The Fall Television Season is upon us, so I once again attended the Television Academy panel of top television critics previewing the new season. This year, the panel of Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide with moderator Cynthia Littleton, Editor of Variety, was held at the Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studio Lot in Hollywood and the conversation was lively. It started off with the opening question of what was good and what was bad among the new shows which led Matt Roush to comment, “I never thought I would ever say it, but the network with the best new shows is the CW with Jane the Virgin and Flash.” However, because the CW has such a light schedule with the fewest number of premiering shows, the comment was really directed at showing just how weak this year’s batch of new shows across the broadcast and cable networks were. The discussion did ramble on a bit about the growth of fresh original shows from new cable (WGN) and digital (Netflix, Amazon) outlets during the summer which has created a more continuous year-round season, but the topic soon focused on an important feature of a good television series that the critics felt networks had lost sight of – characters and their relationship to the audience.
Although character is important in all storytelling, the presentation of character is more important within the format of a continuing series on television. In a movie, the audience is quickly introduced to characters that become involved in a conflict. In the course of a few hours, these characters must address this conflict to a resolution for the audience, so the audience is given character traits in shorthand so they can quickly associate good guy/bad guy personas to the characters and move into the plot flow. Once the audience leaves the theater or turns off the television, there is no consideration about coming back and hanging out with the characters they saw in the movie. However, a television series does need its audience to bond with the main characters, so they will want to come back and visit with them again. The shorthand introductions to the main characters in a series premiere are more like first impressions that hopefully will draw the audience to want to learn more about these characters as they face a series or continuing story of life challenges. An engaged audience realizes that there are nuanced undertones to the characters and feels compelled to return regularly to see what is going on with their friends, to rejoice with their triumphs and sympathize with their setbacks, whether it is with laughter or drama. It is for this very reason that television series has been known more for being a writer’s medium than a director’s medium. It is also why television series work better with ensemble casts as it is easier to enjoy time with a group of friends.
So, why do these critics feel the networks have lost sight of this in the new season? Judging by the issues they noticed and expounded upon in the new season pilots, I sense the increased competition of more original programming over more networks throughout the year has caused network executives and show runners to use more shorthand storytelling, plot twists and visual creativity to gain the audiences’ initial attention, but this is at the expense of developing the characters to the point where the audience will want to come back and share time with their new friends. In a way, network executives have forgotten that television was the original social media site.