Thursday, April 12, 2007

TV Viewer's Bill of Rights

I would like to put out a call for a TV viewer's Bill of Rights. There are several personal pet peeves that I would like to see addressed in such a bill, like the addition of a twenty-four hour Superhero Channel and a moratorium on daytime talk shows. But the primary thing that bugs me about television these days is the tendency for networks to put serialized shows on the air -- these being shows that tell a continuning story -- and then cancel them before the story concludes. Nobody would pick up a novel to read knowing that the final chapters had never been written. And yet, television studios expect us to commit to shows with ongoing storylines with no guarantee that we will get to see the end of the story.

Studio heads constantly scratch their (studio) heads and wonder why fewer and fewer people are watching. I suggest one reason is because viewers don't trust the networks. When the financial bottom line becomes more important than finishing the story, networks make a grave show of disrespect for their audience.

A Viewer's Bill of Rights would be a good step in the right direction, provided that number one on the list is that viewers who commit their time to a show have a right to see how the creators of the show intended to conclude the story. Now I am not saying that networks should keep shows on the air indefinitely that don't make money. Rather what I suggest is a system that ensures viewers are not deprived of closure.

The Fox Network recently premiered a new show called Drive. I have been interested in watching the show. It stars an actor I like (Nathan Filion) and boasts an interesting premise. However, having been burned many times in the past, I refused to commit my time to the show without a reasonable expectation of closure. So, instead of watching the first four episodes that have aired, I recorded all of them. My intention is to wait and see how the ratings pan out before deciding to view them. This seems to have been a good choice as the ratings for it have so far been less than stellar. Consequently, the show currently appears doomed for cancellation. If so, I won't watch the episodes and so won't be disappointed again by starting a story that never finishes.

The networks themselves have created this vicious circle. Because they cancel serialized shows before the story concludes, people won't commit to their serialized shows, which then leads them to cancel those shows, which leads to people not wanting to commit to them and so on.

But what if, however, there was a fixed agreement between network and viewer that they would take no serialized show off the air without providing resolution. If the Fox Network had in essence said, "We have this new show called Drive that we would like for you to watch and we guarantee that it will not be canceled without story resolution," I would have eagerly watched it from the beginning. If a show's ratings tank immediately, it doesn't mean they have to continue to air it week after week; all it means is that they provide the creators enough advance notice of their impending cancelation to allow them to wrap up the story. It means that decisions about cancellations should be made long before the end of May when season finales have already been aired. By letting the showrunners know earlier in the season that they will not or are unlikely to come back, it would save viewers the pain of watching a season finale cliffhanger only to later find out that the cliff is going to continue to hang in perpetuity. After all, I am still waiting to find out what happens on Joan of Arcadia and Invasion.