New trends can leave the serialized format behind

IN CBS’ STRONG START this TV season there is a message about the schism between procedural and serialized dramas — and potentially the rift separating broadcasting and cable as the digital video recorder’s impact on TV consumption steadily grows.

While CBS garnered big numbers with “NCIS” (times two) and “The Mentalist,” ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and NBC’s not-so-super “Heroes” picked up roughly where they left off last spring, failing to experience a traditional new-season bump.

If this trend continues, CBS’ crime-ridden lineup could become TV’s equivalent of a serial killer — literally, in this case, since the effect would be to reduce broadcasters’ faith in serials.

The trend lines aren’t conclusive, and the good news for fans of serialized storytelling (and tellers of such stories) is that ABC’s “FlashForward” opened strongly and held up well in its second week, proving that audiences can still be lured to big, elaborate concepts.

Nevertheless, several factors appear to be lining up behind broadcast series that are more episodically self-contained, leaving the heavily serialized format to the less-demanding confines of cable.

The nagging problem with a show like “FlashForward” is the fear that every viewer who drifts away will be irrevocably lost, in the same way that those who abandoned “Lost” likely deemed the series too impenetrable to rejoin. Fox’s “24″ has skirted this issue partly by essentially rebooting each season, though even that franchise has experienced inevitable erosion.

Critics often love serialized fare, which can tackle more complicated and intricately developed storylines. Apparently, Emmy voters do too: Fox’s “House” was the lone procedural among this year’s Emmy nominees, with “Lost” as the only other broadcast entry, surrounded by “Mad Men,” “Big Love,” “Breaking Bad,” “Damages” and “Dexter.”

Yet while these programs generate intense loyalty, they’re also seemingly more vulnerable to ratings dives — and not incidentally, more apt to be time-shifted, with audiences blasting past the commercials.

A recent study by TiVo underscores the challenge that serialized programs face, indicating that 83% of the audience time-shifting “Mad Men” zapped through the ads — markedly higher than the drama-category average of 73%.

“While critics and general audiences may love a program, that doesn’t mean they’ll watch the commercials,” said Todd Juenger, TiVo’s VP-general manager of audience research and measurement, noting that the most beloved shows are “going to have the most fast-forwarding and the most time-shifting.”

Indeed, the rate of time-shifting and commercial avoidance is generally higher across the board for serialized programs. Based on data culled from TiVo’s population of roughly 3 million U.S. homes last season, 85% of subscribers time-shifted “Mad Men” and “Damages,” and more than 80% fast-forwarded through commercials. By contrast, time-shifting dipped to roughly 75% for “CSI” and “NCIS,” with a more moderate 70% ad-skipping rate.

More avidly watched, more fast-forwarded. “It’s a hard paradox to sort out,” Juenger noted.

That’s not an issue for HBO and Showtime, obviously, which boast cliffhanging addictions such as “True Blood” and “Dexter.” But it’s of concern to ABC, which pointed out in a recent press release that U.S. DVR penetration has jumped to 33% (from 27% last fall), and “more viewers are watching shows on their own timetables.” The CW, meanwhile, is touting a nearly 80% rise in the underwhelming same-day viewing for “Melrose Place” among women age 18-34 (its core audience) when given the luxury of extending DVR playback out to seven days.

The inherent challenge facing serials is that when people miss episodes or grow weary of a concept, it’s tough to dive back in. Once they’ve fallen, to quote an old ad, they can’t get back up.

More ambitious dramas clearly require extra care and nurturing — including encore airings early in their life cycles (as ABC has done with “FlashForward”), providing viewers additional bites at the apple as word of mouth hopefully spreads.

Irony abounds, of course, since the DVR offers a convenient way to keep pace with serials, without needing to stay home for them. Given these viewing patterns, however, it might simultaneously hasten their transformation into a niche-oriented genre that has difficulty playing on what remains — albeit tenuously — TV’s biggest stage.

So will that gap widen, and can serials survive on the major networks?

To be continued.

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