So, the other day I was thinking to myself, “Man, it’s really difficult to get people to agree on what makes a good Science-Fiction television property. While some people like the science and tech to be a backdrop for the human drama, some people don’t give a crap about the human drama and just want the exploration of technological and scientific speculation. You know, there haven’t really been many shows that have successfully blended the two perspectives. Hmm. Well, I guess Caprica— SyFy Channel’s spin-off of their Battlestar Galactica reboot— does. Yeah. You know, Caprica‘s got a really great blend of the emotional drama inherent in religious conflict, ambition, grief, betrayal, and the philosophical considerations that flow from those, all balanced and even driven by really amazing tech and science that’s relevant to the concerns of the present day! I sure am glad that Caprica‘s around.”
Which is all to say that Caprica has, of course, been canceled.
Certain trends in television programming really do baffle me. As you may have noticed, I keep talking about an intensive refitting of the model on which television ratings are done. I keep saying things like “Networks need to take DVR viewing into account,” and “How can you have an accurate count of viewership, if you don’t even take network-sponsored downloads into account?!” But as this post on TV By The Numbers points out, networks care about viewers, as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Less bluntly:
So far as we can tell DVR viewing doesn’t meaningfully add to a networks [sic] ability to make money, and more people watching shows via DVR isn’t good news for the networks.
As you might expect, most people using DVRs usually avoid commercials. . .
[ad#longpost]Which, in terms of a money making scheme, makes perfect sense. If commercial advertisers are your main source of revenue, and they are committed to airing spots between 30 and 60 seconds in length, interspersed after the first and second acts and at the show change-over, then hell No, you won’t want to back those shows which are most often watched via a device which strives to make that revenue stream obsolete. By all the dark gods, networks and advertisers Fear change, people! Because, in TV speak, “change” means “uncertain dividends,” and there is no way in hell they’re going to stand for that.
Sorry. I guess I’m just a little grumpy, but it’s only because this whole thing could be so easily mitigated, with just a little work on both the programming and the advertising side. With the advent of proper timing and marketing, shows can ride high waves of enthusiasm well enough to survive the troughs. To start to see what I mean, take a look at the Caprica airing timeline, over at The Caprica Times (about a third of the way down the page). Looking at that, we can begin to understand where the ball was dropped, and perhaps even see a structure similar to that which precipitated the cancellation of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Joss Whedon‘s DollHouse. It breaks down like this: If you wait too long after the cessation of series to start its spin-off show, then the audience loses momentum; that should be pretty obvious. If you stagger the season, and don’t really advertise it as thoroughly as possible when you change the airing night after you come back from the break, people are going to miss the show. Also kind of obvious. If you do both of these things, while simultaneously not taking advantage of the opportunity to market your property across all three of the networks you own, then you’re dooming the show. That’s just Math, people.
And then there’s the commercial advertising side of this equation. Let me ask you: if you have a multi-billion-dollar entertainment/business conglomerate, one relatively small portion of which is a channel supposedly there to champion science-fiction, fantasy, and generally speculative fiction, would it really be so difficult to use this admittedly small portion of your media empire to try a new airing/advertising model? Perhaps you start seeding torrent downloads in addition to hosting episodes on the show’s website; or you make funnier, more attention grabbing commercials; or you support DVR-proof commercials, for your advertisers (cf. Domino’s and Broadview Security); or you more carefully integrate product placements into your shows, where appropriate (Hint: The Degree Deodorant thing, in season 2 of Eureka? Not appropriate); and maybe you hold some kind of sponsored contest tie-ins.
What I’m saying is, whatever you do, you don’t simply rely on the same old 30-second ad spot to be your main source of revenue when you have, at your fingertips, an audience which appreciates it when you A) Innovate and, more importantly, B) Respect Their Intelligence. If you don’t do the latter, they’ll know, and then they’ll start to wonder if maybe… Well…
Come close. I don’t want to say this too loud, but I have a conspiracy theory, one that I’ve been nurturing for a while, and I’m going to share it with you, right now.
I think that NBC/Universal hates nerds.
I know, it’s a shocking idea to have about the company which produced and marketed Serenity, ran Heroes and a half-season of a really smart Bionic Woman reboot, and which runs The Event, Chuck, Eureka, and Warehouse 13, but let’s stop a second and really think about those properties and what I just said. To some degree, those which have survived have all more paid lip-service to the idea of celebrated nerddom, or smart SF, than they actually walk the proverbial walk. Those which didn’t survive were either under-utilised, under-marketed, allowed to fall prey to the Writer’s Strike, or they rode the line of mediocrity so long that eventually people just gave up.
We could get into an argument about the fact that there are geek icons guest-starring in every episode of Chuck this season, but that really just kind of proves my point. It’s a series of pop-culture winks and nudges, and very rarely more. In contrast, Caprica‘s writing is tight, smart, funny, moving, and technologically interesting, celebrating a wide range of characters and investigating a culture with many points of startling difference from our own, but with even more startling similarities. That makes it rare, and something which needed the kind of cultivation and attention its parent company doesn’t seem to have been capable of giving it. Or perhaps they aren’t willing to give it; I don’t know.
Many fans are getting together to address and try to stop the cancellation of Caprica, and in that vein there are a few things going on, spearheaded by people in the fan community, as well as cast members. Over on Twitter, Alessandra Torresani and Sasha Roiz are using the search tags “#apples,” “#operationairlock,” “#savecaprica,” “#syfy,” “#cylonarmy,” and “#capricaarmy” in various combinations, in order to show series support and awareness. These efforts tie in with those of the Save Caprica. This kind of mobilization has changed minds, in the past, for instance, when it came to CBS’ Jericho. But it takes interest and response on the network side, as well.
At this point, it seems to me that there were and most importantly still are many ways for SyFy to fix the situation with Caprica. They can alter and increase the marketing of the property and shift its distribution and commercial advertising models. They can do this in such a way as to serve as a model and an object lesson for the other shows in the parent company, and in the serialised visual media landscape, in general. Syfy, there’s still time to turn this thing around, and become a leader, again, I tell you!
Or you could just make another dozen Forced-Faux-Campy Ridiculous Mutant Animal Vs. Ridiculous Prehistoric Animal movie. Whichever.
Here’s the bit I don’t get, though. It seems to me the whole “I can’t remember when the thing is airing” is no longer valid, since in a world riddled with DVR I can just tell the device, “Record Caprica. I don’t care when it’s airing.” (At least, that’s what I understand the device can do, I don’t own one because I don’t watch TV.) Now, the whole DVR viewers are unequal to dollars I get, but these days, who gives a damn if it airs at 1pm or 1am?
You’re absolutely right about that. Airing time shouldn’t matter worth a whit, because people have the tools to watch TV whenever they want. The problem is, the Networks have made and kept DVR watching an invalid argument for the proof of viewing numbers, because it takes away from their commercial revenue stream.
They’ve created this whole train of circular logic to justify not listening to the people who say “Well I Do watch it! Just not at time of air!” Which is, of course, Crap.
Great post. I allude to similar ideas on my blog (virgilsallnight.com), but your elaboration on the marketing issue is spot on. The irony that a network that specializes in science fiction programming (and apparently pro wrestling) is so behind the 8-ball in terms of marketing in today’s Web 2.0 world is just tragic. The fact that they never even reached out to fans to find creative ways of promoting the show is just ridiculous and a little pathetic.
Thanks for saying so. And yes. The second-best thing to come out of this would be SyFy’s recognition of their true audience and marketing potential, and actually putting that to use. That could really work out well for everyone.
Nope – that is NOT how my PVR works. Not in the slighest. I have to KNOW that a show is one, and when it is on, and where so that I can set to record at that time.
I am not going to go out and update my TV and every variety of appliance for entertainment everytime someone gets a brainwave. I actually have things like a MORTGAGE to pay.
There is no tech yet that lets me look at my TV screen on the way out of the house and say, “Hey Serge – record me Caprica today ‘k?”
B: Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t talking about a voice-activated or thought-activated device or whatever. I just know that 2-3 years ago, I was hearing from TiVo people complaints that it recorded TOO much, and if they wanted Law & Order they would have to be careful because it would record the hell out of some Law & Order, whenever it was on. And it would suggest shows that you didn’t ask for. So it would seem to me if that tech existed, surely TiVo (or whatever) could say “You’ve liked Caprica in the past, here’s a wild thought…I’ll record Caprica.” Maybe they were all delirious…thinking back on the crowd I was with a few years ago, perhaps…but I was under the impression that tech was old hat.
B. & Widge:
My DVR can set up season passes and eve make suggestions as to what I might like. It takes it upon itself to monitor what I watch, and I know that the newer cable boxes send demographic info & viewing habits to the cable company for dissemination among local branches and their advertisers.
The tech is out the, and in use. It simply isn’t being fully leveraged.
Your SFOP dig is going to get you in trouble, son. I can say with some certainty that you’re probably safe from Din for the time being, but Leigh’s whereabouts are currently unaccounted for.
In seriousness, Caprica’s got another problem that no amount of DVR-considering or alternate-revenue models will fix. It’s a spin-off. People tuned in and got invested for years of BSG goodness, but a strong majority of them were done with BSG when it ended, and I know not a single die-hard BSG fan that bothered with Caprica at all. Anecdotes are not data and all that, but still. See also CRUSADE.
I wanted to comment about Syfy in general. The channel in my opinion loved what Eick and Moore did with Battlestar Galactica at least in the beginning. How else do you explain Stargate Universe surviving and Caprica not. For goodness Caprica is produced by more. It is better written and has a better overall tone.
In Stargate Universe you have Battlestar Galatica the reboot rebooted or lite as it where. Maybe that is why I am so frustrated with SGU because I have seen it all before and so there mistakes are more glaring.
In SGU you suck all the fun out of Stargate and strand people without a true goal except get home which one person doesnt want to do who is in control. You also neuter the Gate technology and we rarely see any new alien races. In Atlantis that galaxy was teeming with life. In SGU you are in the butt end of nowhere and when you bring on aliens you promptly get rid of them. The Gate and the stones are now used as Deus ex machina instead of being integrated into the show. In the cases of all the other Stargates Caprica and BSG there was at least some fun SGU has none. Im sorry for the long diatribe Widge but i do have a question. Why does SGU stay afloat when better programming gets canceled. Again I realize most of what I have said is opinion but was hoping you could shed some light. Since you are brilliant.
@Doc: You know, I had that thought, myself, but I never went so far as to do anything about it. Obviously. *ahem* Come what may! Anyway, I loved the BSG reboot, watched every week, and went to great pains to make sure I didn’t miss an episode. Again, circumstantial/anecdotal etc, but there it is.
Dan: I know you were asking Widgett, but I think I’ll chime in an say that, while I’ve not watched a lot of SGU, if I had to posit a reason that clicks with how you see the show it would be: Because Of What I Just Said. SGU’s not Too SF-heavy, and it doesn’t get us into the deeper philosophical implications of what happens when we go traipsing about the universe, impacting other species, and royally screwing with their existential understanding. SGU stays human-centric and surface-level, and so SyFy can throw money behind it, and let it ride.
Dan: Thanks, man…and never be sorry about diatribing–that’s what the comments are for :-) –although I have my doubts about the whole brilliant thing. Anyway, granted, I don’t watch television, and have never seen either SGU or Caprica. But based on what I know about how television works, Wolven’s pretty much dead-on in that the shows that survive do so because they A) get enough eyeballs and 2) enough of those eyeballs can be considered salable. The problem we have is that when we see an excellent show, we can’t understand why it doesn’t survive, but the cold truth is this: the networks are not in the business of making excellent shows. They are instead in the advertising business. So either they need to get better at figuring out how to sell ads on their time, as Wolven goes into, or they need to go to a different model. The model I would suggest is simple: “Look, folks: we’re going to cancel Caprica. Each episode costs X to produce. We need to raise Y in order to continue. We supposedly have Z millions of viewers, if you all chipped in [enter amount here] we can continue. Otherwise, we’ve got to shut it down.” A fanbase is not enough to keep a franchise afloat, as I’ve said before: otherwise Serenity 2 would have already hit cinemas.
I don’t know that this is a model that would work, but as the post says, what we have now isn’t working. And they need to try something, even if it’s wrong.
Thanks again for the comment, Dan.
Programming exists entirely to sell advertising space, and space at the highest rate possible. Viewership that fast forwards through commercials and never purchases any products are useless to TV execs. If you want to make a difference, don’t write and complain to syfy about their programming, talk to the marketers of product xyz that advertises during your favorite show. Purchase xyz, send the marketers of xyz a gushing letter about how you think it is a miracle product, and by the way you saw the commercial during your favorite show. Follow the money. It’s not about the programming, what matters is how many products people buy. Programming is expensive to produce, and tv stations don’t exist to entertain people with fascinating story lines and great acting. They exist to sell you things that you didn’t even know that you needed…
(disclaimer: I’m sick so this might be a little wind-y, not blowing but curving)
I’ve never watched Caprica, mostly because I was never a BSG fan at all, but the point you’re making is exactly one we’ve been saying since we got our first DVR, oh gods, like 7 years ago?
DVR views should count. There needs to be more acceptable product placement (but not cheesy–I don’t need a Wayne’s World), or better use of their 1/4 of the fucking screen during-the-show adverts. We should be able to download copies from the network sites (I’d even pay a reduced rate for that).
However, they should never take away my ability to not watch commercials. That’s why I pay the extra amount to my cable company–the ability to skip through commercials. It wouldn’t be SO bad if they didn’t repeat the SAME comercials several times during the same show, sometimes even back to back, but in doing so the advertising companies tell us that they do purposely insult our intellegence. The entire advertising through commercials market has been going downhill for a WHILE now and they need to pick it up some other way (I liked the whole idea of Hulu with the 2 30 second commercials, that I could deal with–but not when I have to try to scrub through the episode and have to watch the same commercial 4 times until I find my spot). In this click-on-it-now society, taking away the ability for us instant gratification generationers to control our viewing pleasure is just asking for anger and piracy (and piracy is so easy my technologically illiterate aunt figured out how to do it, if she can, a poodle can, god love her).
With all of that said, I love my Moxi. I tell it I want to record a particular show, by title, and only the first run of that show and so long as it’s on the same channel, it doesn’t care what day or timeslot it moves to, or even how long it is–as in the case of that Justice Society Smallville 2 parter. It just KNOWS.
My question is what percentage of households actually own a DVR. My google-fu says 30-60% (big difference)–so with that said, if television networks found better ways to advertise in the shows themselves–bottom of the screen, product placement, etc.–they would probably make more money by continuing to first-run lower rated, lower the budget shows in the wee hours than the stupid infomercials that they currently run. More people would probably ACTUALLY watch their programming–not just the bored insomniacs.
@Widge: I think that is also a brilliant damn idea, and I don’t know why they couldn’t implement Both. On the extreme end of this, I would also pay for a la carte programming choices, but that’d take a whole different kind of TV infrastructure.
@Cailement: All great points, and I think that this, too, could work really well.
Also, try advertisers paying a premium to populate a show’s world with (*Gasp*) real products. Not showcased, not the only product in a store, but distributed like a real world market. Questions flow hot and heavy from this (what if a character needs to grab a soda/beer/sandwich? Which do they grab) and the answer could be “which ever pays more.” But we don’t do a long close-up shot of the character drinking/eating/driving that sandwich, they just grab it, and go.
Again, whole different thing, there.
@Joy: While that can definitely work, I think that the model requires an appeal to too many sources to make it manageable. In some cases. For instance, though many major advertisers have ceased running ads on Glenn Beck’s show, he’s still on the air, because he’s still making More Money From His Other Ads.
I think it’s a great tactic to ad to the (ever growing, because of this discussion) arsenal, but I think it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll ever care a whit about your letter. That’s down to how they run their company, more than anything, and that’s a whole different business ethics discussion.