Television has been making me depressed lately.
This week is the conclusion of the three to four-week period of the network season finales. This means that my favorite shows like Community and 30 Rock won’t be back on until the fall.
The season finale period also coincides with the big reveal of fall schedules from all the major networks. If shows don’t get scheduled, they get cancelled, which brings me to my next point, and the source of most of my televisual misery:
Last week Showtime announced that it would be cancelling The United States of Tara due to chronically low ratings. In an industry where a full season television show is very expensive to produce, and revenue is primarily generated through advertising, major corporations won’t pay for ad space on a show with an apparently paltry audience of 400,000 viewers for one episode. So yeah, I get it, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Here was a great show that had grown significantly over its first two seasons, but no one was watching. Perhaps the Showtime execs love Tara, but if it’s not bringing in enough viewers to justify its undoubtedly high production costs, and consequently enough advertisers, then it’s gotta go.
In effect we have a system that rewards financial success over artistry, but in order to execute an artistic vision, the creative forces behind a show need to borrow daddy’s credit card, which is wielded by the executive producers and the network’s accounting department. But understanding the factors that influence renewal and cancellation do little to assuage the mild trauma of losing one of the few truly great shows on television.
So what’s next for Tara? Two equally unlikely scenarios emerge: fans stage a letter-writing campaign urging Showtime to reconsider and air a fourth conclusive season, or another network picks up a phenomenal show with floundering ratings. Neither event is probable, so it seems more productive to consider the future for shows that share similarities to Tara.
What aspect of the The United States of Tara is causing audiences to stop watching, or to never watch at all? Is it a shoddy promotional campaign? Perhaps viewers shy from Diablo Cody’s recognizable brand of covert grrl power and incisive dialogue? Or maybe no one wants to watch a show that’s essentially about a mother with mental illness?
I can posit numerous reasons why people didn’t watch Tara, but these premature cancellations are often inexplicable. Sometimes wonderful shows run for two seasons (Pushing Daisies, 2007-2009, Dead Like Me, 2003-2004–another quality offering from Showtime which, much like its main character, suffered an untimely demise) and terrible shows run for eight (Two and a Half Men, 2003-2011 with Ashton Kutcher recently signed on for the next season. No comment.). Networks have invested millions in trying to gauge what will elicit the most positive response from viewers.
I’m sad about Tara‘s cancellation, but pragmatic about the inner workings of the television industry. Diablo Cody is a talented writer in this medium, and I have no doubt that once the initial shock of cancellation fades, she will find her way to interesting new projects. Which, like all good television programs, will inevitably be cancelled as well. Stay tuned.