There are a lot of shows on television these days. There are dozens of shows that require a full-time investment to the plot and characters to understand even the most basic aspects of the premise. I remember hearing good things about Lost in 2005, when the first season was wrapping up. I sat down to watch an episode and found that, not only did I have no idea what was happening, the show was downright infuriating. Characters talked in code and riddles for all I could discern, and the effect was frustrating.
However, in August of that year, with the DVD release of the first season, I gave it another go, and was immediately hooked, watching the entire first season in no more than five days. I've encountered similar situations with other serialized shows like Heroes, 24, or Prison Break. If you miss any of the first two to five episodes, the show is mostly incomprehensible, and not nearly as enjoyable.
However, these are the most popular and watched shows on television, an impressive feat considering the kind of time commitment they demand from their viewers. Shows with similar formats in past years failed rather quickly. Twin Peaks, the David Lynch master-drama, only aired for two seasons and left viewers a little disheartened by its rapid and rather unceremonious ending. Firefly, though not nearly as serialized as other recent shows, was even shorter, with 14 episodes before its cancellation. The show left so many loose ends, Joss Whedon made a film version to explain everything.
Even Arrested Development, a sitcom of sorts that utilized a similar formula failed only a few years ago. Without the constant grip of weekly drama and cliffhangers, the show was unable to keep a steady audience, and its linear plot became confusing. It is a question that makes one wonder―why do some shows fail and others thrive?
The answer has little to do with the actual content of a show. There are plenty of serialized dramas on television today that are downright awful, and others that have overstay their welcome in a couple short seasons. However, there are still a few direct reasons we can point to for success in some shows over others.
The DVD format is the single-most important reason that television shows are so popular right now. Because consumers can purchase or rent the DVDs for an entire television season for a reasonably affordable price, anyone can get caught up between seasons. In fact, for many of these shows, the only reason their following is so great is that DVD sales bolstered their popularity and created new fans. DVD sales have returned Family Guy to FOX programming where it is now one of the most popular shows on television. Futurama, another prematurely canceled show is returning next year to Comedy Central. Firefly was resurrected into a feature film after stellar DVD sales and shows like Lost manage to persist, despite flagging ratings with the boost of off-season DVD sales.
Instant Reruns: TIVO and iTunes
The next generation of at home entertainment though is an even keener reason for television success. Now, if a viewer misses their favorite show on a particular night, it is not nearly the devastating error that it once was. Millions of homes now retain digital video recorders or DVRs to record hours of their favorite programming with a few easy button presses. This allows users to set a particular show, say 24, to be recorded every week for an entire season. By doing so, viewers can stay up-to-date, and FOX does not have to worry about losing viewers to a few missed episodes and the ensuing confusion.
For those without a DVR or television for that matter, the internet has provided the rest of the relief needed to view missed programs. Services like iTunes allow viewers to download an episode for a couple of dollars and catch up or simply subscribe to an entire season and watch everything from the computer. Similarly, networks like NBC and ABC have started uploading recent episodes of popular shows like Heroes and Desperate Housewives to the internet so viewers can watch a rerun directly from their computer screen and keep track of what is happening.
Word of Mouth: Water Cooler Effect
Ultimately, the most impressive thing these shows can do is keep people talking. It's a combination of quality writing and creating controversial situations. When Lost introduced a Polar Bear in a tropical jungle, people who had never seen the show were talking about it and wondering what that could possibly mean.
Similarly, if two individuals talk about the latest episode of their favorite program, and a third person has not yet seen it, they feel left out. Many will opt not to listen in on the conversation. Instead, they will seek out and watch the show themselves, without the spoilers of coworkers revealing the next plotline. It's a race to stay up-to-date and not find out what happens before viewing the next episode.
Serialized TV programs with massive casts and quality writing are clearly not taking over the airwaves. Reality game shows and dating programs still clog the networks, and offer a marked alternative to intelligent writing. However, the inclusion and the success of these shows is as nice a change as any in the last two decades on television. When shows like Lost or Heroes, based on a science fiction premise and revolving around complicated, multi-character dramas can bring in millions of viewers every week, it is a testament to the growth of both technology and a commitment to quality on the part of the television networks.