Ugly TV Realities And How They Crippled FlashForward

Republibot 3.0
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[NOTE: This story first ran on July 28th owing to bad planning on my part. I've put it back where it was supposed to be all along. Sorry.]

I was talking to a friend about FlashForward, and the crazy rapidfire way it aggressively sabotaged its own attempts at generating plot tension. My friend suggested that maybe they thought the audience couldn't understand the whole "Fate vs. Free Will" thing, and they were dumbing it down for the audience. That gave me pause, and I thought about it for a bit.

Ultimately, I don't think they were really dumbing it down (Though there's some dumb stuff in there. When the little hobbit guy explains quantum mechanics to that chick on the train in an early episode, that's totally not how it works. I mean, TV is *always* kinda' dumb), I think it's got to do with weird, unpredictable times in the TV industry.

Most TV shows have a season of 22 episodes. A new show generally starts out with an order of 13 episodes, and then if it's found an audience prior to the end of those, the network picks up "The Back Nine." The optimal length of a television series, btw, is 5 years and 110 episodes. Any less and you have a hard time syndicating it, so you don't get any long term money back on your initial investment. Any longer than that, and you're producing more than you need for syndication, thereby diminishing your returns. There's lots of exceptions - the Simpsons are up to 21 years and counting, Stargate SG:1 ran for 10 years - but everyone's shooting for five.

When we were kids, with only three networks, there were basically only 75 to 85 shows running at any given time. It wasn't too competetive, and basically any show that finished out the initial 13 in the top third of the ratings (IE the top 25 shows running at the time) got picked up for the back 9. Generally, if you finished out the season in the top 25, you came back for another year.

Now, with four broadcast networks, pay cable, a dozen high-budget cable networks (USA kicks ass!), and skillions of lesser channels, the ratings are spread over a vastly broader range of shows. So in the old days it was no problem at all for, say, Magnum, PI to pull in ten or fifteen million viewers, but now if you get three or four million viewers on a network show it's considered a massive hit. Cable shows are considered big hits if they get 2 million viewers. Added to which, most people just want to watch naked hot chicks kissing anyway: the "Battlestar Galactica Effect."

So you've got to lure people in with sex and violence and high production values and increasingly risque humor because it's really super-competetive, super-expensive, and if a show doesn't find an audience in that first 13, it's dead. Sometimes you don't even get that far. NBC was signing shows for SIX episodes for a bit. Don't find an audience in a month and a half? B'bye!

So everyone's running scared, and you get a show like "Kings" that cost $4 million an episode, and was dead in 13 weeks. That's a lot of money for a studio to eat, and that show will *never* be syndicated. For 'orphan' shows like these, DVD sales are the only salvation, and everyone's noticed that these kinds of things sell way better if there's an actual conclusion to the story, a last chapter of some sort. Otherwise, why would people be interested in getting involved in a fragmentary, unresolved story? I mean, nobody reads "The Canterbury Tales" for fun...

Thus open-ended dead shows like "Crusade" don't sell particularly well, while shows with at least a token, rushed ending like the second season of "Dollhouse" do way better. "Defying Gravity" didn't tell the whole story they'd intended to tell, but at least they finished the first chapter.

So there's a real drive to have the story be arc-driven and resolve some significant part of itself in 13 episodes.

Lost was a fluke, everyone loved it, it got high ratings, and ABC signed it to a several-years contract early on, a nearly unheard-of luxury (Though, again, common when we were kids). Everyone wanted to have the next Lost - Surface, Invasion, Flash Forward - they've all tried to crack that market, but they lack Lost's broad crossover appeal (Most folks didn't even realize it was an SF show until the fifth season) Still, they keep trying. "Surface" and "Invasion" had no resolution, they just stopped, and even though they were well-told shows, no one gives a crap. They don't sell on DVD, they'll never be syndicated, that's about $66 million per show that the studios have to eat.

So what I think happened with Flash Forward was that they wanted to tell a complex, involving story, but they realized they had no gurantees of a second season, so they were torn between creating a five-year epic, and having a reasonably solid ending for DVD sales if things didn't go well. As a result, they were setting up mysteries that should have lingered for weeks, months, or years, and resolving them at a breakneck pace, desparate not to tax their audience's patience like Lost did, but still trying to hook us with cliffhangery questions. They failed, I think. I'm sure there's a happy median, but not only could they not find the line, I'm not even sure they were aware there was one. I don't think they were conciously dumbing it down, I just think they were trying to rush through two things at once, and it never quite worked. And then when the ratings tanked, they panicked and it got even worse.

So in the end In the end, they didn't manage to do either a solid ending or a setup for a longer series terribly well. I think that was the problem.

Plus, it was a Brannon Braga show, and he mostly sucks.