The Rise and Fall of TV Commitment

This originally appeared on I Fry Mine in Butter in 2010.

In a world where there were three television networks, people watched them.

Here are a few finale viewing numbers from years past:

M*A*S*H, 1983: 105.9 million viewers

Roots (mini-series), 1977: 36.38 million households

Cheers, 1993: 80.4 million viewers

Friends, 2004: 52.5 millions viewers

The Cosby Show, 1992: 44.4 million viewers

Lost finale shotLast week, Lost’s series finale garnered 13.5 million viewers, and still it seemed like everyone and their neighbor had glued their eyes to their flatscreens. It pales in comparison to most Super Bowl games and any time Michael Jackson gave an interview. And it should be noted that the season 1 finale of Lost attracted more than 20 million viewers, so the show had definitely seen a decline of its viewership. But Nielsen numbers be damned, whatever happened to cult favorites?

Jericho, the terrible post-apocalyptic, conspiracy theorist’s daydream came back to television after a fan campaign roared its demands to the network, and got a whole 7 more episodes before it was canceled again.

So color me confused that FlashForward was canceled last week due to low ratings, even as it was at least as watchable—in my humble opinion—as V. And here’s where I get a little steamed: I know we’re going to be left hanging, forever. After I’ve dedicated significant attention to Charlie and Mark and Dmitri and Lloyd, to wrapping my brain around seeing things in the future that can’t have happened without seeing them in the future, and to remembering which agent is a double agent, which strings on Mark’s board lead where, and that we still don’t really know who D. Gibbons is. Even if some of the dialogue is stilted or some of the acting a bit forced and strident, I didn’t watch the show thinking “I bet they’re all in purgatory and waiting to die.” If I want to watch that crap I’ll rent Heaven Can Wait again. Ain’t nothing like a little Dyan Cannon screaming her guilty head off. Hell, I’d even watch The Heavenly Kid over again before I’d spend 5 years combing through Lost. (For the record, I gave up on the series after a few episodes into season 2.)

I’m glad I never watched Heroes, because NBC gave that the heave-ho without even attempting to tie up any loose ends, frustrating the hell out of viewers. It’s one thing to cancel a detective procedural like Numb3rs or Cold Case, because those narratives focus mainly on single episode story arcs, arcs over a few weeks, or maybe, like CSI, draw those story arcs out over one season. But shows that are centered around a convoluted, all-encompassing mystery can’t handle an abrupt end. Is it too much to ask that the writers have a quick wrap-up plan when that happens, or a couple of Webisodes up their sleeves in case the executive powers that be pull the plug? It actually makes me hesitant to watch these kinds of shows, and I love science fiction, hard-core mystery, and other thriller-type shows.

murder one castThink about how awful it would have been if the X-Files had ended in the middle of season 2 or 3, with no resolution. Not knowing the Cigarette Smoking Man’s identity would haunt me to this day.


I’m not sure what ratings or share broadcast networks are looking for these days, given that there are tons of cable channels, premium channels, and X-Box to split people’s interests. And I realize that reality television costs less, but my God are there some dogs out there pretending to be worth my time. I’m looking at you, Jerseylicious. Maybe scripted shows could just try to hang in there a little longer when they’ve asked for some audience investment? Or move them to a cable channel like Law and Order: Criminal Intent? What’s wrong with a minor league of shows to test them out, get some publicity going, before putting them on the broadcast 4 where expectations are higher? Why don’t television executives think about using the Web to support their series instead of just streaming episodes (which I deeply appreciate, thank you)?

One last example: Murder One had a good idea that didn’t pan out in viewership, to focus on one murder prosecution a season. Producers insisted audiences couldn’t hold their attention that long. I think people have shown that they can stick around now, for years and years and years. Please try this show out again, and for the love of Pete, bring back Stanley Tucci.

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Categories: Pop Culture, popular culture


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