Opinion: Is pandering to the audience ruining good TV?

Scott McMullon

Lover of literature, film and music living in Essex (no jokes please!). 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' - Oscar Wilde

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Today I was browsing my Twitter and I came across a tweet that inadvertently changed the way I think about the TV shows I watch. The tweet itself was this:

Now while on the surface it came across as a rather fluffy item talking about a TV show I personally love, the way it was written gave me pause for thought. I began to wonder if the author had touched on a valid point: that it is in fact the audience that has the power to ruin an otherwise good show.

TV shows are hit and miss. There is no way of knowing if a new show will be the next Breaking Bad or miss the mark totally and fail to find a home. Show runners try to guess a lot. They consider what the audience might like, they consider if there is a niche that is worth exploring, they consider the storylines they want to run with, and so on and so forth. However, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, where the opinions of the masses are at their fingertips, show runners and TV execs can see responses and reviews of shows within seconds of airing them. This means they can customise a show to appeal to the target audience by literally seeing how they respond to other shows like it or previous episodes of a series already out there.

This seems like a good idea at first – this concept of writers wanting to construct a story that the audience will want to respond to. Indeed some viewers would love it if someone made a perfect show for them to watch with the ever necessary glass of wine and a take away. But that is only a good idea if everyone agrees on what is or what is not a good show. The sad truth is though that we can barely even reach a unilateral agreement on gay marriage. So how then can we expect writers and producers to create a perfect show for everyone? This is when show runners start making the same mistake that a lot of politicians make: they attempt to identify with and reach out to the larger part of the audience, constructing a show for them that may indeed leave some other fans out in the cold. This is effectively causing some of our favourite shows to become entertainment by committee.

A show I remember this happening to in recent memory was a show that I found myself quite liking called Caprica. This one-series wonder was the brain child of Ronald D. Moore who, after finishing his critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica, decided to create a prequel that focused on how the world we saw in his dark space opera came to be. The show itself wasn’t bad either. Though it lacked the dark and brooding quality of its predecessor, it was filled with interesting characters who did keep me coming back. However, fans of the gritty and realistic science fiction show found fault with this, and sure enough Caprica soon lost its following and disappeared into the ether from whence it came. This was a show that wanted to tell a different kind of story from the one we were familiar with, and yet it was because of this difference that the plug got pulled. I appreciate the irony, but it shows the power that the audience has.

Knowing this, is it possible that TV will become more of a trial by jury affair with a majority dictating not only what shows come out, but the direction a series can take? Hindsight shows us that this is already happening now, with very few shows willing to tell their own story instead of what the audience might want.

Some might wonder why I am concerned – entertainment is entertainment and if a lot of people like it then what’s the harm, right?

WRONG!

I have long been a proponent that popular entertainment should be viewed as a kind of art form. TV in particular has a powerful reach and a powerful story has the ability to transcend and reach out to a larger audience through this medium. But art needs to have the ability to move its audience and make them feel things they may never have felt before. While I don’t doubt that there are popular shows that do this, sometimes the most powerful feelings come from witnessing the most unpleasant things.

Case in point for me would have to be Game of Thrones, a show which remained largely faithful to its source material and showed the audience things that it may never have wanted to see – and they actually loved it. ‘The Rains of Castamere’, the ninth episode of the third series, was particularly bloody and brutal. It had the undeniable effect of shaking the audience to the core and leaving them hollowed out, and still hungry for more.

The same is also true for certain TV channels who have to decide carefully on what shows to air based on the responses of the audience that watches it. To bring this back to the tweet that inspired me to write this, some of these channels may have a wide reach but their particular demographic may not feel comfortable with the shows being aired. Indeed I agree that a UK version of RuPaul’s Drag Race may not be the best thing to put on ITV, since it would probably be hit with complaints galore or not watched altogether. The classic series Gavin and Stacey was a BBC3 exclusive that ended up jumping on to BBC2 and finally BBC1 because its fan base made it seem like a safe investment.

So how do we get exciting TV that challenges us without having to fear that it might be watered down or pushed in a different direction to please other people? The simple answer is that we can’t. So instead think more about the shows you are watching and why you are watching them. There is a lot of great TV out there, and you can watch all of it thanks to popular services such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. There are lots of great new pilots for exciting shows that are born and die before they even make it to the screen, so be willing to try them out when they get there, as sometimes the most exciting story arcs can take a while to warm up.

Finally I will leave you with this to consider: the gap between social media and every aspect of our lives is getting smaller and smaller. You can share, post, tweet and instagram everything and everyone has their own opinion on almost every subject you can think of – including the TV series you love the most. If you aren’t willing to step outside your comfort zone with something as simple as an hour on a new TV show, then producers and show runners won’t feel encouraged to try anything new or interesting. If that ever happens then we will find shows will lose their teeth or will just get dull and samey, and it has already started to happen. So dare to be different and try a new show – even if you don’t like it, what’s the harm in trying something new?

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