A Viewer’s Contract

In my previous post I lamented the annual round of TV show cancellations, leaving plotlines unfinished and cliffhangers unresolved. But is there actually anything that can be done about this?

I think one of the big problems is that we are not actually the TV company’s customers. We might think that we are – indeed they often suggest that we are – but we’re not. We’re the product.

The broadcasters are selling eyeballs. They’re selling viewing figures. They’re selling a captive audience to their advertisers. The programmes they produce are just a means of pulling in as many viewers as possible in order to improve their ratings – and thus increase the amount they can charge for advertising. With subscription channels you might even be getting reamed twice – not only do you pay for the privilege of being their “customer”, but you still get subjected to advertising.

In the case of the BBC the situation is slightly different – but still similar. They also chase ratings in order to bring in money. In their case it’s not advertising revenue, but money from the TV licence fee. In order to get that money they have to show that they’re serving the British public… which requires good ratings. Sure, there are also requirements about quality and content which ensures that minority interests are served to some degree – but if they didn’t also produce ratings-chasing mainstream programmes you can be sure that their funding would get cut pretty quickly.

The broadcasters have contracts in place with the producers of the programmes. These contracts typically cover a series at a time, usually with an option to renew. That option gets exercised if the show is a ratings success, otherwise the contract isn’t renewed and the show is effectively cancelled.

The broadcasters also have contracts in place with the advertisers. These contracts basically sell our eyeballs at a certain rate based on the time of day and number of viewers. If a programme fails to attract enough viewers in one timeslot, it will often get moved to another cheaper slot (typically losing a portion of the viewers in the process). If it fails to get sufficient viewers that the advertising revenue more than pays for the show, it is unlikely to be renewed.

So there’s a contract with the producers, and a contract with the advertisers. Note, however, that there’s no contract with the viewer. There’s no contract that guarantees the completion of a story. There’s no contract to stop a programme being moved around the schedules and then dropped entirely (even if there are unshown episodes available). There’s no contract to stop the programme being sold to a different channel that the viewer may not even have access to (such as when Lost and 24 moved from terrestrial to satellite TV in the UK).

I think it’s time for a viewer’s contract. Not a literal piece of legally-binding paper, but an implied consideration towards the viewers and fans of a show. A set of guidelines that tries to minimise the artistic compromises that occur when a show is cancelled without sufficient warning.

Perhaps it would mean putting a stop to cliffhanger endings. Perhaps it would mean that each series has to be self-contained, closing all the major plotlines. Perhaps it would mean and end to dropping programmes entirely if there are still episodes to show.

More realistically what I would like to see is a contingency fund. When a show is commissioned, a proportion of the money would be put into this fund, to be used in order to produce one final episode when the series gets canned. Instead of commissioning a series, the studios would instead commission a series plus an episode. If the programme runs to more than one series, the contingency could be cumulative – providing enough money for a TV-movie, perhaps.

A programme that runs for a single series might only get a small contingency fund – enough to create a short or an alternative ending. The commission for a second series would provide enough for a whole extra episode. Add a third series and there’s enough for two episodes, or one TV movie. After that point the contingency contribution would drop off – still adding something to the fund, but not a whole episode’s worth.

This scheme adds little to the price of creating a single series, so as not to reduce the incentive to try out different ideas. Seasons two and three are a little more expensive. After that each series becomes relatively cheap again, so there’s actually an incentive to keep a programme running.

What this does, more than anything else, is create a complete narrative – with a start, middle and most importantly an ending. Surely that’s got to make it easier to sell DVDs in future, or to sell programmes to other countries and broadcasters. Most of all it stops the viewers feeling let down and cheated, and that’s got to be worth something.

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