Every pilot season, we media-consuming Americans find ourselves assailed by an endless blast of magazine ads, billboards, and outright shameless publicity stunts that beg us to watch “the next Mad Men/Friday Night Lights/Modern Family!” But despite the excess of advertising and self-promotion—which ensure that if you flip to any station, you’ll know at least half its fall lineup—if you scan the TV listings in December, you won’t find that show whose commercials Fox bombarded you with during the World Series. Are the networks failing that miserably?
In a word, yes. This season alone, more than a dozen of the new shows the networks were oh-so-excited about have already been given the ax before even airing all the episodes they filmed. While a small number of these can be chocked up to the television-watching population’s inability to tear itself away from Dancing with the Stars, it seems that the epidemic is too widespread to entirely blame Bristol Palin.
The main problem, I think, is that the networks are relying too much on gimmicks to try to draw in viewers. Take The Event, NBC’s political sci-fi thriller whose ads were emblazoned with the promise of Lost meets 24 with a dash of The X-Files. Sounds like a fantastic idea in theory—who wouldn’t want to watch Jack Bauer battle aliens?
Unfortunately, in reality, the show’s concept proved too convoluted: whereas Lost started out with a fairly simple, mysterious event that eventually spiraled into a mental clusterfuck, The Event had aliens that had been hidden by the government for decades and then released into society, which was just too damn complicated to maintain an audience. You’d think NBC would have known better after the failure of last year’s FlashForward, but some networks just don’t learn from their mistakes.
Star power is another way to get a show to stay on the air (Two and a Half Men comes to mind, but calling Charlie Sheen a star anymore is probably being too generous), but a show that relies too heavily on name-recognition may be signing its own death warrant. Running Wilde had the advantage of former Arrested Development producer/actor team Mitchell Hurwitz and Will Arnett, bolstered by Keri Russell and ads featuring a miniature pony. But when the show’s rich, quirky characters failed to become the next Bluth clan, the initial audience dropped off and the show was quickly canned.
These shows shamelessly exploited retired favorites in their marketing ploys, but at least they had the decency to wait until their betters were dead and buried. Some of this season’s premieres didn’t have a fighting chance at survival because the niche they tried to fill was still firmly occupied. What’s the difference between the audience for new courtroom drama The Whole Truth and that of Law & Order? Can a new show really expect to compete with an institution that has seen the likes of Sam Waterson and Ice-T? The Whole Truth was pulled for the entire month of November, freeing up space one night for a special called Primetime: Celebrity Plastic Surgery Gone Too Far? Ouch.
But amid the sea of disappointing or just plain crappy TV shows that this pilot season witnessed, let us take a moment to remember that those shows that floundered not for lack of quality, but lack of viewership. This year’s saddest loss goes to Fox’s Lone Star—although the con-artist show was heralded by critics, apparently those critics were the only ones who watched it. The show was axed after just two episodes.
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