Scheduling – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Specter of Legitimation: The Fading of NBC’s Thursday Legacy Sat, 14 Jan 2012 18:14:21 +0000 NBC’s struggles are well documented, with network president Bob Greenblatt forced to admit to assembled television critics at the TCA press tour last week that they “had a really bad fall.” We are past the point where we can be surprised with a new NBC series struggling to find an audience, and the impact of yet another double-digit ratings collapse for a returning series is all but gone.

On some level, NBC would be best off forgetting about the past and focusing on the future, but the network continues to swear fealty to the ghosts of NBC past. Specifically, the network’s Thursday night lineup remains tied to the network’s previous success on this evening, scheduling four comedies and a drama as a gesture back to the days when Friends, Will & Grace and ER were dominant in these time slots.

While the actual “Must See TV” branding is all but gone, and even the more recent “Comedy Night Done Right” has fallen by the wayside, there remains a specter of legitimation surrounding the evening…at least in the eyes of NBC schedulers. Viewers have seemingly disagreed, with Prime Suspect bottoming out early this Fall, and Community moving onto the bench after underperforming. We could get into a lengthy conversation about the actual quality of these shows, but the fact remains that NBC was looking to this week’s relaunch of their Thursday night lineup as the season’s second attempt at tapping into this history, making three changes meant to re-energize their standing on the evening.

That all three of those changes were ineffective raises further questions about the limitations of the network’s pedigree on this particular evening. However, while a quick glance at TV by the Numbers would reveal the fairly dismal ratings data that met the returning 30 Rock (moving into the 8/7c slot vacated by Community), the relocated Up All Night (swapping timeslots with Whitney at 9:30/8:30c), and the newly debuted The Firm (stepping into its regular timeslot at 10/9c, drawing such low ratings that I won’t even bother discussing it in any detail below), I don’t want to necessarily focus on the numbers here.

This is partly the result of my general wariness regarding the impact of TV by the Numbers – a site that perpetuates flawed metrics and stokes the flames of fan frustration with reckless abandon (and with little purpose other than driving up hits to their site) – on our conception of a show’s success or failure. However, I also think we need to focus as much on the means as the ends when it comes to the success of television scheduling, moving past “X or Y are going to be canceled” to an exploration of what the network was attempting to accomplish and the strategies they used in that attempt. Ratings data might indicate the success or failure of a particular strategy, but the proliferation of those ratings as an instant metric for a show’s success has replaced more cogent, detailed analysis of ratings results and their implications (although Todd VanDerWerff’s occasional, more thorough ratings reports at The A.V. Club are a step in the right direction).

What I want to focus on instead is the promotion surrounding the return, or the lack thereof. While 30 Rock’s premiere was not exactly off the radar, and Up All Night’s move to Thursdays has been present within promos for the show since late last year, little extra work was done to suggest that the new lineup was an “event.” While I don’t want to overstate the importance of critics to a show’s success, that NBC chose not to send out screeners of the 30 Rock premiere (or any other comedy episodes in this week’s lineup) in advance meant that there were no advance reviews; although the fact that most critics were otherwise occupied at the aforementioned Press Tour may have played some role in this, it still seems odd given how long 30 Rock has been off the air (eight months). Similarly, while Up All Night’s move to Thursdays is perhaps not the same as a season premiere, treating it as a season premiere would have been a great way to draw in a larger audience.

NBC usually does some level of holistic marketing for their Thursday comedy block, and this week was admittedly no exception. However, the problem is that it should have been an exception, instead of the tired 2012 Mayan Apocalypse riff that the network threw together:

Where is the celebration of the timeslot pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, successful in both television and film? Where are the efforts to combine Ed Helms’ Hangover credibility with Maya Rudolph’s Bridesmaids credibility to draw in the “Wildly Successful R-Rated Comedy” crowd? I’m not suggesting these would be brilliant strategies, but it seems strange that no effort was made to herald these returns beyond slotting them into timeslots where the network has been successful in the past.

That effort, it seems, was reserved for the Wednesday debut of Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea?, branded as “Happy Hour” (much to the chagrin of critics who are unfavorable towards both multi-camera series):

The more extensive branding approach to the Wednesday premieres is logical given that it was the series premiere for Chelsea, but it also reflects that NBC feels it is working from scratch in the timeslot and needs something different to connect with viewers. Conversely, the lack of promotion surrounding 30 Rock and Up All Night’s returns reflect the network’s belief that Thursday night comedies on NBC are an event no matter what promotion they might run, a belief which seems more misplaced with each passing week.

The “Must See TV” brand is not necessarily dead, I’d argue, but it is no longer so viable that it can be tapped into without any sort of concerted marketing effort. While Greenblatt may be willing to admit that his network had a rough fall, his new Thursday lineup may have performed differently if the network was also acting like it, even on the most hallowed of nights on the network’s schedule.


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Report From London: The Week That Was Sun, 19 Jun 2011 16:13:59 +0000

Once again, British TV has shown me things I’ve never seen before, this time disturbing images of death and human horrors (and that’s not even including The Marriage Ref). Given that this material aired alongside more standard fare on the primetime terrestrial lineup, I thought a selective overview of the week’s evening terrestrial programming would be instructive to reveal some primary trends, bearing in mind that it is summer, so this isn’t as representative of a typical week as it could be.

First, the programs with disturbing images were, as you would assume, from documentaries. Monday night brought Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die on BBC2 at 9pm. Pratchett, a fantasy novel author, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and led this exploration into assisted suicide, which is illegal in the UK. In the program’s most indelible moment, Pratchett watches a man suffering from a progressive motor neuron disease drink down a suicide cocktail provided by an organization called Dignitas, which legally assists suicides in Switzerland. We aren’t shown the exact moment of his death, but that which surrounds it stands out just as powerfully. The BBC has thus far logged nearly a thousand complaints from viewers who found this moment inappropriate for airing and others who objected that the documentary acted as advocate for, not objective observer of, assisted suicide. Just when I thought I had seen the most challenging TV footage of the week, Tuesday arrived with Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired at the mature content-accommodating time of 11:05. This unprecedented first-hand record of civilian war crimes conducted by the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters was as disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen anywhere, let alone on a television screen. I’ll leave for others the ethical question of whether the material from these documentaries was appropriate for airing and just offer a single trite observation: American broadcasters wouldn’t touch this stuff.

The rest of the week’s documentaries weren’t so historically important but should at least stay out of my nightmares. Some focused on serious issues, like Thursday night’s Breaking Into Britain on BBC1, which followed the plight of Afghans risking their lives to escape to the UK, and Channel 4’s Born to be Different, a new installment of a decade-old intermittent series following the upbringing of a group of disabled children. Others offered simpler charms, like BBC2’s James May’s Toy Stories: the Great Train Race on Sunday night, which saw the Top Gear host help to build the longest ever model railway track (one reviewer called this “a bit of a waste of the license fee”), and, glancing over at the digital lineup, BBC4’s Apples: British to the Core on Wednesday night (which one review described as “erudite and thoughtful;” seriously, how can you not love a TV system that gives you an erudite documentary on apples?). Channel 4 got more serious about sex than I’ve become accustomed to with Thursday night’s science special The Sex Researchers, but it also made sure to get its “wonky cock documentary” fare in, with the unavoidable Embarrassing Fat Bodies on Monday and Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic on Wednesday.

Such sensational content calls to mind reality TV, which can blur boundaries with documentary over here, but is also often present in a form quite familiar to US viewers, such as with The Apprentice on BBC1 Wednesdays (Lord Alan Sugar is the British Trump). Most of the competition reality shows, like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, aired their finales a few weeks ago, but one with a high culture twist, Popstar to Operastar (Simon Callow as judge!), is airing Sunday nights on ITV, with the efficiency of same-night performance and results episodes (they pop a drama in between episodes to supply time for vote counting). Also, God help us all, ITV is indeed airing its own Marriage Ref series with host Dermott O’Leary on Saturdays.

Of course, reality TV originated on these airwaves because it’s cheaper to produce than sitcoms and dramas, and with the terrestrials struggling financially as much as ever, scripted originals aren’t produced with as much frequency over here as they are on US screens. Channel 4 didn’t air a single original scripted show in prime time this week, but there were notable dramas elsewhere, with the BBC’s Tuesday premiere of the quirkily dark detective drama Luther, plus the crime drama Case Histories, airing Sunday and Monday nights; the Thursday finale of BBC2’s stirringly complex paranoid thriller The Shadow Line; the Cagney and Lacey-esque Scott & Bailey on ITV Sundays (which Radio Times describes as “so roundly, so voluptuously, so unashamedly female”); and the good old fashioned Agatha Christie’s Marple Wednesday night on ITV. The sitcom landscape is nearly barren right now, with just a handful of critically-maligned family multi-cams airing, including BBC1’s new In With the Flynns on Monday and the final season (mercifully, according to many) of the American-style My Family on Friday. Similar to how it draws its drama mostly from observational docs, Channel 4 currently gleans its comedy from panel and chat shows, offering a string of them on Friday night, rather than sitcoms.

Finally, there’s a sprinkling of movies and American imports to be found, mostly on Channel 5, which is now airing NCIS, the CSIs, Law & Order and Castle, while Channel 4 has Desperate Housewives on Wednesday, and BBC2 is airing The Kennedys on Friday. And then there are the primetime soaps, which I’m not saying much about because I’m already way over on word count, so I’ll save those perhaps for a future post.

For an American viewer, the abundant documentaries are a joy to behold, though I would imagine that the lesser volume of scripted series could prove frustrating. But at least American versions can be readily found, especially if one subscribes to Sky, whereas American viewers rarely get to see the best, or even the middling, of British TV, especially those documentaries. If only BBC America would air the apple doc, rather than The X-Files.


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Report From London: Scheduling Sun, 22 May 2011 14:14:24 +0000 Though turning on my television set was the very first thing I did upon arriving at my new London flat last Monday (finding much to my delight that Diagnosis Murder was on BBC2), I haven’t watched many British shows yet. This is mainly because I’ve been too consumed with catching up on the season finales of my favorite American shows, which I’m able to do overseas thanks to the Slingbox, the second greatest invention of the past decade.* The intensive season finale period is foreign to British television, which schedules programs on a year-round basis, not along a September-to-May season trajectory. A number of discussants at In Media Res last week argued that the primacy of season finales has lessened in the US thanks to new viewing and time-shifting technologies. However, particularly as a devotee of online TV discussions and a fan of Must See TV like Parks and Recreation, I couldn’t fathom waiting until after my London trip to see these final episodes. Of course, now the US network television schedule turns to the summer black hole period, with Meh See TV reality shows and regular season cast-offs. Comparatively, British television keeps up a more standard schedule, albeit with fewer prestige shows and more escapist reality TV to accommodate summer lifestyles. Thus, with my weekly Good Wife and Community appointments having ended, I will henceforth turn my attention more fully to British TV.

Though I haven’t immersed myself in programming yet, I have been looking at scheduling, which, as indicated above, is more variable in England than in the US. This has deep historical roots, going back to the early days of BBC radio, when there was minimal regular, “fixed point” scheduling of shows, the paternalistic logic of uplift being that a listener would turn on the set at any given time and hear something she might not have purposely tuned in for otherwise but would be enriched by. Scheduling became more rigid once television and ITV’s commercial competition arrived, but inventive timetables are still evident today.

For instance, whereas the current series of Doctor Who has run in the US on BBC America every Saturday at 9pm, the five BBC1 airings in England have had four different start times (6, 6:15, 6:30, 6:45), with each announced only just over a week in advance. Doctor Who also illustrates how the BBC innovatively schedules across its multiple outlets for audience targeting. The current series premiered in April on the primary BBC channel at 6pm; a 15-minute tribute to the late Sarah Jane Adventures star Elisabeth Sladen aired following that on the children’s outlet CBBC at 6:45; and the behind-the-scenes Doctor Who: Confidential then ran at 7pm on the 16-to-34-targeted BBC3. Except for news experiments by NBC and PBS multicasting, the US networks haven’t used their affiliated stations’ digital real estate for additional channel programming (opting instead to devote the space to high-definition), nor have they tried to foster scheduling compatibility like this via their conglomerate cable siblings.

I’m also quite taken by the patchwork scheduling of England’s four flagship soap operas. Under a gentleman’s agreement to not battle directly, none of them airs a single half-hour episode simultaneously. Channel 4’s Hollyoaks is the only one that airs at the exact same time each weeknight: 6:30pm Monday through Friday. You can next tune in ITV’s rural soap Emmerdale at 7pm all week, plus an extra episode at 8pm on Thursday. Coronation Street then appears on ITV at 7:30 and 8:30 on Monday and Friday and 8:30 on Thursday. Finally, the BBC’s EastEnders jumps in between the Corries at 8pm on Monday and Friday and airs at 7:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday. You can also find repeats of each soap, including omnibus blocks on the weekend.

Other scheduling quirks here include shows starting at off-hour times, like 8:35 or 9:50, and the stripping of new dramas across the week, as with the BBC’s recent three-episode drama Exile airing on consecutive nights. And multiple channels, including Channel 4, ITV1, ITV2, E4, and Dave (yes, there’s a channel called Dave; it airs comedy programming), offer so-called plus-one (+1) digital sister channels that air the flagship schedule on a one-hour delay, thereby easing DVR recording crunches (though also, my British TV scholar friend Faye Woods pointed out to me, cheaply filling their digital allocations).

Does all this variability mean that British viewers come to rely even more heavily on DVR timeshifting and online catch-up services to manage their own schedules, representing a complete turn away from the legacies of the past, when schedulers felt they knew better than the viewer when programs should be consumed? Or does such flexibility actually accommodate allegiance to the traditional linear schedule, as a new BBC2 Review Show Special on the future British TV suggested and some recent statistics indicate? I look forward to testing my own spectatorship against these questions in the coming weeks (or at least after Glee mercifully comes to a season’s end this Tuesday).

*Twitter is the greatest invention, and you can follow me there to read more of my reactions to British TV across the week.


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The State of Reality TV: When in the World is Project Runway? Sat, 05 Feb 2011 14:32:34 +0000 Project Runway has made its way to other countries, its scheduling model has been lost in translation.]]> While reality television has made many contributions to the American television landscape, one of its most “revolutionary” may be its cyclical ubiquity. As soon as one season ends, the next season seems to begin; while they may not air dramatically more episodes than broadcast series in the span of a year, at least following the North American model of 22-episode seasons, the constant shifts to new casts means that the entire process keeps repeating: one minute you’re being introduced to a new set of contestants and watching them evolve into characters, and the next thing you know the season is over and you’re already hearing about the great new cast coming up next season.

This is especially true of a show like Project Runway, which in recent years has seemingly been on every time you turn around. Thanks to the series’ forced hiatus as a result of lawsuits regarding its move to Lifetime, Runway aired three seasons – 49 episodes in total – in just 14 months between August 2009 and October 2010. This was exaggerated by the sixth season being “on the shelf” for a lengthy period, and the seventh season being rushed to counteract poor viewer response to the franchise’s Lifetime debut, but the series’ omnipresence is demonstrative of general trends within the genre (if in an exaggerated form).

However, the same period has been marked by the absence of two of the series’ most prominent international spinoffs: both Project Runway Australia (2008-Present) and Project Runway Canada (2007-2009) debuted in their respective countries to relative success, earning second seasons and, in the case of the Canadian version, even moving from a niche cable outlet to a national network. Each show largely followed the formula of the American series, with a famous fashion model host (Kristy Hinze in Australia, Iman in Canada), a fashion industry mentor, and a collection of celebrity guests and judgmental observers to complete the package.

The basic format of the series may have remained intact when the show made its way to other countries, but the scheduling model has been lost in translation. Both the Australian and Canadian series aired only one season per year, and both dealt with substantial hiatuses: this is particularly true for the Australian series, which has been off the air for nearly two years. While America’s love affair with reality television has had international ramifications when formats like Project Runway which originated in the U.S. are spread to countries around the world, the way in which the series are scheduled seems to have been considerably less influential internationally.

Some of this certainly has to do with simple industrial realities. American cable networks have the luxury of appealing to niche audiences, with networks like Bravo and Lifetime able to position shows like Project Runway as signature series designed to deliver female viewers to their advertisers. International producers, meanwhile, are working with less industrial infrastructure in general, and most likely less in the way of targeted cable networks that seem a fit for narrowcast reality programming as well. They simply don’t have the resources to schedule two seasons in a single year, which makes emulating the American schedule more challenging.

However, I find myself curious if there are more cultural reasons for the vast proliferation gap between Project Runway and its international adaptations. If we look at the vast array of versions, the longest-running has been the United Kingdom’s Project Catwalk, which lasted three seasons from 2006-2008. While I haven’t seen the series, I do wonder whether its relative longevity stems from the prominence of London as one of the world’s fashion capitals, at least relative to Melbourne or Toronto. Even within the American series, location and setting seem to play a prominent role: viewers and critics alike panned the series’ move to Los Angeles in Season Six, prompting Lifetime to promote the return to New York as the defining feature of the seventh season. Perhaps the same principle applies internationally, and certain locations can only sustain a couple of seasons before fading away into local pop culture history.

And yet, some part of me wants to believe that this may be a purposeful choice on the part of international producers. While these changes are perhaps facilitated by concerns over financial commitments and cultural limitations, there seem to be creative benefits to this scheduling model. Personally, despite having seen countless seasons of the American series beforehand, both the Canadian and Australian versions felt remarkably novel. The format was more or less the same, but the wait between seasons made their introductions more eventful, and their conclusions more effectively bittersweet. The return of the American series feels like routine, but is reality television not (like television in general) more effective – and affecting – when we anticipate its return with baited breath?

With a new host secured, Project Runway Australia will return for its overdue third season later this year (although on a new network). In an era where the American version has shifted to overstuffed 90-minute episodes and barely takes a breath before plunging into a new season of “making it work,” there is something wonderfully refreshing about the notion of Project Runway being a scarce commodity; it’s too bad, then, that most American viewers rarely get to experience such a feeling.


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