Monday, July 7, 2008

The template for the next generation of soaps

I think serials are alive and well. All the recent hits on the now-faded HBO were serials. All the current hits on the now-hot Showtime are serials. Most of the sci fi genre shows that hit are serials. Heroes, specifically, is a serial. Fox Network's big drama (not its' biggest, though), 24, is a serial. American Idol is a serial (and I realize this is stretching the definition--but the success of all those weekly reality shows with eliminations shows there IS an audience for shows that require a regular commitment).

Almost no hit movie gets away without a sequel or a trilogy...especially in the action domain.

Don't even start on things like the Harry Potter books series, or most mystery/detective franchises, or the hot new Stephanie Meyer series for young adults. I emphasize this because the kids CAN embrace serials...just not grandmothers' stories.

So, I can't vouch for whether the serial is the MOST popular format, but it is sure up there.

To this post at SON, user Sylph asked me:

Have you read this New York Times piece?

The gist of this, of course, is that following the initial success of Lost, other similar serials did not take root...and Lost has since lost viewers. Ergo, the serial market is saturated or, at best, weak.

I'm not sure I agree. Hollywood is having enormous success with serials and "franchises"...certainly in books and films. That means that audiences COME BACK.

And Harry Potter, as a direct example, is not just "sequels"...this was a planned serial in 7 parts. There was an ENORMOUS appetite for this in books, audiobooks, films, DVD rentals, and TV broadcast ratings. Given that it was the young-reader audience that drove this market, I believe it confirms BOTH an appetite (or at least not a distaste) for the serial format, and that this appetite exists even in the up-and-coming market.

So what about Lost? Well, the initial 16-million viewer (or whatever) success of the show was a bit surprising for a "genre" show. So, some loss is normal just given the kind of show it is. Also, the serial appreciation of the show may have been harmed by the the early seasons we'd see 3 or 5 shows, and then there would be a break. In the recent seasons we had planned "mini-seasons" and then the "WGA strike" (which harmed viewership ACROSS THE BOARD). So what is more important for Lost is to judge the PROPORTIONAL loss of viewers, and whether that loss exceeds that of primetime in general, or the typical trend for aging shows. Only then can we really judge whether there is something special going on, and whether that is in fact due to the serial nature of Lost.

Still, it raises the question of whether even WEEKLY serials are too much of a commitment to request from the modern audience. Did Harry Potter work because the audience got years to rest between episodes (allowing the hunger to build)? Maybe... I point again to American Idol, though. That has a huge (but shrinking) viewer base that returns weekly. So I think when tension and compelling cliffhangers are adequate, viewers WILL return for regular doses.

The question now is how to take the unpredictable and must-see nature of a show like AI, and convert it into scripted drama.


Sylph then noted that serials lose viewers--harming their long-term prospects. And it is true...they always do. That doesn't bother me, but it does suggest that all serials have a life span.

This is a true peril of the serial format. All repeated human behavior (exercise, research study participation, church attendance) is characterized by attrition, or dropout. So, any entertainment requiring ongoing commitment will always experience a loss of audience at each recurrence. That is true for ALL continuing television, although I imagine it is more acute for serials that require a high level of narrative commitment.

But in the end, who wants to live forever? "I'm here for a good time, not a long time". I think when it comes to serial drama this credo is likely an essential component of the new template.

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