Given the number of reality shows dominating primetime television, it can sometimes feel like scripted shows are tossed out faster than week-old sushi.
So why the disposable attitude? Ratings are a top factor in the death of a scripted series, frequently leaving well-received shows that cost considerably more money to produce in constant danger of long hiatuses, shortened seasons, or, in some cases, cancellation. Since a major source of revenue for networks is selling commercial airtime based on viewership, reality shows sit pretty in key time slots, basking in their low-budget, ratings-hoarding glory. Clearly, if you love scripted TV, something needs to change.
It may be easy to blame the networks — and, by extension, the advertisers — for threatening our favorite shows in a quest to earn any and every dime they can. But, under the current model, the millions of viewers tuning in to reality series are really the source of the genre's popularity among programming execs and producers. If the reality craze continues (remember when critics thought it was a passing fad?), we could be faced with a television landscape dominated by competition shows and docu-series.
Two shows currently airing on NBC, fan-favorite Community, which swiftly developed a passionate, cult-like following, and the realistic, brilliantly acted drama Parenthood, which has made a name for itself thanks to its refreshingly real storylines, are current examples of critically-acclaimed shows on the cusp of demise.
Community fans love the show for its quirky yet relatable characters and meta humor, and critics agree, nominating the show for six Critics Choice Awards in 2012, the most for any single series. Interestingly enough, ratings darlings Glee and American Idol both received a total of zero Critics Choice nominations.
Why, then, has a much-lauded show like Community had so much difficulty on NBC, which ordered an abbreviated 13 episodes for its fourth season and moved the show to Friday, the programming equivalent of the kiss of death?
In a word: ratings.
While Community has faced its share of internal struggles (showrunner Dan Harmon was suddenly fired earlier this year), the show's biggest obstacle has always been its rollercoaster-like viewership. The show hit a low of3 million viewers on April 5, 2012, while time slot competitor American Idol (FOX) snagged 14.3 million viewers.
With just 3 million viewers, Community isn't a huge draw for advertisers looking to get the biggest bangs for their marketing bucks. A show like American Idol, on the other hand, is a ratings juggernaut. See the dilemma?
While TV fanatics would love to see the networks forgo some extra cash in favor of television artistry, they rarely do, and viewers who aren’t enamored by reality shows end up suffering.
Fans of Parenthood may be slightly less spirited than their Community comrades, but supporters of the Braverman clan are heavily invested in the superbly acted drama, and have been disheartened to see that the show, like Community, has been given the runaround by NBC because of less-than-stellar ratings.
While Parenthood has some of the most honest storylines on television (like Adam and Christina’s struggle to deal with their son’s autism, and Sarah’s tortured relationship with her addict ex-husband), viewers aren’t tuning in with the volume that advertisers love; the show averaged just 6.6 million viewers over its entire 2011-2012 season. However, NBC’s reality staple, The Voice, pulled in 15.8 million viewers over the course of its last season, making it an big winner for the network.
After some deliberation by NBC, Parenthood was finally given a greenlight for Season 4, but for 15 episodes. Its future beyond that remains unclear. The Voice, however, now airs twice a year instead of just once once, which the network plans to continue well into 2013.
Community and Parenthood are arguably two standout shows with established audiences, but with broadcast networks placing more weight on the number of people watching and a bit less on the critical and viewer reception of the content (to NBC's credit, they've kept Community and Parenthood going after listening to the desperate pleas of fans), scripted shows with devoted fan bases will remain in cancellation limbo.
Until the networks dramatically change their mindset to favor art over ratings, scripted shows will always take a backseat.
Do you feel like reality competitions are harmful to scripted shows? Weigh in below!
Source: TV By the Numbers