A funny thing happened during Sunday night’s episode of “The Leftovers,” and it is something that is rare after spending years watching a very large percentage of relevant TV programming: Tears, and not just the season 1 variety where they came because the show pretty much forced them on us. There were moments of beauty in seeing the Kevin Garvey that was, and the Kevin Garvey that could be, sink somewhere into the mystery of the town of Jarden, leaving remnants of chaos and insanity in their wake. Few shows are so involved in discussing, let alone showing, how mental anguish can remain long after the event concludes. It is the one departure that will never happen for him.
This week’s edition of CarterMatt Extended could very well be about the Damon Lindelof – Tom Perrotta opus for HBO, but it would be a disservice to tackle the show two episodes into a season. Instead, a conversation is to be had about what are, quite frankly, numbers more depressing than anything in “The Leftovers” season 1. The second episode posted a series-low rating in the 18-49 demographic that only makes it to a 0.3 if you round it up, and then just over 550,000 viewers total. Both of these were declines from the premiere a week before, which were lower than any viewing figures from season 1.
Are there caveats? Sure, if you want to talk about “The Walking Dead,” NFL football, the dark nature of the first season, or the fact that a show that was previously on in the summer is now on in the fall. Yet, there are other problems that exist beyond competition, lead-ins, and speculation about whether or not a show “lost their audience” through a creative tweak. There is a bottleneck effect among TV’s great shows, and the ramifications of it could be more severe than one first thinks or a single show about a Departure starring Justin Theroux.
“There is simply too much television”
While at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour earlier this summer, this was a comment made by FX Networks head John Landgraf, a man who knows a thing or two about shepherding excellent series that sometimes fail to find an audience. Look at “The Americans,” a sensational series with a minuscule viewership, or one of the best comedies on TV in FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman.” The parent company continues to support such shows, hoping that through streaming or DVR playback, they will find a larger audience. (As a matter of fact, FX Networks only send out press releases now for live+3 data to minimize the impact caused by a decline in live viewing.) Yet, is there even a chance for some of these shows to find that audience anymore?
Look back at “Breaking Bad.” If there was ever a great show that was “built by Netflix” but aired on regular television, it was it. Yet, this show had this phenomenon happen years ago, and in the modern age of technology, things shift in the blink of an eye. Will “Better Call Saul” find similar success over time thanks to the service? We’re skeptical, and it is a show comparable in quality to the Vince Gilligan original. Now, Netflix subscribers can watch other programs that are far more current and carry with them brand exclusivity; “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” are not their only two hits anymore, and we’ve seen only a few shows since “Breaking Bad” have a significant live viewership bump thanks to people catching up via streams.
Let’s go back to “The Americans” with the premise that this show could have been a bigger hit had it premiered three or four years before it did. What happened? The bottleneck effect has kept it from really getting that extra boost of word-of-mouth that other shows receive. If you are telling your friends about a great show to watch, you’re often not going to tell them to check out something a little more subtle and nuanced in terms of content. That’s where awards shows come in. Unfortunately, so few people watch “The Americans” that its best hopes are tied to the Critics’ Choice Awards or a similar small ceremony. It’s a series stuck in a no-win situation, mired because it airs at a time that is so far out of the Emmy nomination window.
Another example? AMC’s brilliant “Halt and Catch Fire,” a show recently renewed for a third season despite fairly tiny ratings and little awards recognition. This is to us a spiritual successor to “Mad Men,” and while not equally tremendous, season 2 was not a steep jump off the face of a cliff. It was as well-acted and written as some of the Jon Hamm drama’s weaker seasons. It’s just a show that, yet again, gets forgotten. It premieres at a time when there are so many big shows are ending and people are starting to relax for the summer. Viewers only have so much time to watch shows they enjoy, and thanks to that, many people are not going to even hear about shows that are truly great. Those resources are not available.
Is there a genuine fear?
While it sounds silly to proclaim that TV executives should press the panic button, the truth here is that they could be swimming in dangerous waters if there eventually becomes so much content, and so many avenues to watch it, that the medium starts to drown under the weight of its own catalog. If ratings for network shows decline and more and more streaming exclusives come out, a few things could take place.
1. Less of a community – Remember the days when you could go to work and talk about what happened on “Lost”? It already feels like those days are gone. (Still, try to talk about “The Leftovers” at work. That’ll probably be an interesting conversation.) Binge-watching and excess have already made TV less of a shared experience.
2. Fewer original ideas – Executives are now becoming so desperate to throw as much content as possible against the wall that we’re seeing rushed development with fewer risks, especially by the big networks. If you want to stand out in a sea of hundreds of original series, doesn’t it help you if you have an original idea? The idea that a show like “Lost” may not even get made if it were 2015, thanks to a reboot of “Fantasy Island” or an adaptation of “Fatal Attraction,” is terrifying.
3. Less ambitious ideas, other than a few big-budget affairs – Maybe some shows could use a little cost-cutting, but for the most part, the general fear is that with audiences so small, TV will start to become so fragmented that it is line cinema: There are few shared experiences a year, and then the rest of the time you’re left trying to sift through various VOD releases and indies to find something else that appeals to you. Sometimes, more of the cost is passed along to the consumer just to enjoy the experience.
What can be done?
Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that, as viewers, there is not much that can be done. This is something that many content providers may have to figure out for themselves before learning that a less-is-more approach in the current climate is right. Spend more time marketing the few rather than the many. Stop greenlighting shows with a creative and commercial ceiling. Find more creative ways to get the attention of awards shows. We wish that it could be so simple as telling all of your friends to check out “The Leftovers” or “Halt and Catch Fire,” but it’s not. Even if a few more people watch, that’s only three more. Some good shows are going to be lost along the way just because some people will not have the time or the energy to find them. It’s going to happen.
The only real suggestion to make is that if you enjoy a story, see it through. Even with low ratings, an executive like Landgraf may see matters the same way and keep a product like “The Americans” or “Man Seeking Woman” around. Or, stick with a show if you believe there is a chance of a turnaround. “The Leftovers” felt at times hopeless, but after two excellent episodes in season 2 the entire journey feels worth it.
In the end, there is nothing left to do but hope that those wonderful faces in the crowd are the ones that, more often than not, will rise to the forefront. Maybe some of them will be the next incarnation of “The Wire” and not receive their proper due until after they are gone, but as viewers it’s important in this age of cynicism to acknowledge the ones that are shining bright. So congratulations to “The Leftovers,” “Halt,” “The Knick,” “Man Seeking Woman,” “Vikings,” “The Americans,” “Looking,” and the dozens of other quality shows that don’t get the recognition you deserved. Your faces have been noticed.
CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.