People don't tune in weekly to shows anymore. It's the simple reality. As the networks reveal which shows are getting the axe and continue to spin more tried and trite reworks of past successes and spinoffs, it's clear that tv is not what it used to be. There was a time, and it wasn't quite that long ago, when people would tune in every week to one particular show. You couldn't move them from that couch on Monday between 7-8. You didn't even answer the phone. TV was kind of a big deal.
But people don't schedule their lives around tv much anymore. There's so much other stuff to do and On Demand as well as time shifting has made it possible for us to watch when we want to, rather than when it's on. Downloading and internet tv are also popular options. It's not just the time commitment that becomes the issue, but the choice.
Reality tv is ratings gold and for many reasons: it's cheap, gossip-worthy, and doesn't require a large emotional or neurological investment. Drama is often too involved and too, well, dramatic. Comedy is rarely funny. The threat of the axe also deters us from loving shows too much. And then there are the shows themselves.
Let's use the example of one of this year's most compelling dramas, Awake. Awake is a highly intelligent drama about an LA-based detective who loses his wife or son in an accident and is living 2 parallel realities in which each is alive. The 2 realities are so clearly separate that he has a different police partner and a different psychologist in each. The show's first few episodes were breathtakingly captivating. It made you tremble for more and wonder so hard that your brain hurt.
But here are the problems with the show:
It's almost too smart for its own good- Let's admit it. The premise is gimmicky and faulty because in order for the show to work, the premise has to work everytime, which means that the character can't ever commit to 1 reality. While this is compelling on the surface, it's utterly unrewarding to the viewer, because they will never get close to the 'truth'. The search for the truth is what keeps us interested in the show; but getting there will destroy the show, much in the same way that romantic tension keeps shows alive until the two main characters actually get together.
Grieving is a bad storyline- There's only so much grieving that viewers will watch before it overwhelms them. By not allowing the story to advance much beyond 'mom misses son' and 'son misses mom' while 'dad misses both', makes all the characters fall flat. An emotional connection is nearly impossible with either son or mother, made all the more complicated by the fact that the detective is not close to either. He is the absentee father, mostly at work on a case, rather than at home bonded to his family. His bonds with both seem superficial and only his grief for them seems real. It's not good viewing.
One of these things just doesn't belong- There are 2 stories competing for Detective Britton's attention right now, the grieving one in which he might become a grandparent or move, and the second much more interesting one of the police force's conspiracy to kill him. The problem is that they are almost incompatible. The news of the show's cancellation next season seems to have prompted the creators to concentrate on the police conspiracy, leaving both crash victims out of the storyline. The show, if it gets picked up again by an interested fanbase, will have to decide which it's going to be: family drama or police drama.
Which brings us back to the problems with tv. If a series is going to demand a high level of emotional investment and tolerance for non-answers from its viewers, at some point, it has to offer a reward. Remember LOST? Beyond two brilliant seasons, LOST was an epic disappointment, confusing viewers, story spinning out of control and finally losing all credibility with a cryptic and inane finale. Viewers don't want to ride that ride anymore.