Every technological media innovation has somehow involved making traditional activities faster. Cellphones let us make calls from anywhere. The iPod provides favorite songs without waiting for them. TiVo records preferred shows with skip-able commercials, while eliminating the need to remember exactly when they’re on.
Those who evaluate entertainment have also grown addicted to instant gratification — accustomed to proclaiming TV programs a hit by dawn the next day, or estimating weekend box office Saturday morning. Insta-polls have pervaded sports and politics, so why not pop culture?
In TV, though, the speed we covet can not only misinform but kill — or at least, lead to hair-trigger cancellations that in hindsight might have been premature. Although results pour in faster, they increasingly tell us less within the context of an expanding array of criteria, of which ratings are merely the first benchmark, albeit a significant one.
Journalists and network spinmeisters are caught in the same perplexing no-man’s land, given the lingering temptation to draw snap conclusions. The present state of confusion prompted this extraordinary list of qualifiers in a Wall Street Journal story regarding TV’s premiere week: “Many viewers haven’t rushed back to their television sets … preferring to catch the shows on digital video recording devices and online — or not catch them at all.”
Thanks for clearing that up.
Television remains caught in this old mentality in terms of the pressure to label programs a failure or success. At times brandishing DVR data or Internet downloads still sounds like the last refuge of a scoundrel or a feeble alibi — the equivalent of “We’ll make it back on DVD” or “We’ll clean that up in post.”
Last season, CW’s “Gossip Girl” was the “hit” that nobody seemed to be watching. By contrast, Fox’s animated comedy “Family Guy” parlayed DVD sales and cable reruns into an improbable and profitable return from the grave.
As a pay service, HBO isn’t fully representative of the world ad-supported channels face, but some eye-popping data about cumulative viewership of its programs does illuminate the direction toward which have-it-your-way trend lines point. The vampire drama “True Blood,” for example, has seen its mortal audience more than triple from its first Sunday airing once encore showings, on demand and DVR playback are figured in. In most cases, debut HBO telecasts now account for a third or less of aggregated viewing, including “Entourage” and “Big Love.”
Admittedly, patience probably wouldn’t have paid off with “Do Not Disturb,” the Fox comedy that checked out after three weeks due to low Nielsen occupancy rates. Certain programs, however, exhibit potential that extends beyond their initial broadcasts. And unlike “Family Guy,” most live-action programs can’t easily be reassembled once casts scatter and move on to new roles.
Of course, networks can’t stop playing the perception game, any more than the media would agree to wait silently several weeks until DVR-usage levels roll in to determine whether programs like “Heroes” or “Fringe” met expectations.
Everybody wants what they want when they want it — which is right away — and TV’s need for speed will always produce its share of road kill; the problem is recognizing when to hit the brakes before you’re left gazing back at it in the rear-view mirror.
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Technology can produce other kinds of casualties — the latest being the lonely armoire.
Until recently, a big, handsome, TV-housing hunk of pine has occupied the center of many living rooms. Yet with the advent of flat-screen TVs and the build-up to the digital changeover, the armoire has become the furniture equivalent of the buggy whip — a hard-to-shed $1,000 albatross that serves no obvious purpose for those with wall-mounted sets.
An L.A. discount furniture store has been advertising armoires for $49. Check out Craigslist or other websites and you’ll find more being offered at fire-sale prices. (As a personal experiment, I threw in the old TV that was living in mine, and still no takers.)
Although one newspaper article dubbed armoires as “the dinosaur of 2008,” a moribund economy could provide the cabinets a new use. Should the stock market continue its nosedive, many might be inclined to lay those sturdy rectangular boxes on their backs, knock out the middle shelf, and crawl inside.