Friday, June 08, 2007

Jericho. Jericho Jericho Jericho Jericho Jericho.

Apparently, if you put the words Jericho somewhere on your blog, you get a lot of hits, and then the people that come and find you write comments and it's all a good time or something. Anyway, I'm a fan of hits, and I'm a fan of comments, so it's time to talk about Jericho's miraculous resurrection and one of the biggest "Save Our Show" campaigns I've seen in many a year.

I don't know what it is about Jericho (a show I found mostly solid, if unremarkable) that got the fans of it in such an uproar when the show was canceled (I'm actually surprised the "Save Our Show" campaign seemed to spring up AFTER the show was canceled, instead of before the upfronts in May), but I'm glad that the show's fans got it back. They worked hard to convince CBS executives that current Nielsen methodologies weren't counting them (and, to be fair, the Nielsen system is a dinosaur that can't measure current viewing trends well at all), and they found clever ways of making their voices heard -- sending thousands of tons of nuts and sending bouquets to CBS' Nina Tassler when they realized how besieged she must have felt. So when I launch into the following, it's from a place of admiration for what the fans did, even if I'm mostly befuddled with why they chose THIS show, one I watched all the way through without feeling any pangs of "Man, I want to see how that resolves itself!" at any point. Why THIS show and not, say, Invasion last year or Now and Again several seasons back or any of a huge number of cult programs that just didn't pay off like the networks hoped they would?

Anyway, that's almost a rhetorical question. We like what we like, and Jericho had the kind of plotline that inspires devotion (there are a lot of post-apocalyptic genre fans out there) as well as a nicely CBS-ian view of the end of the world -- things are going to blow up, sure, but we'll all stick together in the end. And as the season wore on and the people of Jericho had to work harder and harder to survive while their neighbors fell to human weakness, well, the show bordered on compelling. And the ongoing story of what was happening to the U.S. as a whole was interesting enough to make me think I would tune in for a second season if it materialized. Plus, there was a hugely dramatic cliffhanger of the "What's going to happen next!" variety. So I'm guessing these elements grabbed the fans, though, apparently, unusually late. (Maybe they just never really thought the show would be canceled?)

My biggest problem with the Nuts for Jericho campaign is that it's going to unreasonably raise expectations among online genre fans (who are already well-nigh insufferable much of the time). When a television show is canceled, it's almost always a business decision (there are a few cases where something else got in the way, but business usually trumps these other factors). Jericho stayed on the bubble so long, it would seem, because its core audience was very devoted and made up of the sorts of people who didn't watch CBS all that often, a luxury that the much-more-watched (at least in the Nielsens) Close to Home didn't get, simply because CBS didn't need more crime. But when Jericho was canceled, it wasn't exactly a surprise -- the show simply didn't pull down large enough ratings (again, in the Nielsens) to justify a renewal on a network that has nary a weak spot on its schedule.

And there's where it gets tricky. Fans of anything are slow to recognize its weaknesses. Indeed, fans of Veronica Mars are still bemoaning that The CW never gave it a chance, when the show got chance after chance after chance on that network and UPN. While I loved that show, it never had the ratings it needed to prove it could grow beyond its tiny cult, and it was canceled for that reason. But, by and large, fans have such devotion to something that they can't imagine it not being to someone else's taste (not consciously, but sub-consciously -- for example, when someone insults, say, Deadwood at length, I want to brawl with them). Now, granted, Jericho came back after a long hiatus and had to stare down the American Idol monster. But it had been slowly leaking viewers for most weeks in the fall. The American Idol showdown seemed to simply accelerate a natural process -- that of a cult show sloughing off those who didn't want to be a part of the cult.

CBS also didn't (apparently) realize just how many people were watching the show on a DVR or an Internet download. (I say "apparently" because I have a hard time believing that a major network wouldn't have paid attention to these stats.) But why should they have? Internet downloads make a little money, sure, but not enough to cover production costs (though, of course, DVD sales might recoup those expenses -- we'll wait and see). And DVR viewers rarely watch the ads. And there's the rub. If you're not watching the ads, the network isn't as interested in you. And, increasingly, people in the most valuable demographics just aren't watching the ads (it didn't help that Jericho isn't exactly the most product placement-friendly show in the world). This is a problem for all of the networks, of course, but I think it may be why CBS, which still boasts strong ratings in the "we're still watching the ads!" demos of old people and older people, was less concerned with DVR playback numbers.

Now, every article of this nature notes that there have been successful "Save Our Show" campaigns in the past. But the only one that went on to produce a series with a successful run was the one to save Cagney & Lacey. And that show wasn't serialized (like Jericho) and was in a fairly safe, television-friendly genre. What makes the Jericho campaign so amazing was that it resurrected a show on a first-place network that probably could have just ignored the campaign. Since the show was resurrected on a network that was so strong (barring an unforeseen series of misfortunes this fall), Jericho becomes THE proving ground for all save our show campaigns. If the Jericho fans can't get more people to tune in and watch the show (preferably within 72 hours of broadcast), the show will go away for good. Not only that, but it could jeopardize ANY save our show campaign. If the most powerful network on the air can't make something like this work, why should The CW?

So we come back to the question of why. Not only why this show inspired so much passion but why CBS listened to that passion when it didn't really have to. Does this mean that every blaringly loud "Save Our Show!" campaign is going to work from now on? Not at all. I think what simply happened was that the viewers of the show caught CBS in a perfect storm of bad press, where the best good press decision they could make was to renew the show. Reportedly, network affiliates don't like the newer, edgier dramas the network debuted for the fall (particularly the sexy, soapy Swingtown), while those who follow the development season closely still bemoan CBS thinking with its wallet instead of its sense of quality in passing over Babylon Fields and The Man (although a friend who's read both insists they weren't all that). What's more, early critical reaction to the network's new pilots has been rather tepid, and the network can't seem to raise buzz anywhere outside of How I Met Your Mother or the occasional season of Survivor or The Amazing Race. What better way to combat all of these problems than to scoop up the one show that HAS generated a significant amount of press in the offseason? Even if you DID cancel it?

CBS got to the top of the network pile by being smart, and the Jericho move is rather a no-brainer. If it doesn't work, they can just shrug and scrap the show (they won't lose a ton on a seven-episode season). If it does work, they look like geniuses. The big, powerful networks could stand to take more risks like this, especially in an age when technology threatens to make them irrelevant.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go polish my "Bring Back Cupid!" buttons.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Interesting analysis. I had no idea there were so many die-hard Jericho fans until it got canceled. I really enjoyed the ridiculousness of the early episodes and was happy that actual quality episodes came along at the end of the year. I loved the finale, and thought the cliffhanger was really effectively done.

I think there are a few reasons behind this massive fan campaign. First, I have a feeling these fans are a bit older than most "cult show" fans and have a lot more disposable income. Hence, they can afford thousands of dollars of nuts. Second, I think most people were genuinely surprised it got canceled. Yes, the ratings were in the tank but the media was all talking about how everyone's ratings were down and I'm sure most people thought CBS would take that into consideration. Third, that cliffhanger. That cliffhanger probably caused many people who would not normally take part in fan campaigns to sit up and take notice of this one. It's one where you really, really want to know what happens next.

Those are just my opinions and could be way off base. I hope the show comes back next midseason strong and this fan campaign turned out to be a good thing. I've seen too many good cult shows die and even though I would rather have had Freaks & Geeks, Veronica Mars or Firefly survive in their time rather than Jericho, it's good to see one make it.