OPINION: “The Best Show You’re Not Watching”

There has been a recent rise in some variety of article like, “Am I the only one still watching Difficult People?” or “Vinyl is the best show you’re not watching.” In fact, I was inspired to write this article a few weeks back by reading an article on The Verge called, “Watching a TV show no one else likes has never been lonelier.”

It’s not surprising that with so many entertainment choices, that well-produced programs are having trouble finding an audience. There are more scripted shows on more channels and streaming sources than ever before, and whether your taste runs to Fuller House or The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re going to find something, somewhere that you’ll want to watch, even if it’s old Hill Street Blues reruns. (They’re on Hulu.) But it seems harder and harder for audiences to find something to really hold on to, and that means it’s harder for a show to get that critical mass required to develop “buzz” on its own. Here are the three main reasons:

Too many shows competing for the same audience
A couple of years ago I asked, Is the era of quality TV dead? and I think it was a valid question. Too bad it didn’t get answered back then. With so much stress in the world and so many extraordinarily well-produced programs, there just isn’t time to watch every well-reviewed program out there. Choices must be made, because you just don’t have time to watch every show from Alphas to Zombies. Yet, network executives with a passion for doing what works keep feeding us increasing numbers of programs with similar looks and feels, and you get burned out.

The way this huge pool of programs ought to work is it should encourage an ever-more diverse array of programming to cater to these tiny niche markets that no one really thought of. The problem is, there are only so many human emotions. A program wants to make you happy, sad, nervous, excited… there aren’t 700 different emotions and so there aren’t 700 different kinds of shows to appeal to them. Even though there are so many options, they are all largely mainstream. Why? Because in this fractured viewing world, only mainstream shows make enough money to keep going. So we get shows that not only look and act the same, the names are even similar. (Which of the three different NCIS’s or 3 different Chicagos are you watching? Watch them all and that’s a whole workday.)

Choice paralysis
Choice paralysis is a term that’s become popular in marketing to describe a new, 21st century problem. People with too many choices don’t make any choice. When you had one kind of tomato at the market, you bought that. With ten different kinds of tomatoes, you’re more likely to give up and buy bananas instead.

To put it this way, when you had 7 channels of TV, there was always something on. Now that there are 700 there’s never anything on.

Choice paralysis keeps people from looking for what they really want and makes them walk away completely, or at least choose something easy. For TV, that means a show you already know or that already has some buzz. This makes it ever harder for new shows to get any traction and that makes the problem worse. Smart marketers will try to create buzz for a new show, or a show that really should be better…

…hence that flood of articles proclaiming “The best show you’re not watching.”

The biggest reason: No one is watching.
This is the big bad secret today and practically no one is talking about it. People surf the web, they bingewatch older programs (and anything over 7 days old is useless to an advertiser), they play games on their phones. Some, the truly old-school types, actually talk face-to-face. (But then you’re reading this blog so you might not be that sort.)

Here’s the simple fact, by the numbers. The top-rated scripted show of 1980 had an average rating of about 35. That means that 35% of the homes with televisions watched it. (It was Dallas by the way.) It’s been almost 40 years, but today’s top-rated scripted show, The Big Bang Theory, has a rating of 3.4. Let’s unpack that a little bit.

The top-rated show, this is the show that’s a certifiable hit, is not watched live by an astounding 96.6% of people. Sure, some watch it a few days late, some watch it in reruns, some binge it. But remember that advertisers and traditional broadcasters really only care about people watching live, people who can’t skip the commercials.

So even bona fide hits fall under the category of “shows you’re not watching.”

Look for this trend to escalate until it becomes dangerous. At some point advertisers will stop paying top dollar to only reach one out of every 20 people. At some point those high-value, well-written, well-scripted shows will simply cost too much because advertisers won’t pay for them.

Some of them will go to premium channels or to streaming, and that’s great but it does leave a vast potential wasteland of broadcast and pay-TV channels with nothing to watch but reruns of American Idol and Survivor. I’m not sure how to fix it, and the scary thing is, I’m not sure broadcasters know either.