Two genre TV shows really broke out of the pack and captured the popular imagination in the past half-decade: Lost and Heroes. They both showed how genre TV can rule the DVR era. What's going to happen when they're gone?
It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Heroes was up there with Lost, and both shows were among the dozen or so most discussed series on television. Heroes' first season was a phenomenon, for similar reasons to Lost's success — a sprawling family drama, dark mysteries and unpredictable characters (like HRG and Clyde).
Both shows managed to thrive, in the era of TiVo, by being watercooler viewing. If you missed the newest episode of Lost or Heroes, you'd have to listen to your coworkers talking about it the next day. The challenge of DVR viewing is especially huge for shows that capture a large nerd audience, probably because nerds are early adopters. I always think it's funny when TV execs tout the large numbers of people who watch their shows via DVR after the fact — sure, it adds to the overall number of viewers. But when genre shows have large numbers of late DVR viewers, that's not good news. It means those shows aren't addictive enough to be same-night viewing.
(And also, of course, the "watercooler" thing is probably way less effective for shows that air on Friday nights, in which case you have until Monday to watch them, even assuming your coworkers are going to talk about them anyway.)
In the past half dozen years, a lot of other shows have had strong opening weeks — followed by sharp drop-offs. I've argued before that science fiction movies and TV shows show the same pattern, in fact. A blockbuster opening weekend, fueled by buzz and spectacle, and then catastrophic drops in successive weeks. SF shows with record-breaking huge pilot ratings have included Bionic Woman, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, FlashForward and V. Pilot episodes tend to be mini-movies, too, directed by actual film directors or hired-gun pilot directors, and featuring huge special effects budgets. It's always a bit of a letdown when a show settles into its normal pattern of smaller-scale adventures, after a huge blockbuster pilot.
By contrast, Heroes started off with 14 million viewers, and then actually built up to 16 million viewers over the course of the fall. By the time its first season finale aired, it had softened slightly, but still managed to score close to 14 million viewers. Season two bowed to nearly 17 million viewers and managed to hold on to 11 million of them.
And Lost launched with nearly 19 million viewers, garnering 23.5 million viewers for its second season premiere. As recently as season four, it was garnering 17 million viewers, and the final season premiere won an impressive 14 million viewers.
With both these shows gone, there'll be no model on television for how a science-fiction show can gain a mass audience and sustain it over weeks and years.
So how did Lost and Heroes buck the trend and convince those 17 million Americans they were must-watch TV? A few things suggest themselves: They're both shows about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. They don't try to adapt the "police procedural/CSI" model to science fiction — as so many other shows have tried to do. The characters aren't experts, and in fact they usually know less than the audience does. (I think this might be key for the "water cooler" factor, actually.)
Instead, both shows are what you might call "paranormal soap operas." (I'm using the word "paranormal" loosely here.) As I mentioned above, there are sprawling family sagas in both shows — in fact, they both feature a blonde illegitimate daughter who unknowingly meets her bio-dad's family. There are also mysteries within mysteries — remember when we were dead curious about the shadowy "Linderman" on Heroes, before we found out it was just Malcolm McDowell being campy? — and characters whose allegiances were unclear.
The tone and composition of the shows varied a lot — Lost was a good deal darker and more literary than Heroes turned out to be, and tough guys like Jack, Sawyer and Locke turned out to be a lot more watchable than the mom-obsessed Petrelli boys. But it does seem significant that the two most successful SF shows of the past six years follow a soap-opera model. You can see why, with the success of shows like CSI, the idea of a CSI-X-Files hybrid might have felt like a no-brainer. But in practice, it seems like TV audiences only want to watch experts at work in a few very specific contexts, like hospitals and crime labs.
So what will the post-Lost/Heroes era look like? We posted a list of 18 upcoming shows that could be the next big thing, but many people seem to think it'll be a bit of a wasteland. In any case, the end of Lost, in particular, will leave a huge vacuum. At some point, the wheel will turn again and one of the "big four" broadcast networks will be willing to take a chance on another potential juggernaut.
What will the next Lost or Heroes look like? It's always hard to predict these things, of course. But there are a few possibilities:
1) Another sticky soap opera about ordinary people to whom weird shit happens. I'm racking my brains — has anybody actually launched a show that meets this description since Lost and Heroes? I guess FlashForward tried to do that — but the soap-opera elements have felt like weak tea, and "FBI agents investigating weird shit" isn't really the same as "ordinary people who get swept up in weird shit."
2) A show about a single ordinary person who gets swept into an extraordinary world could also work. But I feel like Bionic Woman met that description, and the new Jaime Sommers wound up just feeling like a tool of the mysterious organization, and she also stopped feeling like an ordinary person pretty quickly. I would imagine that's a peril of the "single ordinary person in an extraordinary world" format.
3) Something that capitalizes on the success of the other geek-oriented show to build an audience in recent years: The Big Bang Theory. From around 8 million viewers in its first season and 10 million in its second, the nerd-comedy show has been getting up to 16 million viewers lately. If someone finds a way to do a version of Big Bang that includes more overtly science-fictional elements mixed in with the nerd humor, it could be equally huge.
There's one thing that won't give us the next mega-hit, I feel confident in saying: A show about FBI agents investigating stuff. If a duo of FBI agents were going to be the next Jack Shephard and John Locke, then it would have happened by now. And if the "CSI-meets-X-Files" thing was going to bear fruit, then Fringe, a truly excellent show, would be getting 15 million viewers a week.
But it's entirely likely the next huge genre mega-success on television will be just as unexpected and hard to predict as Lost and Heroes both were. Let's hope it's as great as both shows were in their heyday. - Charlie Jane Anders