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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 notable exceptions.

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.

Copyright 2013 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to