What's the logic (if any) behind television broadcast programming?

After reading this thread and thinking about Babylon 5 and other sci-fi shows in this other thread, and realized that there seems to be some real head-scratcher decisions being made with regard to television programming in terms of what is shown, when it’s shown and how often.

Part of me wants to believe that they have a huge database of viewer information, and use sophisticated data mining techniques and statistical modeling programs to optimize the channel’s lineup for maximum advertising revenue, and that the seemingly strange programming decisions we see sometimes are a consequence of that.

The cynical part of me thinks that there are a bunch of Hummer-driving douchebags with slicked-back hair and serious tans in March in a room somewhere deciding where shows should go based on faulty logic and bandwagon thinking.

I mean, counterprogramming seems like a somewhat retarded idea to me- too frequently they take a good show that’s doing halfway decently against some behemoth on another network, and move it to the TV horse latitudes where it is becalmed until they cancel it, so they can show some idiotic reality show opposite the behemoth in hopes of stealing some of the other network’s thunder.

It’s almost like they don’t understand market segmentation that well, or the advertisers’ market segmentation is totally driving everything (which is cart-before-the-horse, IMO).

Then, you have network “execs” deciding that a show needs things… despite whoever the writers / visionaries are probably knowing their audience better than these chumps do. (see Babylon 5 & Firefly for examples). I sort of doubt that some suited goon at Fox really knew what was better for Firefly than Whedon did.

Is this the case, or am I just ignorant about how this works?

Yes, they’re all idiots. Isn’t that what you want to hear?

Here’s what you obviously don’t want to hear. Firefly failed because it attracted a tiny audience. This would have been true no matter what time it was on, or what channel, or what Whedon wouldn have written.

Networks need to get x many millions of viewers at particular times. How do they get them? Nobody knows. Nobody can know. You can do all the surveys and focus groups you want and it doesn’t matter. People don’t know whether they like something until after they’ve seen it. And you can’t tell how good or bad a show will be from a pilot, let alone a script.

Networks are different animals from cable. They need more viewers. Lots more viewers. The least-viewed shows on prime time get better audiences than the majority of top-rated cable shows. Networks go for the mass viewership, which means that good niche shows don’t survive. Can’t survive. Not when a rerun of a mass show gets more viewers.

Do the networks know anything about viewers? Sure. They know that viewership is sticky. People do have a tendency to stay with a channel unless given a compelling reason not to. You may argue that you’re not like that or that remotes make it easy to switch or anything else you like. Although the world slowly changes, this remains true for the mass audience. Why did Leno fail at ten o’clock? He got exactly the ratings he was supposed to. But too many people watching the other channels kept those on when watching the eleven o’clock news. That hasn’t changed since the days of Milton Berle.

Same with counterprogramming. You may have a DVR. The majority of people still don’t, or don’t use them, or don’t use them enough. Counterprogramming still works because the mass audience still has these old habits. Maybe they’ll be gone in another generation, but networks have to program for today.

Mass programming and mass advertising start from scratch with each program and each commercial. You can make guesses about how the mass audience will respond, but you can’t know because each is a new thing in the world. Game shows worked great… until they suddenly failed. Variety shows were dynamite… until you couldn’t force people to watch them at gunpoint. Serial shows were the future… until they died. The audience always is somewhere else.

And Firefly wasn’t very good to begin with.

The Marx Brothers sucked.

You’re speaking heresy. (Although personally, I was not terribly excited about that series.)

Mostly the numbers drive the game. Sometime strategic decisions are made, for instance they might know something is cancelled before the information is made public, and then move the show out of prime to make room for something that they want around for a while. But I think it’s mostly the numbers. It’s not about knowing the audience, it’s about how big the audience is.

ETA: Delayed in posting. Much more detail in **Exapno’**s post

Regarding AMC, their shows are hugely popular on DVD. So they limit the number of times they show reruns so that people are more intrigued to purchase the DVD and they make loads of cash on very little investment (at that point).

But when the episodes are new, they run them all the time to hook people in to get them to buy the DVDs of episodes they missed or the current season in its eventual DVD release.

Hogwash. The great outrage over Firefly is that we have no idea how it would have fared if it wasn’t unceremoniously dumped into a timeslot that has been literal death for dozens of shows before it.

The X-Files had just ended a few months before, why Fox didn’t put Firefly in its Sunday at 9 timeslot to continue the sci-fi tradition (and possible ratings gold) is a mystery to this day.

I don’t know why Joss Whedon doesn’t work on Cable shows. He seems ideally suited to the more experimental, forgiving, and smaller, audience demographic that they provide.

The potential audience of a new show will be considered larger then the small audience of an existing show. I didn’t make up the logic, that’s just the way they think. A show that doesn’t shoot up in the ratings from the outset is considered a failure. Offhand, Cheers is the only show I can think of that bucked that trend and remained on the air following a disappointing start. Considering the much smaller audiences now because of the plethora of channels, Firefly must have had dismal ratings.

He hates cable budgets.

Because Animation Domination (aka The Simpons and 90 minutes of Seth McFarlane making the Fox execs pay for cancelling Family Guy) is soooo much better.

Actually, Fox ran an hour of Malcolm in the Middle at the 9 PM hour back then. Which just makse the whole thing more baffling.

Because science fiction historically is scheduled on Fridays.

The X-Files originally ran on Friday night itself. It earned the right to be in the Sunday lineup by becoming a major hit. Firefly didn’t. If it had gotten the ratings, it would have been moved to Sunday, but you don’t put an untried SF series on the top viewing night, especially given the dismal record of SF TV series over the years. I liked Firefly, but even given optimum conditions, it was unlikely to get the mass appeal needed for a network success.

Blaming Fox for Firefly is just blaming the messenger. The show got poor ratings and I seriously doubt that under optimum conditions it would have been all that much better. The audience for Malcolm in the Middle (which would have been the lead in assuming a swap for The X Files on Sunday) was not going to stick around for Firefly no matter what you did, and it would just have been cancelled that much sooner (The Grubbs, which filled the 9:30 slot – Malcolm was a 9:00 – didn’t live beyond two episodes; Firefly would have had the same fate).

Try again.

Before Firefly:
Dark Angel - Tuesday
Buffy - Monday, Tuesday
Angel - Tuesday, Wednesday, Monday
Smallville - Tuesday
Roswell - Wednesday, Monday
Star Trek Enterprise - Wednesday

After Firefly:
Tru Calling - Thursday
Heroes - Monday
Supernatural - Tuesday
Lost - Wednesday
V - Wednesday, Tuesday
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Tuesday

The thing I don’t get is the way ratings for individual episodes are linked to the quality of the episode itself. With the exception of ‘big event’ episodes (premieres, finales, stunt casting, cliffhanger resolutions), the majority of ratings have nothing at all to do with how much the audience enjoyed that episode. If anything, it reflects on the previous few episodes.

It didn’t help that Fox aired the episodes in a random order either.

Right. Ratings depend on trendlines. The exceptions are for shows that start out performing so awfully that they can’t wait to hope threat they get better.

However, the day of the week does matter. Sunday is the night when more people watch television than any other night. Saturday is least. Didn’t used to be, but today it doesn’t really even exist for the networks. Friday has become the night that is lowest for original programming. You don’t put shows on Sunday unless you except them to have mass audiences. Niche shows die there, because even if their actual numbers may be higher than they would be on Friday, their relative numbers are that much worse.

Firefly is not actually awful. It wasn’t great, either. I stopped watching it for the same reason I stopped watching many other shows that people liked, such as Lost. It didn’t work for me.

There have been lots of good shows that have may have niche audiences but just weren’t right for a network. Firefly fans annoy me because they somehow think they’re different from the fans of the other thousand shows that got canceled for low ratings. Which was better, Firefly or Better Off Ted? One was literally a candidate for the greatest show in its genre and the other was a quirky space western with dumb-looking sets. But they were both far too niche for a network. Nothing could have saved them. Nothing.

Better Off Ted was a quirky space western? And all this time I thought it was Andy Richter Controls the Universe - Take 2.

That pretty much kills any credibility you might have had.

Ah, Firefly fans. Thank you for being so consistent.

In 1973 CBS put All in the Family, MAS*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Bob Newhart Show, and the Carol Burnett Show all on Saturday night one after the other. If only they’d given those shows a chance…