So what makes an audience tune in? As a potential fan to a show, I now have to consider not only what I might enjoy, but if the vast majority of audiences find it appealing.
Is it necessarily fair? Of course not, but understanding what specific criteria can capture an audience can save one from watching a show that is doomed for immediate cancellation due to poor ratings.
Since studying the ratings system, I apply a certain ‘checklist’ to see if I can predict if a show is actually worth committing to, or if ratings will be a major player in a quick air removal.
I don’t think people have a set external list as to what makes a good show worth watching. However, there are internal factors that we as people (and a television audience) admire when attempting to watch & commit to a new show. The shows that capture these elements (some hidden, others blatant) usually see the longest and greatest payoff.
A show usually sees increased longevity if it excels at one (or usually more) of the following elements.
- Unpredictability– This one is self explanatory, and while simple, it’s one of the most important aspects in finding a large audience. If a show is predictable, it’s ruined; it’s that simple. A lot of the time, certain criteria can be overcome or offset by excelling in other aspects, but unpredictability is one that is almost essential. Can a show still gather a large audience while simultaneously being deemed predictable? Sure, the exceptions are usually thirty minute sitcoms, as their goal is to make the audience laugh, so unpredictability can be set aside in this specific scenario.
- Story Development- (Not storylines, there’s a difference. A storyline is regarding the story itself). Story development is the development leading to, as well as the proper execution to a storyline. Shows that rush storylines usually make for some lazy and almost unwatchable Television. Have you ever watched a movie or show, and ended up saying to yourself, “that felt rushed,” or “that just seemed out of place”? That’s because in all likelihood there was some lazy story development at one point or another. The development of a story needs to be clear, precise, thoughtful and organized.
- Character Development- No one wants to watch a show where characters are simply unrelatable. They can’t relate to them if the show doesn’t develop them through a thoughtful process. A lot of the time, praised character development falls under superb acting and on-screen chemistry. Shows that take the extra time to develop characters (make them relatable) usually see the most success. One note I want to point out, the timing of character development is of the utmost importance. Early seasons are usually ideal to create that vital connection that audiences actively look for. If audiences feel that connection early on, it goes a long way in keeping fans for the long run. Many shows will see cancellation after a season or two because of the lack of attention they give to character development. On the contrary, if a show is already 7/8 seasons in, and only has a few episodes to wrap up the entire series, the choice to emphasize character development can disrupt a proper series conclusion (yes Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). So the timing, and specific situation should always be considered. Shows who emphasize active, timely character development can thrive on this aspect alone.
- Storylines & Premise- This is the actual story itself. Not only what the main premise is, but the subplots the show uses along the way to garnish audience attention. A storyline is important, but it needs to develop naturally, or viewers could be turned off, or “feel cheated.” I’m a believer that a show’s main premise is obviously important to draw interest, but the development of the storytelling will ultimately be the deciding factor if an audience is retained. Think of a storyline as almost like the narrative within a novel, without effective execution, audiences will feel lost, and from a generic standpoint, the entire show can quickly turn into a chaotic disaster.
- Originality- If you can create something that hasn’t been done before, or something that is regarded as too difficult, usually this will lead to a long lasting hit. Today, Hollywood is just about out of original ideas; which is why we are seeing so many remakes, reboots, and ripoffs. A show in 2019 that can show originality in any form always has increased chances of being a success. Granted, it’s something that is much easier said than done. When I say originality, I’m talking about finding something no one has ever done before. The kind of pitch where the producers look at you like you have ten heads, but ultimately decide to move it into production because they feel bad for how ridiculous, and off-base the premise is. Then, a few years later, you end up with the next Harry Potter, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or Stranger Things. So next time you have an idea crazy to the point that it sounds so… “out there,” don’t toss it in the trash just yet, you may have found the next Star Wars franchise.
To enforce these critical elements, here are a handful of recent shows that have exemplified the vital criteria to their advantage.
Parks And Recreation (NBC- 7 Seasons): Imagine you heading into work and genuinely loved everyone you worked with. The atmosphere is friendly, your boss is a cheerful, optimistic individual, and your co-workers make you laugh on a consistent basis. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? Well once you take a minute to realize that this scenario is almost a pipe dream, you can instead tune in and watch Parks and Recreation. Parks and Recreation is one of those shows that is light-hearted, and beyond hysterical. Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt, and company instantly make you not only fall in love with their on screen characters, but they make you jealous that you too, aren’t working in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. The characters have amazing chemistry, the tempo is upbeat, and aside from the critical aspects, it’s genuinely funny. This is just one of those shows you can count on if you’ve had a bad day, or if you’re in the mood to laugh episode after episode, and who doesn’t need a good laugh from time to time?
Game of Thrones (HBO- 8 Seasons): If you’re one of the few left who won’t buy into all the hype, I suggest that you buckle down, grab some popcorn, and get ready to be entertained. The show’s unpredictability sets it apart from everything else. The characters are compelling, and while the background stories might be hard to consistently track, as a viewer, you don’t even notice because the show’s insane amount of unpredictability keeps your attention every single episode. It’s a true masterpiece in terms of storytelling (season 8 might fall slightl short here, but it’s still a more than satisfying conclusion). When you combine great storytelling with an insane amount of unpredictability, you’re going to get a show that can’t be put into proper words. So while I try to explain how phenomenal this show is, it just won’t do it justice, so just watch it. My piece of advice going in, never get too attached to any character.
Weeds (Showtime- 8 Seasons): Weeds was a true gem that had compelling storylines, amazing character development, and a sense of unpredictability. Plenty of shows’ major flaws would be rushing a plot, or lazy character development. Weeds takes those common flaws and turns it into some of their strengths. It creates intriguing stories, all while still calmly letting the audience get to know the characters on screen. In my opinion, it’s the reason the show gets so much praise. Weeds quickly embraces the idea that character development and relatability need to come first. The most impressive part about this aspect is that creator Jenji Kohan establishes a connection with the audience in an extremely risky setting of the suburban town of Agrestic/Majestic. Kudos Ms. Kohan, you made it work, and the end result was spectacular.
*Shameless (Showtime- 9 Seasons): Showtime certainly knows what viewers want when it comes to a critically acclaimed dramedy. Shameless doesn’t necessarily deliver on unpredictability, nor does it ‘shock and awe’ their audience with cliffhangers or jaw droppers. What Shameless does better than almost any show on television is character development. This is where the fantastic leads played by William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum pay off big time. Add an outstanding ensemble, and you have a cast of characters that are all likable. Think about it, when was the last time you could say, “I like every character on this show (not counting the portrayed antagonist).” Every character is developed so well, over a span of multiple seasons. In the end (and by end, I mean by season 2/3), you find yourself falling in love with every single one of them. The phenomenal development of these characters just make the rest of the show flow smoothly, and it’s kudos to the acting, writing, & on-screen chemistry. Another aspect to note about this Showtime hit is it is one of the few shows on television that has actually aged well. The first two or three seasons are great, but because the focus is on character development (as it should be), the storylines aren’t as strong, but that’s okay, because once season 4, 5, 6, come along, the stories are ten times better, and you as an audience member are much more invested because the writers took their time in setting up the big picture of the series. In this regard, I give Showtime kudos, as many networks are quick to cancel shows too quickly, and I believe I recently read a report from Showtime talking about how the show has rapidly increased in popularity since the first few seasons. It never gets that chance if the plug was pulled early on.
*American Horror Story (FX- 8 Seasons): American Horror Story is on this list for two main reasons, originality and creativity. AHS delivers an intriguing story season after season under a unique anthology setting. The stories created are fictional, but creator Ryan Murphy is so clever when it comes to implementing real life events into every season. While it isn’t the first anthology series of its kind, it’s one of the few in recent memory that has found success. AHS also brings the horror genre back into primetime, another aspect that hasn’t seen much attention or success as of late. So not only should Murphy be credited for combining two very difficult aspects into one, but his story development sets this show apart from most others. If you look up certain names, people, and events the show mentions, you will find that many of these characters/events are not entirely fictional. Feel free to look up Hotel Cortez (AHS: Hotel), or SCUM Manifesto (AHS: Cult) to further help prove the point. Off this basis alone, it can be easily seen that carefully, organized planning leads to the phenomenal story development of every single season. There is now a rumor that in the end, all of these seasons will somehow connect. If Murphy can implement a believable transition in how all these stories connect; this including an insane asylum from 1964, a nightmare of a hotel constructed in the 1920’s, a circus of freaks in 1954, and the most recent US presidential election, then this show needs to be considered as one of the most clever, innovative, and creative pieces to ever air on television.
*Denotes show is still currently airing