TV Series Theory
Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
February 11, 2013
I am guilty of having watched way too much television in my youth. By
high school other interests got me away from the tube (when it actually
was a cathode ray tube), but I have drifted back from time to time. I did,
however, get some professional mileage out of my interest in television.
My undergraduate economics advisor at Caltech (and all-around great guy),
Roger Noll, was a pioneer in, among very many things, the field of the
economics of television. While I was a grad student at Harvard my
circumstances were such that I needed to offer a junior tutorial in
economics on a topic that would attract a lot of students (enough to
require two sections with a single preparation). I figured that the
economics of television would do the trick, and it did. It was a great
tutorial to teach; most of my students were from the Pudding and they were
far more interesting than the typical econ major of the day. As they say,
a good time was had by all.
The only "television" that I watch now are shows that are
several years old and are either free to stream on Amazon or are
reasonable deals on optical media. I rarely watch an entire series all the
way through; by the fourth or fifth season it turns either dull or
dreadful. And that's where TV series theory comes in.
All TV series begin their lives as distinctive products. Derivative
possibly, but still distinctive. That is because a network or syndicator
has to pick up the series and without a "hook" there is no
chance of that happening. When I was at GE I would talk from time to time
to the quants at NBC who provided some statistical input into the series
selection process. All I remember of their description of the process at
NBC is that there was a "credenza" (that's the word they used)
where all of the binders with the pitches for new shows would sit in
Warren Littlefield's office at NBC (Littlefield, then the president of
NBC, was the real-life basis for the president of NBC who fell in love
with Elaine on "Seinfeld"). Occasionally, one of binders would
fall behind the credenza, which meant that show, regardless of merit,
would not get passed over by NBC.
While all shows start out as different products, these differences are
transitory. Ultimately all television shows become essentially the same
show. That, in a nutshell, is my TV series theory. Shows that do not
ultimately conform to the standard mold die. Take, for example, the
now-forgotten "Herman's Head." Its hook (or gimmick) was that
the main character, Herman, had four characters in his head and they
provided a kind of running commentary/Greek chorus for whatever silliness
was happening to Herman. There were a few good things about the show, like
Hank Azaria, but the head people were a distraction. Herman never got good
ratings, indeed, it was a joke in the television industry. At the time of
cancellation they were even contemplating adding more "head
people" to another character. Quelle clueless.
The homogenization of TV shows takes many forms. Almost always, the key
edgy character becomes "loveable," or at least less hateable.
The Fonz on "Happy Days" started out in the pilot episode as a
real "Lords of Flatbush" hood. By the end of the series, he was
the father figure of the show. "Dexter" started out as a serious
human misfit on the border of total social dysfunction, now other
characters come to him for advice. "House" actually did pretty
well in this regard, long-term romances toward the end of the show's run
notwithstanding. The problem with "House" was that the
ailment-of-the-week gimmick was exhausted by the third season. There are
only a very limited number of medical mysteries that a general audience
will have any chance of being able to follow. "House" only
lasted as long as it did because Hugh Laurie is an amazing actor and his
chemistry with the ensemble cast around him worked out well with some
The underlying reason for a TV series to evolve in the manner that it
does is that the hook is necessary to grab viewers in the first place, but
then the show must pander to the audience to keep and enlarge it.
"Twin Peaks" shows what happens when a show fails to pander.
David Lynch's weirdness drew audiences in and then drove them away. When
there are the hooks that never grab more than a cult audience and then
there's no need to pander because no one else is left to join the cult.
"Freaks and Geeks," "Action," and "Arrested
Development" are among the rare series that managed to be
consistently good because they were on death row almost from day one.
"Arrested Development" is, of course, a special case. It made
it so long and is being resurrecting this year because the show goes
beyond brilliant into a category of its own. The big gimmick of the show
is that Michael, the good-looking "nice guy" who is the lens
through which the show is seen, is just as rotten as his despicable
relatives, and possibly more so due to his rampant narcissism and
self-delusion. What makes this especially funny is that the typical viewer
(and TV critic and Wikipedia) buys Michael's "I'm only doing this for
the family" bit, joining him in his delusional state. Michael's
actions, however, speak much louder than his words. Karma sucks.
Beyond the homogenization effect, TV shows do have an obvious evolution
when it comes to quality. Successful shows tend to peak somewhere during
the first four seasons. The first season is rarely the best because the
show is usually underfunded and the creators/writers/actors need time to
figure out what the show is about and let it find its "voice."
Still, the first season can be the best when additional funding comes at
the cost of network interference or if there is a falling out among the
talent. "Dobie Gillis," the topic of an
earlier commentary, is an example of a show that was epic in its first
season and all downhill from there. The second and third seasons are
usually the sweet spot for a show: there is enough money to do things
right, there are still massive payoffs to having a successful show, and
not all of the good ideas had been used. Critical among these massive
payoffs is having sufficient episodes for second-run syndication, which
often requires 100 episodes. The monetary pull of syndication can keep a
show going strong through its fourth season and even into the fifth. After
that, the creators/writers are likely well more involved in their next
series, providing support for only the occasional episode, if that. Actors
squabble, get to direct episodes (usually a big mistake), and peripheral
characters have entire episodes written around them. "Special"
shows also abound, such as hallucinogenic fantasies, weird points of view,
musicals, etc. The occasional series that get enough of the special shows
right, for example, "Buffy" and "X-Files," are the
ones that peak the latest.
Next time, I move from TV to movies and begin a three-part series on
Los Angeles in the 1970s as represented by the movies of the time. My
first flick in the series is Robert Altman's underappreciated treatment of
the Raymond Chandler classic The Long Goodbye.
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