strong enough to get new viewers to tune in. The break would also give the show makers the opportunity to evaluate what their final product looks like and how people react to it, and then provide time to make adjustments.

There is some precedent for doing something like this. Seinfeld, for example, was rolled out in a similar manner.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it…

Season 1 was only five episodes, all of which aired May to June 1990; Season 2 aired between January and May 1991; and Season 3, the first full season, began in September 1991. In between Seasons 1 & 2 and 2 & 3 the show went through significant retooling without the pressure of having to be instantly popular enough to carry a 23-episode season — they just had to make it through a few episodes.

Networks have been trying to mix things up, such as releasing pilot episodes online several weeks ahead of their broadcast premier to generate buzz. While I applaud the basic idea, the problem with preempting the premier is that you’re probably going to end up cannibalizing viewers from the broadcast premier — if you’ve already watched the episode online, why would you watch it again on TV, whether you like the episode or not? Any online strategy needs to cover many episodes and as many platforms as possible.

Along these lines, another strategy would be utilizing all of the viewers that subscription services like Amazon and Netflix can reach. This summer episodes of Under the Dome were available on Amazon Prime four days after they aired on CBS. Amazon paid for this privilege because it looked likely that the show would be a hit with its high budget and Stephen King’s name attached. Under the Dome certainly benefited from essentially having multiple airdates — it was quickly renewed for a second season.

To again pretend to be a network executive, I would offer up episodes of
new shows to Amazon and Netflix for next to nothing — I’d want to
create as many opportunities as possible for viewers to watch a new
show. And if the shows aren’t pulling much ad revenue in because nobody
is watching them, then I’m not losing any money by licensing them for
relatively little.

Of course, some shows are just helpless, and it’s a wonder how they ever got green lit.

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