TV Venting

Posted by Sulkyblue (19th Apr 2004, 17:10)

I was having a boring morning at work and felt a vent coming on. I tried not to make it a rant. It's largely inspired by watching the (excellent) Firefly dvds at the weekend. Feel free to ignore.

I think if I were Joss Whedon these days, I'd have some difficulty persuading myself to get out of bed. The poor guy must be wondering what he has to do to catch a break. On one hand he's doing everything right - creating series that have a devoted collection of fans from all walks of life who *get* what he's trying to tell them. But on the other cash bearing hand he is left out in the cold with no series on the air next season.

Joss Whedon is 3rd generation tv writer, he's been involved with a couple of movies from the sublime (Toy Story, Titan AE) to the ridiculous (Alien 4) but it's through tv that he really seems to connect with his audience. He frequently speaks on his desire to look at real people, regardless of where or when they are. It's the development of characters that he's interested in and movies just don't give you the chance to do that. Boiling a story down until it fits into a 2-3 hour treatment means you lose much subtlety and time span for change. With a television show you have hours to play with and whether you're telling an arc story of just exclusively single shot stories you can have huge character arcs and continuity.

Buffy is the clearest example of this of course, finally allowed to run its 7 years (it was cancelled after 5 seasons remember and saved by UPN) we see characters come and go, while the principle characters react and change accordingly. Go back and watch season 1's geeky willow, shallow Buffy and unflappable Giles and then look at them going into the final battle at Sunnydale High. They're still the same people, but they've grown and experienced things that change them. Who doesn't change in 7 years? Now look at the characters on Friends, ok they're not having quite such dramatic events occur as dying and turning evil, but surely there ought to be more change than that even just through 'regular' events like marriage, divorce and birth.

The Buffy universe, just like the Firefly universe is a means to an end. It's all about people living in and dealing with the world around them, whether it's a world with a hellmouth, a spaceship, an evil law firm or a high school. People making choices, dealing with consequences, coping with the everyday trials and tribulations of life like how to make money and take care of those around you. In the commentary for Firefly's Objects in Space Joss speaks at length about how the episode is not about a bounty hunter, but a more philosophical look at how people react to objects and the space around them. He describes how he knew what he wanted to do with the episode but had real difficulties coming up with the way to facilitate the discussions, eventually solving the problem when Tim Minear said "Boba Fett" to him. He has stated that it's never about the Monster, it's about the emotion and the response of the characters to the Monster, the Monsters are just the catalysts.

Beyond all this philosophical crap, there are at the centre of it all some thoroughly enjoyable tv shows. Many shows these days are labelled as "dramedy", a truly dreadful invented word only invented to describe things that can't be pigeonholed. But I think that maybe a better description would be 'realistic'. Normal people are funny, often at the most inappropriate times, humour is used to break tense situations everywhere, not just on tv. The same way that describing a show as "character driven" always seems strange to me, how can you have a show with recurring characters that *isn't* character driven? They're just mindless automatons who never change or react? Well that sounds like fun. Surely tv is about connecting to the audience, whether they make a connection with a vampire, a mechanic on a spaceship or a bitchy cheerleader. If there's no audience response what's the motivation to keep watching?

So if people feel so connected with Buffy, Angel and Firefly, why are they not on next season? Well, Buffy ran its course and came to an end, I miss it and would still watch it if it were on, but it was losing its spark. Angel was cancelled abruptly this year to make way for more new programming on the network. Joss pressured them to make an early decision so that he had enough time to do a proper wrap for the series so we will be saved an abrupt cliff-hanger ending like Farscape. The reasoning behind the cancellation is a mystery to many, both professional critics, analysts and fans. The show's ratings were not amazing, but they were good relative to the budget and it was popular amongst the critics. The amazing efforts of fan groups around the world to get it renewed have been in vain, recently Warner Bros refused to match a 14,000 dollar donation the fans made to the LA Food Bank. Rumours are emerging that the show may return as a set of up to six television movies.

Firefly was pretty much still born. Bad advertising, bad timetabling and excessive network meddling killed the show almost before it got started with just 11 episodes aired (a further 3 aired in the UK and on the excellent dvd release). The cancellation was due to low ratings for a fairly expensive show, no amount of campaigning by the fans got it back on the air. This story may well have a happy ending though as Joss is working on pre-production for a feature film produced by Universal. The depth of feeling that this show evoked is evident in the fact that the whole cast signed up for the movie without hesitation, they all speak of how this was the best job they have or will ever have. I'm very pleased that the show will survive in some format, but I am still disappointed. I don't want to have to wait 2 years for a 2-3 hour film. I want to watch Firefly (and Angel) every week. I want to see these characters develop, play about and do mundane tasks that there will be no time for in a film or mini-series. 3 hours of footage in 2 years as opposed to 18 hours every year? Doesn't take rocket science to work out which option most fans would want.

If television keeps treating it's valuable assets so badly they will give up, and the viewers will give up with them. J. Michael Straczynski seems to have disappeared (fingers crossed that he's just working hard on the rumoured B5 related project) after becoming disillusioned at network interference with Crusade and Jeremiah. Tim Minear would probably be justified in taking a break after Fox cancelled Angel and Wonderfalls within a month of each other (he was also a producer on Firefly, also cancelled by Fox). These writer/producer/directors know their fans, they all go out of their way to listen and respond to their fans... when was the last time you saw Rick Berman, Aaron Sorkin or Jerry Bruckheimer on a chat board?

I'm not giving up on television yet, I'll keep watching shows, even if they are doomed to short lives. Maybe it would make more sense to not watch a show until I know it's gonna stick around to tell it's story, but I'd rather watch 4 episodes of a show like Wonderfalls knowing that may be all I get, than miss it all together. Saying I do this so that the networks don't win sounds overly dramatic and petty, but it makes for a good close to an article that I could continue writing for days.

\"The times are chaotic. For me, I would hope that people look at [Angel] and gain strength by it. With everything that I do, I hope that they see people struggling to live decent, moral lives in a completely chaotic world. They see how hard it is, how often they fail, and how they get up and keep trying. That, to me, is the most important message I'm ever going to tell." Joss Whedon [The Vancouver Sun, February 3, 2004]

That's the best thing about the show and everything they do, when people go, "I feel less alone because I saw this, because I saw someone go through it. I saw someone be rejected, I saw somebody hurt, I saw whatever it was. I saw her getting stronger, and it made me stronger, too." Joss Whedon (

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read biography for - karne

 karne ( 20th Apr 2004, 00:30, Rank: GSV )  reply

Amen to all that. Something else that tickled my irony button - I seem to have stopped watching TV. All the recent shows I've watched and emjoyed, I've seen first on divx and then have/will buy the dvd box set and work my way through that. Partly this is due to the delay in getting things across the pond and partly it's me wanting shows on demand, but I can help wondering. How many sf fans watch shows this way now? Enough to screw up the ratings? Could online distribution ever work?

read biography for - John Kirk

 John Kirk ( 20th Apr 2004, 15:39, Rank: Patrician )  reply

Michael's comment is similar to an ongoing debate in comics, about "waiting for the trade". In this context, trade = TPB = a paperback collection of issues (like the Sandman books in the library). On the one hand, there are people who will buy paperbacks who would never buy individual issues. On the other hand, if everyone waits for the paperback to be published then sales are so low that the comic gets cancelled, so you never get a paperback. One way round this is to delay the TPB by 6-8 months after the corresponding issues are published, to give people an added incentive to get the individual ones now. But I don't think delaying the DVD releases would help for TV shows, since lots of people say that they download to avoid the existing US->UK timelag.

Online distribution might work - the tricky thing would be persuading people to pay for something that they can get free of charge at the moment. One alternative would be for TV channels to have an option to pay extra for programs without adverts. As it stands, if you watch 4 hours of typical TV, that's 3 hours of program and 1 hour of adverts. This is related to the current buzzword of "money rich, time poor" - would you pay 5 quid to get an extra hour out of your evening?

One other thought I had is to look at the other side of the equation. I.e. if you can't get more money in, try spending less. Would people accept a return to wobbly scenery a la Dr Who, after they've got used to high quality CGI?

read biography for - Sulkyblue

 Sulkyblue ( 22nd Apr 2004, 14:58, Rank: Nazgul )  reply

There are interesting parallels with the tpb. I for one love dvds, most series I much prefer watching in bulk and am a sucker for special features. If it's easy, I'll also watch it on tv, but too often it ends up that the only thing I actually want to watch is on when I'm out, or I lose track of time etc etc. Being in the UK i can do this freely as the dvd sales are far more important to those who decide if a series lives or dies than any overseas ratings.

I'm surprised that tivos haven't taken off more to account for the people with money but no time. It's not the adverts that bother me, just the fact that I have to be in at a certain time and setting a video is too much like hard work. I'll wait the extra year (particularly as otherwise next year looks to be pretty quiet tv wise) and get the dvds.

Spending less budget doesn't necessarily work either unfortunately. Angel wasn't cancelled because it was expensive, but because it didn't get the right demographics. Plus looking cheap won't get the viewers these days and hence still not get renewed. Gagh! too many variables!

( - interesting discussion on livejournal along similar lines. Discussing whether it's been a golden age for sf or not.

read biography for - Sulkyblue

 Sulkyblue ( 3rd May 2004, 19:02, Rank: Nazgul )  reply

( - what about releasing series straight to dvd and skipping the whole sorry tv mess. Not really financially viable it would appear, but people are thinking about it.

read biography for - John Kirk

 John Kirk ( 3rd May 2004, 21:35, Rank: Patrician )  reply

That's an interesting idea, although I think the point about not having an established audience is valid. I guess there is some precedent for that with "straight to video" film sequels, or TV shows where new episodes appear on video before they're shown on TV. Although I'm not sure whether that's only relative to BBC/ITV (thinking of Friends/X-Files), rather than a world premiere.

Using the comics analogy again, people have suggested the idea of just saving up the issues and printing them as TPBs directly. The problem is that this makes the resulting paperback more expensive, since normally the advertising from monthly issues has been used to offset the production costs. So, I'd assume that the same would apply to DVDs too.

I think one aspect would be an increase in video rentals, rather than purchases. For instance, I've rented Star Trek/Buffy/Angel episodes in the past, but that hasn't been possible for, say, Smallville or Highlander. (Charmed is a special case, since you can't buy the episodes either.) I'd be reluctant to spend 60 quid on a series I know nothing about, but I'd be much more ready to spend 8 quid renting a few episodes (the same cost as a cinema ticket). Similarly, there are some DVDs I've bought that I'm realistically only going to watch once or twice, so renting would make more sense there.

Thinking about demographics, one interesting thing I noticed in "Smallville" last week was that there were at least 3 adverts for business servers (IBM/Dell). That's not the type of thing people would buy for home, so presumably the idea is that they're aiming for the adult geek market, who will have buying power within their companies.

read biography for - John Kirk

 John Kirk ( 4th May 2004, 13:43, Rank: Patrician )  reply

I was thinking about the "direct to DVD" idea a bit more last night, and there is the risk that it could become a victim of its own success. Going back to comics (since that's a business model that I know a lot about, and which has been having similar trouble for a while), they used to be sold primarily on the "newstand", i.e. next to newspapers and magazines. Then in the 80s, when they were really popular, you had specialised comic shops around. Some people may have read "Camelot 3000" - aside from the story itself, that series was historically significant because it was the first comic to be sold solely to the "direct market", i.e. only to comic shops and not to newsagents. This was a good thing for the publisher, since they wound up with far less unsold copies. Nowadays, almost all (monthly) comics are sold that way. The problem is that the average age of a comics reader has been steadily increasing over the years, since people won't go into a comics shop unless they're already a comics reader. Like most people, I bought my first comics in a newsagent, and only moved over to the specialist shops later. So, without new (younger) fans coming in, the total number of readers is on the decline.

So, coming back to the TV shows, I think there's a similar risk. If new fans don't see episodes on TV, are they likely to go shopping for DVDs? Granted, there are differences. When I was little (early 80s), it was unusual for families to own a VCR, so people had to be introduced to episodes by watching them as TV broadcasts. Also, there may be enough of a back catalogue in syndication to get people interested in the concept of science fiction, and then seek out newer shows.

Anyway, time will tell...

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