Here’s the situation: you’ve got a favorite show, a cult hit with a dedicated fanbase on the internet and plenty of critical praise, but not great ratings. We’ve all been there, right? While we fans are busy circulating our DVDs and making Twitter hashtags, the network and writers’ room struggle to figure out how they can mediate it, too. One word that gets thrown around quite a bit is “accessibilty,” the ability for new viewers to jump in at any point. While playing games to bring in new viewers is a necessary evil in the television business, does the concept of “making a show accessible” really work in our modern TV landscape?
This accessibility debate is prominent now with shows like Fringe and Community. Both are shows that have survived for three or four years with active fanbases and have garnered critical praise, but are constantly near cancellation thanks to their inability to draw new viewers into their unique and complex worlds. Check out reviews and articles about them from this past season, and I guarantee you’ll find multiple comments that question something along the lines of “it’s good, but can this episode/storyline be accessible to new viewers?” It’s become something of a controversy in Community‘s case, since many argue that its general audience-repelling weirdness is at least part of the reason why Sony fired showrunner Dan Harmon. In Fringe‘s case, it’s managed to retain (barely) steady enough ratings to justify a final season to close out its story, but there’s still been constant chatter about the drawbacks of its complicated—yet critically-acclaimed—mythology after season 2.
Where things get tricky is when an already well-developed series becomes substantially retooled to make it accessible. In the case of Veronica Mars, two years of season-long mysteries shifted to smaller mysteries and standalones in season 3. Numerous interviews from the creators state the decision was consciously made to be easier for new viewers to jump in. But while ratings slightly improved, it wasn’t enough leverage to save the show for another season. Moreover, critical reviews generally list the third season as the weakest, no doubt because of the changes to the format. Similarly, Alias, which was immensely dense and continuity-heavy from the get-go, became more episodic and accessible in season 4. While ratings briefly went up, they dropped considerably soon after, as fans and critics alike became alienated by the show’s weaker structure.
A more recent and long-term example, Supernatural, evolved from mostly standalones into a very continuity-heavy arc in seasons 4 and 5. Season 4’s ratings were an improvement over season 3’s, and even when they went down in season 5 it was still a mainstay on CW. Most would argue the show critically hit its peak during these years, despite being harder to jump on as a new viewer. In season 7, however, the show reverted to using many more old-fashioned standalone (and thus more accessible) episodes, but has garnered less-than-positive reception for its lack of overarching plot and series lows in ratings.
Now, all this isn’t to say accessibility is inherently bad or means weak writing. Most sitcoms are episodic by their nature, and even something like Doctor Who — with 50 years of continuity — has numerous points for new viewers to drop in and discover it, because it’s just that kind of show. In fact, the opposite is true sometimes; packing in too much confusing plot is exactly what we’ve discussed in-depth right here on KSiteTV is part of what killed Ringer. But there’s a clear difference between Ringer and the other shows mentioned: these were concerns in season one. It’s important to build an audience in the first year, when there isn’t much history or development being built on. It’s natural for shows to start out fairly accessible—but it’s also natural for them to continually build on the developments as the years go on like Fringe and Community have done.
What’s important to remember is that, ultimately, the accessible standalone formula just doesn’t work for every show. Imagine if producers had tried to make Lost — known for having serious continuity lockout even in its early days — “more accessible” and eliminated the complexity that made it so beloved? Because ratings were strong enough, this wasn’t necessary, so people who wanted to watch it late in the game would have to go back to the beginning and try to catch up.
But that’s just it—we have the capability to watch full shows from the very beginning all the time. Ten years ago, sure, people were more than willing to drop into a show midway through. There was no Netflix or Hulu, and DVRs and quick DVD releases were less prominent. But let’s be honest here, having the solution be “make it accessible to new viewers” presumes that viewers nowadays want to drop into a show in the middle of it. This is a big problem with attempts to improve ratings three, four or five years in—most viewers don’t want to drop in the middle anymore, because they don’t have to. With online streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray sets now, viewers feel like they’re shorting themselves if they don’t get the full experience they can. And for any show with ongoing plots or evolving characters, the audience’s yearning to see it from the start really hurts it in the ratings if it didn’t hook people from the get-go.
Is there a clear solution for this? Well, from a business point of view, striving to make a show accessible makes plenty of sense—the more people watch, the more money they make, whether the quality has dropped or not. Dan Harmon’s firing from Community, frustrating as it is, makes sense from the studio’s point of view. The problem is, the way we watch TV is changing, and thus sacrificing old fans to gain new ones might not work as well as it used to. A while back, I wrote about the necessity for networks to keep reaching for new media when dealing with internet-heavy fan-favorite shows like Community. Getting struggling shows on Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and appealing DVD/Blu-Ray sets is a must, and likely a better shot than changing the current show itself.
It isn’t a coincidence that the ratings for Chuck‘s final season were so low after it stopped streaming on Hulu. Fringe’s ratings dropped in season 3, about the same time it was removed from Netflix Instant. Contrast this to Breaking Bad, which had a huge ratings increase for its rather inaccessible fourth season—incidentally premiering a few months after the first three seasons hit Netflix. Even investing in syndicating or rebroadcasting shows on cable networks earlier than usual could be worth it; Smallville ran weekdays on ABC Family after a mere three seasons, achieving modest success for both networks and a ratings improvement on WB for season 5. If studios and networks are willing to take drastic measures like firing the creators or forcing a retool of the entire show—both of which could make business sense, but have a higher tendency to backfire—why not work harder to secure deals for more streaming or reruns?
It’s smart to find ways to get a show back on its feet. But when networks and producers decide to change the format to cater to viewers who are waiting for it to hit DVD, it’s just going to alienate the current audience who are fans because of intricate and interweaving plots and still won’t catch new viewers. After all, both Fringe and Community have maintained a steadfast devotion to their type of storytelling and have, in turn, continued to get strong reviews. And despite becoming even less accessible, they’ve both managed to get themselves renewed, albeit with some stipulations. Meanwhile, shows like Veronica Mars did change, only to get cooler reception and be cancelled anyway. FOX appears to be doing right by Fringe, letting it run its course with integrity in a shortened final season, if only for the sake of keeping a good relationship with an audience that’s now more likely to tune into the network’s other shows. The effect of NBC’s decisions on Community, which will no doubt bring massive changes to the show’s structure, remain to be seen.
If the content of a show is already strong, and has been for years, severely altering it late in the game is more likely to hurt critical reception and viewership overall, as proven time and time again in the last few years alone. What needs to be “accessible” are earlier episodes, and pushes to encourage and provide opportunities for viewers to catch up. Because now that people have the capability to see a complete story from beginning to end, “accessibility” might no longer mean changing what’s new, but getting the old stuff out there more efficiently.