What “Sharknado” and “Scandal” teach us about the future of television

It’s been three days since SyFy first aired “Sharkado,” yet those seventy-two hours feel more like seventy-two days in terms of pop culture applicability. What was for a brief time the only thing one could tweet about has already turned into something of an artifact, with a combination of competing interests and newsworthy items filling up social media as well as everyday attention. That “Sharknado” burned so brightly yet so temporarily isn’t that unusual, except inasmuch as this iteration of this phenomenon featured Tara Reid. Many critics have already pointed out that trying to correlate Twitter buzz with actual ratings missed the point. I’d follow up such discussions by saying that the buzz around “Sharknado” is something other networks can and should implement in order to halt the decline of Nielsen ratings in the present and ultimately move past them altogether in the future.

There’s a better metric to measure the phenomenon that was “Sharknado” above the 18-49 demographic that actually watched it during its initial air. This better metric is much harder to analyze, since it relies on anecdotal evidence rather than cold, hard, numerical figures. That metric? The number of people who expressed disbelief and sadness over missing the SyFy movie’s premiere. That sadness has nothing to do with the quality of the program itself and EVERYTHING to do with the social experience of watching it along with people who were expressing views about it in real-time. This reaction reveals something both obvious and worth stating plainly: the timing of when people watch television shows doesn’t change the quality of the programming, but does change the quality of the experience.

This is something I tried to articulate a few weeks ago before the premiere of “Arrested Development” on Netflix. Giving the viewer ultimate control over crafting a singular viewing experience is simultaneously wonderful and terrible. Considering how busy everyone is, and the futility of trying to keep up with every good (or even mediocre) show, it’s great to have a combination of hardware and software that lets people watch shows outside of the primary airing schedule. Netflix believes that dumping an entire season of “House Of Cards” or “Orange Is The New Black” is the future of consumption, since it places power into the hands of the subscriber. Ostensibly, those shows will never leave the streaming rotation, meaning that they are always and ever available for viewing.

1373651736000-sharknado-1307121627_4_3.jpgThis is all true, but only partly great. One could argue that not every show deserves equal and immediate attention. Hell, I’d argue that. But I’d further argue that few shows are designed to even encourage such devotion at this point. This is little (although some) to do with actual quality and everything to do with the approach to each installment of a series. In the bingewatching age, individual episodes matter less than the physical access to as many episodes as possible. For better or worse, not as many people don’t want to spend seven months working through a season when they could wait a while and simply burn through the same twenty-two episodes over the course of a weekend once fully accumulated on Hulu Plus.

I’m not here to say that people are right or wrong to do this. What I am here to say is that more networks need to take preemptive steps to discourage people from feeling they can actually wait that long in order to absorb this content. Hell, making audiences feel like they can wait a month, or even a week, leads to the type of ratings messes that we see now. Sure, we are seeing a bigger reliance on Live +3 and Live +7 numbers, but these just reveal symptoms of a larger problem: people have neither the time nor the inclination to sit down and watch a show the night it airs.

Why is this a “problem”? It certainly doesn’t sound like one, especially for those that don’t depend on ad revenue in order to sustain their business models. But the “Sharknado” phenomenon highlights what’s been lost in an age when everyone is watching things at different times: the conversation suffers. “Sharknado” is still as terrible today as it was seventy-two hours ago. But someone watching never has only him- or herself to share in the miserable glory of watching Ian Ziering chainsaw his way through a flying shark. Put another way: is a sharknado tears through a forest, but there’s no one to see it, did it happen at all?

There’s very much a forest for the trees situation happening with the multitude of viewing options that now exist. I love that I have the ability to catch up on shows such as “Top Of The Lake” now. But the ability to have discussions about it are limited. That may not seem to matter: after all, if the show is good, it’s always good, and therefore always worth watching, right? That’s true, but again, that’s only a piece of the larger puzzle. I’d argue that watching a show is at most fifty percent of the enjoyment that can be derived from it. The other part comes from discussing it with others, whether at work, with friends, or online. Part of the responsibility for that discussion lies with the viewer, who needs to watch the episode/show in relative time with its initial release. But part of this also falls on the shoulders of the networks producing it. If they spin their wheels until sweeps, there’s no real incentive for viewers to watch except when they have time.

Or, to put it more bluntly: Networks that don’t encourage its creative talent to produce episodes that demand immediate discussion are killing the industry.

guillermo-diaz-katie-lowes-scandal-abc.jpgLet’s look at an example of a show, maybe THE ONLY show, which understands the primacy of the individual episode as both a narrative opportunity as well as a business-savvy way to build the brand. ABC’s “Scandal” is one of the few shows that saw a rise in ratings from its Fall premiere to its Spring finale. Part of that reason had to with general buzz around the show turning into a roar by mid-winter. But another part stemmed around ABC and the show’s cast/crew smartly turning each episode as an event unto itself. Sure, it did so through social media campaigning, but it also did so by crafting episodes that backed up the buzz. To watch “Scandal” was to experience it, both onscreen and on Twitter, GetGlue, and other such outlets. This all created a narrow window in which total potential interaction with the show was at its highest, which in turn drove fans to watch live with similarly obsessed fans. To watch later not only risked being spoiled, but more importantly, risked being left out of the experience.

So let’s not take away that “Scandal”=”Sharknado”, here, even though “Gladiatornados In Suits” sounds like a FANTASTIC thing to slap on billboards and magazine advertisements come September. “Scandal” is one of the best shows on TV, and will undoubtedly make my year-end Top 10. The only thing these two entities share: both appear on television, and both reveal the latent potency that comes from creating content that people need to watch as close to initial airing as possible. It’s no longer enough to create a well-crafted show that slowly reveals itself over thirteen hours or three seasons. Shows need not have the pace of “Scandal” in order to succeed, but they do need that show’s respect for its audience. Each week, “Scandal” delivers a propulsive hour that lacks any frills and constantly rewards audience attention with enough twists, turns, and revelations that would fill an entire season of most shows. People respond to that generosity by tuning in live in an era where most people would simply wait until the weekend and then fast forward through the commercials.

People don’t flood Twitter each Thursday for the small chance Kerry Washington might retweet them. They tune in because Shonda Rhimes has helped craft a show that fosters and encourages a communal discussion and celebration each week. People watch when they do because they can’t bear to wait any longer than necessary to consume more of it. It’s the greatest trick the show has pulled off, and it’s the same trick that SyFy has finally stumbled upon as well. Naturally, crafting content to build upon this phenomenon is easier said than done. But creating reasons for people to tune in each week is based on a simple idea: don’t waste the audience’s time. The moment you do, they will simply go elsewhere. Sure, they might catch up later. But it won’t be the same. They won’t talk about you as much, and when they do, such discussions will usually go directly into the void. And as those discussions go into the void, so too will the shows.

It’s not about creating the biggest social media buzz, but rather creating content that demands viewing during a specific window of time. SyFy isn’t responsible for all the tweets about “Sharknado,” but it was responsible for greenlighting the project that did. Plenty of network shows promote their creator/actors tweeting each week, but only “Scandal” creates a show that produces higher ratings in addition to trending topics. The buzz is nice, but it’s also a byproduct. The only thing that ultimately creates sustainable buzz are the episodes themselves. Creating a series of strong installments that induce the desire to watch AND discuss as close to air time as possible is the only way that buzz lasts longer than, say, seventy-two hours. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but nothing that will save the industry as a whole.

In the end, it will be increasingly difficult to watch shows anytime a viewer wants if fewer shows get made thanks to sinking ratings across the board. At a certain point, both sides have to come together in order to right this ship. Viewers should try and watch more shows around initial airing. But networks need to actually produce episodes worthy of that time commitment. The shortened schedules of many network programs next year signal a change in the economics of the industry, but also signal an opportunity. With fewer episodes to produce, there will be (hopefully) fewer filler installments as well. Making episodes themselves a precious commodity can feed into the “event” nature (as opposed to “The Event” nature, because, no) of each series, in turn making each episode an opportunity to form not just an audience but a community. A word like “community” seems hokey as hell, but it’s also important: without it, we’re just watching TV by ourselves. That’s fine, but feels incomplete. In being able to watch anything at any time, we’ve lost one of the central aspects that makes the medium so great in the first place. When people start to realize they missed out on a window of opportunity to share in an event like the “Sharknado” livetweeting, it reminds them that watching alone isn’t as much fun as watching together. It took something as drastic as a shark-filled tornado to remind people of that.