The big US TV channels have started announcing their fall lineups. This is news only because it tells us all which shows will continue and which we’ll be saying goodbye to – if we haven’t already. It makes pretty grim reading. Once more quality shows, the ones that involve story lines and need (gasp!) actors, screenwriters and all sorts of technical assistance to make, have suffered in favour of reality shows. The fact that reality shows are so cheap to make and seem to always be able to find an audience means the tv companies find them irresistible – but at what price?

Personally I don’t generally watch reality shows. I watch the UK edition of the Apprentice, but given that it’s less and less entertaining that may stop soon. Reading an interview with an actor on a show cancelled last year, he mentioned the fact that very few comapnies now wanted to take on “quality” shows as they were too expensive. The inevitable result was that fewer and fewer jobs available for actors and the technical people who rely on such shows being made. As many other industries will attest, once expertise is gone it is almost impossible (and very expensive) to replace.

The TV I do watch tends to be shows I’ve recorded. I know I’m not alone is hating adverts and so even when watching a show that is being broadcast I usually allow my PVR to start recording it and then watch the recording with liberal use of the fast forward button. The situation in the US is even worse, with adverts almost making live TV unwatchable. Of course this is the crux of the problem, there now exists a self reinforcing feedback loop – lower quality programs = fewer viewers, fewer viewers = less ad revenue, less ad revenue = less profits. The solution adopted was the easy one – show more adverts!

Apparently in the US those who record a tv show are counted at 25% of those who actually watch it. This seems, on the face of it, to be strange as people will tend to record the shows they value. Of course ratings for TV audiences don’t have anything to do with viewers and popularity, they are all about providing a mechanism for advertisers and TV companies – so the 25% makes sense as it allows for people skipping the ads. This does mean that shows trying to gain market share have a real problem if their audience record and then watch – they have to have a much larger audience than should the case. Some smaller networks have realising this and have started pleading with viewers to sit and watch their shows.
There is another approach that the companies could adopt – make better quality TV shows and start engaging with the audience again. This, of course, requires money and will reduce their profits, so it won’t happen.