My father was a risk analyst. He wrote software to help understand it, and spent a lot of his time trying to make sure people really were minimizing risk in important parts of life, like medicine, nuclear power, and safe disposal of weapons. He also loved baseball and the way you could study the statistics of people to understand their strengths and weaknesses.
As a 3rd generation Cleveland Baseball fan, my father was passionate about our wayward, perennially cursed, team. The last time Cleveland went to the World Series (2016, they lost) we had a lively discussion on statistics, streaks, and a concept called ‘hot hands.’ My father was firmly in the camp of “there is no such thing as a lucky streak.” His reasoning was that humans bely statistics and cannot be measured by math alone.
To outsiders, the concept of someone who believes you can calculate risk, but simultaneously believes that humans defy expectations, can seem like a contradiction. For me, though, growing up with math and humanity as a regular meal conversation, it makes logical sense. Risk isn’t just math! It’s the application of math to attempt to predict human nature. The fallacy in stats (specifically the ones Five-ThirtyEight used back in 2016 at least) is that they ONLY looked at the math and did not properly apply the humanity factor.
What is Risky about TV?
The obvious answer here is that the risky aspect of television is the risk of absolute failure. If a show sucks, it will cost money, could lose advertisers, and result in the demise of a channel. But that’s a consequence. To understand the risk that engenders that consequence, you have to understand what risk really is in the first place.
Overall, risk is boiled down to three questions:
- What can go wrong?
- How likely is it that it will happen?
- If it does happen, what are the consequences?
At it’s heart, everyone can look at that and go “Okay, that’s not really hard to understand!”
Let’s take a TV show for an example. The first thing you do when you have a new TV show on order (say for a pilot of some sort) is you think ‘what can go wrong?’
- The show is a great success, everyone loves it
- The show is good, solid, entertainment
- The show is fine, but not appointment TV
- The show is a failure
- The show is mediocre
- The show bombs, everyone hates it
Those are basically the top 6 things people think of. There are of course more (like ‘it has incredibly bad timing and has an episode about a school shooting the day after a real life one happened’ which is actually something that happened to Buffy and resulted in a postponement and amendment), but we can stick to the primary ones.
I’m going to skip the second for a moment because the third is easier to wrap a head around.
If a show is great or decent, it’s probably getting second seasons. If a show bombs or fails, it may not finish the existing season. Mediocre is a bubble.
But how on early do you figure out how likely it is?!
Can You Predict A Win?
Television is a lot like baseball, in that the human component looms large.
Much like our show scores, understanding the probability for success of a TV show relies on the human equation and ‘feelings.’ Unlike the probability of something like an engine failing (which can be made based on driving distance, engine design, driving ‘styles,’ and physical locations), predicting a show that will be beloved has to take on the reality that you have to know exactly who you’re making a show for, and what they want.
But it’s more than just that, because you cannot make a show just for one small slice of the world. Not anymore.
If you asked the queer community, A League of Their Own is an unmitigated success. It’s a brilliant story told in an engaging way with a fantastic cast, brilliant writing, and wonderful costumes. That was a story made for queers, by queers, with our deepest wants at heart on so many levels.
Looking at that, you can see that it’s women who love this show. That really makes sense, since you can count the significant male characters on two hands. Maybe even one. The ratings aren’t particularly bad with regards to men, but there’s a gulf between a 6.1 rated show (mediocre) and an 8.4 (solid success, possibly great). And with the average as a 7.5 … Now Amazon has a big decision.
Less Risk = More Money
If there’s anything we can take from looking at the demise of the CW or HBO, it’s that the ultimate line for any studio or network is money.
CW never made a profit (yeah I know), produced a number of shows that overall are mediocre, but in their slices of fandom hugely popular, and when the time came to sell, the highly queer content was the first to be publicly canceled even though one of those shows was their most popular (Legends). Why? Well Legends was also the most expensive, apparently. Not just in terms of SFX, the show was expensive because of the cast. It had a huge cast, some of whom were long term on CW and negotiated for a higher contract (which frankly they should), and a tonne of extras.
HBO on the other hand, I feel that’s a pretty clear case of massive mismanagement and greed. They picked the shows they felt were the most risk to their target audience (people with money…) and dropped them. Kids don’t have money, but selling toys for a kids show is where the money comes from for most animated series, and the ones canceled … well they don’t really sell much. While a lot of adults watch adult cartoons, again there wasn’t a lot of money. Adult cartoons are hard.
But HBO specifically in their merge with Discovery are moving to a specific audience who doesn’t really watch cartoons or even scripted TV at all, so they culled everything that didn’t fit with that mold. Hence the removal (yes!) of Westworld from their catalog entirely! Admittedly, Westworld is an expensive show (SFX and cast and sets), which likely also factored in, but it really is painful to people who want to watch scripted television!
Less Risk = Boring Stories
The other way to think about this, though, is how utterly boring most riskless stories are.
Take the various Law & Order shows in mind. The longest running of those is the one that takes the most risks in stories that slice into you and remind you of the fragility of life and the depravity of humanity (SVU). It’s incredibly predictable, though, no matter how you look at it. This isn’t a bad thing. Most sitcoms rely heavily on tropes and predictability. How many times have you seen a ‘simple misunderstanding’ on a sitcom result in hilarity?
But it’s not the predictability that makes anything boring. If the story is well told, then it doesn’t matter how many times you watch a ‘girl meets girl, girl misunderstands girl, girl apologizes to girl, girl kisses girl’ story. A League of Their Own even falls into that a little. Since it’s well told, with a few novel wrappings around the story, we love it.
Regrettably, the novel wrappings are the risk. For ALoTO the novel wrapping is a heretofore rarely told queer story. And the queer is a risk, not because of anything other than fear and distrust. A more boring story would have been renewed already, even given the cost of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. (To be clear here, RoP is boring because it’s predictable and stays in the lines without any novelty. Aloof elf and single mother? From the first scene you know where that one’s going.)
Less Risk = Less Success
And where I’m going here … the less risky you are with a story, the less success.
Rings of Power has been renewed, but it’s a 6.9 with IMDb and 38% on Rotten Tomatoes. But even at cost, it’s low risk. It doesn’t really run a chance to offend anyone (except Tolkien fans). Similarly if you look at The Witcher: Blood Origin, it’s kind of … meh. Sure it has a great lesbian dwarf, but it’s a remarkably generic adventure story. If they hadn’t put “The Witcher” in front, it could have been practically anywhere.
Thus my summary is that the decline of quality TV is directly related to the risk aversion people have with regards to new content. Or to put it another, they’ve tried nothing and are shocked nothing’s changed.
My advice is to take risks. Make quality TV that tells a story in a new way. Give us new stories with new types of characters. Even if it’s in old situations, if you tell it well we will watch.
Here’s hoping people start to give their creatives freedom again, because otherwise the future of TV is dullsville, population us.