TV networks have explaining to do

  • Article by: BARRY KOLTNOW , Orange County Register
  • Updated: May 30, 2012 - 3:11 PM

As the fall schedule proves, shows are canceled with no regard to viewers and how the stories turn out.

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Ashley Judd during a scene from the ABC series "Missing"

Photo: Rory Flynn, ABC

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An open letter to the people in charge of programming for the major TV networks from the people who watch that programming.

To whom it may concern: You stink.

What could possibly have drawn such ire?

It was the announcement of the fall TV schedule, of course.

Each year, I must suffer through a betrayal at the hands of the bottom-line executives who run the networks. These people wouldn't recognize a broken promise if it slapped them across the face.

New dramas are introduced for the coming fall TV schedule that have interesting hooks or story lines. It could be the one-armed man that Richard Kimble is chasing in "The Fugitive" or the mysterious time-travel situation on "Alcatraz."

When a network puts that show on the schedule, there is an implicit agreement to deliver an ending to the viewers. The only thing that is not implied is a full seven-year run. Some shows last longer than others, but that doesn't absolve the network of its responsibility to the viewers it suckered into watching its show.

If you set up an unresolved plot device, you should be obligated to complete the story and answer all the questions you raised before you take the show off the air.

This wasn't as big a problem in the past, when networks gave new shows more time to find an audience. These days, if a show doesn't produce acceptable ratings immediately, it is in danger of being canceled.

Canceling a show, and putting hundreds of people out of work, is done without conscience by network executives. It is no different than any other business, in that respect.

But I maintain that a television show is different because it involves public airwaves. If you produce a show with a built-in mystery, and then cancel the show before the resolution of that mystery, the network has perpetrated a fraud on the viewing public.

Even worse is how this practice has changed the viewing habits of the television audience. Many experienced TV watchers understand how the medium works. We know to keep an eye on the weekly ratings. If a new show is having difficulty in drawing big numbers, it is an easy leap in logic to assume that the show is doomed. As a result, we stop watching. Why get invested emotionally in a new show when you know it's going to be canceled?

Do you understand how insidious this is? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ratings are low, so we stop watching. We stop watching, so the network cancels the show.

Here are a few examples of shows that have been yanked from the fall schedule. They shouldn't have been canceled without first answering the questions raised in the series' premieres. It's only right.

"Alcatraz": Huh? Would you like to explain how all the inmates and guards disappeared from the prison in 1963, only to reappear in present-day San Francisco without any knowledge of how it was done? I'm starting to suspect that the show's creators set up a scenario that they couldn't resolve.

"Awake": OK, which is the real reality? Is it the one in which his wife is alive, or the one in which he still has his son? Do I have to assume that he was really in a coma all along, and that both the wife and son are dead? I have no choice but to make assumptions.

"Missing": I'm surprised that a movie star of Ashley Judd's standing could be enticed to do a TV series without a promise to keep it on the air for several seasons. They even made her a producer.

"The River": We'll never know what happened to that guy on the earlier trip down that scary river.

"Unforgettable": What really went on in her childhood? The star of the show was incapable of forgetting anything, but the people who ran the network apparently forgot their obligation to their viewers.

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