Friday, February 26, 2010

Just end it already! Genre television and end dates

As we've all seen over the past month, the end of Lost has sparked a slew of different conversations about the future of television, formats, serialization, etc. One move that Lost proponents always cite as the turning point in the series was the agreement to end it all back in 2007. 

And now, that idea gets thrown around for nearly every series with any extended mythology. But should it?
When I think of some of television's most talked-about "genre" series, the words "end date" usually make it in there somewhere -- because everyone talks about it. Battlestar Galactica kinda did it by announcing right before the final season that well, it would be the final season. But no one has made the move years in advance.

Heroes is the most obvious example of this, as a number of articles have been written over the past couple seasons calling for the much-trouble series to set an end date -- or just end.

But recently, the "end date" chatter has been getting louder. Two seasons in, J.J. Abrams and Fringe producers are already thinking that staking out a date to end it all might wise.

After just a few episodes, FlashForward producers said they could tell their story in a few seasons if needbe. V is already being planned as a 2-3 short season "event."

So the talk is there, but why isn't anyone really doing it? There are so many positives to setting an end date that in an area where any original idea is copied, I cannot believe other producers and networks have taken the idea and ran with it.

First, setting an end date does free up the writers to tell the final leg of the story, assuming that exists in some form. The mythology questions can be answered and characters can be given their proper due. No more plodding, no more padding. And it also (hopefully) keeps the series from collapsing due to all the mythological layers weight it down.

Secondly, that creative direction could charm old viewers to return, reignite the fire within fans bored with the series and even draw in some people who weren't watching before or waiting for the DVDs. So many series that need an end date also rely heavily on fan support and so pleasing them makes a lot of sense.

Consider two series that have probably ran too long at this point: 24 and Smallville. The former hasn't been good for three seasons and though I didn't expect FOX to bow out after the masterful fifth season, going three more years after that has only made most fans realize how formulaic and generic the series is now.

No one who wants to keep their reputation in the industry talks about Smallville, but as a fan from the beginning, I'm still shocked that it's still on the air -- and probably going to be for a 10th season next year. And even if I (and a lot of the series small, but rabid fan base) thinks the series has actually been better in years eight and nine than it was in years four through seven, it should have never made it this far. Despite its charms, a 10-year journey to Flight and Tights isn't what we expected.

Both of these series have fallen victim to the "more story" syndrome where if contracts are already in place, the demand is still kind-of there or in the CW's case, the network is in such bad shape, they just keep coming back.

And therein lies the problem: the networks are rarely -- and I mean RARELY -- going to give up a good thing. Lost got a good deal because ABC boss Steve McPherson respects the team and knew what would be the best for the series. But despite its current, pathetic state, NBC will probably bring back Heroes next season, which means it will end up running at least 50 episodes longer than it should have.

Moreover, there's every indication that Fringe will be back. Same too for Smallville. And in an example that proves that even when you say there's an end date, it doesn't really matter if contracts are signed, the CW is bringing back Supernatural past its "five year plan" timetable.

We all know why: money. And to a lesser extent the fear of the unknown. Because despite creative flaws, pre-arranged, but not confirmed agreements and past-due life, Heroes, Supernatural and Smallville make money. Maybe not through traditional advertising revenue, but through DVD sales -- where all three do very well -- and other ancillary markets like magazines, graphic novels, etc. Plus, don't forget international and syndication money.

But on top of that, the major networks clearly are working with the "deal with the devil you know, not the one you do not" approach, as it is just too damn hard to build an audience these days that it might cost more to do the whole pilot process and marketing execution just to get eyes on early episodes of a new series. So while costs for older series usually go up over time due to rising salaries and other budgetary things, the somewhat guaranteed performances of some of these series is over-ruling that in current landscape.

Thus, while it would be wonderful to see series like Fringe or Supernatural end exactly how and when they should, they won't. Because even these days, there's still a lot of money to be made.

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