Are Limited Series TV Shows Too… Limiting?

Earlier this week at Advertising Age, Anthony Crupi discussed the ups and downs for the limited or “event” series. In the idea of a shorter program running uninterrupted for a two-three month period, these shows have become the soup du jour with ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX. In the article, he delved into the ratings and viewership performances of recent offerings such as NBC’s The Slap and ABC’s American Crime.

From a 50,000-ft. level, things don’t look too good.

Of the six new limited series that have aired since the season began, none has averaged higher than a 1.5 rating among adults 18-49. (As each ratings point represents 1% of the 127 million TV-owning Americans in the demo, a 1.5 equals about 1.9 million advertiser-coveted viewers.) The least-watched among these half-dozen newcomers in terms of total viewers, Fox’s “Gracepoint,” was canceled on Dec. 15 after averaging just 3.64 million viewers during its 10-episode run. The lowest-rated, NBC’s “The Slap,” has averaged a 0.8 in the dollar demo through the first seven of its eight scheduled installments.

While it’s nothing to crow about, ABC’s “American Crime” is the standout of the bunch, averaging 6.31 million viewers and a 1.5 rating with the 18-49 demo in its first four episodes. That said, the Thursday night series has fallen off sharply from its March 5 premiere, when it averaged 8.37 million viewers and a 2.0 in the key demo; per Nielsen live-same-day data, the most recent installment of “American Crime” drew a 1.3 rating, down 35% from its opening night delivery.

(Props to Crupi for explaining what a ratings point actually is for people who aren’t in the know; something not done very often in the trades since their target audiences are largely industry insiders.)

For a lot of people reading the numbers in sheer bewilderment, here’s the gist: far less people are watching that the networks and the studios that produced these shows thought. In a limited series, where there may be an option to extend it into a traditional program, networks may wonder if they should continue to invest money into the concept. (They will, as Crupi said, but no one knows for how much longer.)

While producing scripted television shows is already an expensive proposition, promoting the shows to the public and selling commercial time to the advertising community isn’t exactly cheap either. The rating itself is an indicator to see if the show meets viewership and financial expectations as well. Your favorite quirky show will get cancelled because “nobody watched” in addition to not having a significant enough return on investment from a dollars standpoint.

(Also, compared to your favorite cable networks, over-the-air broadcasters have far less programming hours than you’d think since your local affiliate fills a majority of the day’s schedule. Fewer hours mean even greater scrutiny for the shows that actually make it to primetime.)

Well, isn’t that for everything on TV, Jason?

Yes, without a doubt. However, this article captured my attention because the trend of limited series is not only to stem the tide of losing viewers to cable channels, but it’s an attempt to bring you, dear Netflix subscriber, back to the TV set.

Netflix (and to a lesser extent, Hulu and Amazon Prime) has certainly challenged traditional or “linear” television when it comes to the availability of original content. Most of you have watched or at least heard of the American version of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black because these were shows that broke an already fragile mold. The fact that these major productions were made with the binge viewer in mind forced networks to find some way of capturing a similar audience, but in the construct of lineal TV (including video on-demand and streaming video on-demand.)

They even compelled brief resurrections of older shows as NBC is producing with Heroes Reborn while FOX had done so with 24: Live Another Day and plans to do with The X-Files.

The reality is that not all of us are alike when it comes to how we consume television. Some don’t mind the NCIS franchise because it has stuck to the procedural format of solving a case by the end of the show, with snippets of a story arc that builds to a season-ending cliffhanger or a resolution in the series finale. Others have come to love the serialized program where each episode is a puzzle of a season (or series) long narrative; whether it’s tightly paced like The Blacklist or a slow burn like Mad Men.

The limited series, at least in my mind, is supposed to act like much like the serialized show, but with an end date. It’s actually a great idea to have a show with a pre-determined end. After all, most shows currently on the air could probably use just 3-5 seasons as is. This places emphasis on scriptwriting in a way that some longstanding programs struggle with over time as more episodes mean on-screen relationships get stale and annoying while story angles are thinned out. If the writing of a limited series balances character depth, storytelling and a good pace, you, kind viewer, might stick around the whole way through.

And yet, could that be the very issue at hand? Could the limited series be too… limiting?

Do viewers actually want to invest a little more time in the characters and the story itself? Or better yet, do some of those Netflix-addled viewers actually want to wait until next week?

Leave your comments below and feel free to ask questions.

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