Modern TV lacks stability, certainty

Television has had many ups and downs in recent weeks with returns, delays and cancellations, giving way to the widespread instability in modern television programming.

This holds particularly true as Tuesday falls squarely between the long-delayed midseason return of NBC’s gleefully eccentric gang comedy Community and the even longer delayed season five premiere of AMC’s brooding period drama Mad Men.

Five days removed from the first original episode of Community since December and only five days to go until the first original episode of Mad Men in 15 months, by all accounts, this should have been a great month for TV-lovers everywhere.

But the surprise cancellation of Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman and created by legendary television director David Milch, put a real damper on the festivities just one day before Community could resume. HBO announced it was pulling the plug on the cerebral horse racing drama following the third production-related death of a horse on set.

When a vociferous, social media-savvy fan base plays a not-so-insignificant role in wresting a show from the gaping maw of cancellation (as was the case with Community), when embarrassingly public contract negotiations can put a show on hiatus for more than a year and a half (not Mad Men’s finest moment) and something as unexpected as animal casualties can kill a show outright, strung-along fans have to wonder: Is “stability” anything more than a nine-letter word in the world of television today?

All of these shows’ potentially dooming individual problems — ratings struggles, money talks, production complications — are emblematic of a larger trend in which networks seem to be treating shows as disposable commodities rather than projects that can be mended, developed or improved upon with time and attention.

The current industry model prefers no-assembly-required successes to debuts that might require a bit in the way of nurturing. It’s a scary thought, but some of television’s best-loved and longest-running programs — Cheers, M*A*S*H, Murphy Brown, Friends — might not have stood a chance had they premiered in today’s television climate.

Cobbling together a lineup has always been a study in fickle uncertainty, and it’s roundly understood that no programming decision is ever set in stone. Midseason reshufflings of schedules and time slots are common practice. And from a business standpoint, certain decisions, such as cancelling a show midseason and burning off episodes that have already been shot, make sense for the network despite irking audiences.

Though that might be true, recent years have seen unbelievable amounts of programming-related upheaval. Critics and fans alike have lamented the wave of snap cancellations of freshman shows that have yet to hit their stride. For every debut that gets promptly and justifiably pulled from the programming schedule (Charlie’s Angels, The Playboy Club), there’s a show with genuine promise whose execution somehow misses the mark (Pan Am, Terra Nova).

For those not-fully-lost causes, there’s little audiences can do besides root for the show as it limps across the finish line and hope that its season one finale doesn’t become its series finale as well. More and more, networks are growing impatient with debuts that don’t post solid ratings straight out the gate, but that kind of shortsightedness overlooks the importance of letting a fledgling show find its voice.

Community’s obsessively devoted die-hard fans refused to take the show’s indefinite hiatus lying down, instead taking to Facebook, Twitter and Meme Generator to protest and campaign for a timely resumption.

Mobilized audiences are becoming the rule rather than the exception — Community represents the highest profile case of audience activism in recent memory, but it by no means was the first, and it won’t be the last of such cases. Though undying support for the idea of an Arrested Development movie recently buoyed the concept into reality, attributing causality merely to vocal fans would obviously be a gross simplification.

The consequences were undoubtedly dire in regard to Luck’s unfortunate mishaps — three equine deaths in the course of one season of shooting is absolutely inexcusable and clearly indicates a certain amount of negligence on the crew’s part. That aside, the issue itself is  pretty random.

Who would have expected that an HBO original series starring one of the greatest living actors would be put out to pasture because of a high mortality rate for set animals? In retrospect, greater care could and should have been taken with the horses, but it’s hard to treat Luck as a cautionary tale when the circumstances that led to its cancellation are unique to the show.

In short, television today is in a state of chronic uncertainty. Being picked up for another season is never guaranteed, and many a showrunner would be remiss to take even the next episode of his or her show for granted.

In a lot of cases, there’s little that can be done about the pervasive instability that defines contemporary TV programming. Audience members should remember, however, that they vote with their viewership, and no amount of social media campaigning can replace actually tuning in to the shows.

With any luck, these shows might even go on to achieve the lofty, industry-standard goal of six seasons and a movie or, as Community staffer Megan Ganz recently speculated optimistically in an interview with The Daily Beast, “12 seasons and a theme park.”

Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.