If social media can help drive a revolution, surely it can sway the fate of a small, overlooked television series on the brink of cancellation. Right?
A few weeks ago I wrote about one of the strongest shows on TV right now, the nuanced and mordantly funny cop drama "Southland" (9 p.m. Wednesdays). It wraps its fifth season this month on TNT. Have you been watching this intensely confident show? The Nielsen ratings suggest the answer is a resounding no.
Hedging their bets, three of the show's featured players — Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy — have secured roles in pilots shooting this spring. None of this bodes well for the show's future.
This may be the last we see of "Southland."
Which is why my inbox continually fills with emails from readers who want to know what they can do to push for the show's renewal. "I am aware this may be a futile endeavor," one wrote, "but I believe that 'Southland' is worth it."
I couldn't agree more. And I'm not alone; the show won a Peabody Award last week. If you look at my Twitter feed (@NinaMetzNews), a lot of people feel the same way — and, along with writers on pop culture sites including Vulture and Salon, they are making noise for other high-quality shows in peril as well: "Bunheads," "Happy Endings," "Enlightened."
This isn't new. Every year good shows with low ratings get the hook. But lately things have felt different. Or maybe that's what happens when you spend too many hours online, where it is easy to be fooled into thinking that, for the first time, we as niche viewers are making our collective voice heard.
Surely all that Twitter-fueled energy and impassioned episode-by-episode reviewing is having an impact.
"TNT may not be AMC or even FX," someone posted in the comments of the A.V. Club's "Southland" post last week, "but even their suits must give a rat's (expletive) about having something on their network they can be proud of. Maybe this Peabody will finally make them and their marketing/publicity people wake up and promote the hell out of this show so it can finally achieve the recognition and awards it deserves."
This romantic digital groundswell has to count for something. Right?
For one, HBO has already announced that "Enlightened" is kaput. No amount of compelling think-pieces or in-depth interviews with creator Mike White or celebrity support (from comedian Patton Oswalt, among others) made a difference.
I asked University of Michigan TV scholar Amanda Lotz for some perspective. "If it's an established network like HBO with a brand that is already well-known?" she said. "Then I don't think the level of buzz going on around a small show is going to make a difference."
All that matters is money. Also: water is wet.
"These are commercial media industries that exist not to give people what they want or to make people happy," Lotz said, "but to turn a profit. And I'm sure the people at HBO are really sorry they can't afford to make content for such a small audience."
Should that matter when HBO has cultivated a reputation as an artisanal network — the one that's not going after the lowest common denominator and Nielsen ratings because it doesn't have to? (HBO's money comes from subscribers and back-end streams including DVD sales).
"It's not rocket science," TV By the Numbers co-founder Bill Gorman told me when I reached him in San Francisco. His site tracks ratings and prognosticates which shows will stick around and which are headed for cancellation. Here's his analysis: "Every HBO show gets two seasons unless you kill horses." (That would be the horse-racing-themed drama "Luck," pulled last year after three of its animals suffered injuries and were put down.)
"But after that, HBO has to make resource allocation decisions," Gorman said. "And their resources are: money, executive bandwidth, time slots open on the schedule and marketing resources." When it came to weighing a third season for "Enlightened," a quiet, almost unassuming comedy that had deep things to say about difficult people and corporate environments? A show that wasn't drawing more than 300,000 viewers? "They decided it wasn't worth it."
The matrix for ad-supported shows is different. When a show is brand new, it has to generate as much ad revenue as possible through high ratings. If a show can survive through two seasons, then it's halfway to having enough episodes for syndication — and syndication is the real payday.
"Look at CBS," Gorman said. "If CBS renews a show for two years, it's guaranteed to get four, which gets them 88 episodes so they can syndicate. So you've got a show like 'The Good Wife' (just renewed for a fifth season). Fans who want to feel good about themselves because they watch the show imagine that it gets renewed year after year because it's smart television or it's an award-winner. That's nonsense.