The premature eulogy for complexity

10Jan07

At the Convergence Culture Consortium blog, Sam Ford highlights some key points about a recent New York Times article decrying the ratings failures of serialized dramas in this year’s TV season. Sam hits the key flaws in the article, but I wanted to add a bit more.

It’s a very common cycle throughout television history for an innovation to inspire imitations, which then leads to saturation and the press & industry denouncing the trend as “played out.” But most shows fail, whether in terms of creative merit, actual popularity, or ratings failing to measure viewer interest. The fact that a number of new hit shows are clear examples of complexity (Heroes & Jericho as the most pronounced, but I think 30 Rock and Ugly Betty are playing with complexity without hyper-serialization, as I discuss in my recent article) doesn’t seem to matter in the face of all the canceled serials. But what about the canceled generic sitcoms, procedurals, and quiz shows? Are those formats dead too?

The lesson is to be skeptical of any buzz about failed formats and dead genres. In the early-80s, the press held funerals for the sitcom. One year later, The Cosby Show was the #1 show on TV, and NBC had a dominant Thursday night lineup of classic sitcoms. So don’t be surprised if the next big hit is a serialized drama and everyone shifts to talking about how audiences love ongoing stories!



4 Responses to “The premature eulogy for complexity”

  1. Jason, some important points here, particularly about these sweeping trends that can change course with only a key hit here or there. And, as I alluded to in a comment on my blog post, I think you raise another important point here about the differences between serialization and complexity. Maybe we should spend some time thinking about these two terms we use so often and figure out both why they get lumped together and what their relationship to each other are.

  2. Interested if you’ve explored the difference between ad-supported serial complexity and non-ad-supported (e.g. HBO) serial complexity. My theory is that ad-supported serials require more redundancy and less complexity than HBO shows b/c they know that ads will take viewers out of the narrative and so they will have a harder time keeping track of many different characters with shifting allegiances and oddball dramatic structures. I’m not talking about obvious redundancy (repeated shots or lines of dialogue) but just the lack of new information, when characters repeat the same sentiments in different words (this happens a LOT on Lost, but less so on The Wire). So then it is no surprise that viewers have a tought time w/ complex network serials (plus the fact that they’re all competing w/ one another for viewer’s limited time). If you know of any extensive studies that compare the two, let me know.

  3. Sam & Elliot – thanks for the thoughtful comments. A couple of replies:

    In my article on narrative complexity, I do try to distinguish between serial form and complexity. It’s a bit complicated, but basically I contend that complexity has more do to with a self-aware & adventurous mechanics of narration, not specifically serial form. So Seinfeld is highly complex, but not particularly serialized (except at moments).

    As for the network vs. premium issue Elliot raises, there are some crucial differences: premium shows have shorter seasons (typically 13 vs. 22 episodes), flexible timing (both with ad breaks & the ability to make an episode vary between 45 to 60 minutes), and a more creator-centered pace of production (rather than demands of sweeps & seasons on networks), all of which enable more risk-taking and experimentation. But they also have built in redundancy each week in the form of multiple airings – if you miss an episode on Sunday, it will run 5 more times on HBO before the next one (and HBO On-Demand is even more user-friendly). Strategies like online streaming, iTunes, and the like enable network shows to do this more – it’s likely that a Lost fan who misses an episode can find a way to catch up, whereas a couple of years ago, there were fewer (legal) opportunities.

    I’d recommend Michael Newman’s article on television narrative for an excellent account of how the act break structure of contemporary TV shows operates narratologically – he doesn’t talk much about HBO shows as a comparison, but the comparison invites itself.

  4. Good points about complexity and gloom-and-doom-mongering in press coverage of television. This is the precise moment in the development calendar when concepts are altered, scripts heavily revised, and pilots are anxiously overcooked, so this kind of coverage (coupled with all sorts of year-in-review stuff from December, from the mainstream and trade press, as well as prominent blogs and boards) is bound to resonate to some degree in executive offices and production meetings.

    Now that the “watch it online” experiment seems to have become standard operating procedure (at least on ABC, CBS, and NBC), it’ll be interesting to see if (and how) “complexity,” serialized or otherwise, becomes a salient point in series development. What are the networks’ expectations of so-called “casual viewers” these days? Do they now expect “casual viewers” to follow/find the show wherever it appears?

    As for serialized complexity, look at the prevalence and structure of recaps (“previously on…”). While some series use the recaps to lay out as clear a path as possible (e.g., Heroes, 24), others steer more towards ambiguity (e.g., Lost), while others seemingly use them as a narrative life raft to rescue unfocused storytelling (e.g., Gilmore Girls). There’s an interesting analysis article lurking in these recaps!


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