For the third year in a row now, I attended the 2007-2008 season fall preview screenings at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) in New York City. Over a course of two weeks, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, and NBC each get an evening to show four pilots for their new shows. First they give you a modicum of food and free drinks, then cue the shows. In the days to come, I’ll blog about my reactions to these pilots, with my predictions and reactions, but I want to start by reflecting upon how this isn’t television watching in the traditional sense.
First, tickets are free, but one must line up beforehand, and since the food is sparse, if one hopes for some vittles, arriving early is a must. Then the doors open, bags are searched, and you scramble for food and/or drink, mill around, then find a seat. A network exec introduces the shows, then they begin, with approximately 80-120 other people watching with you. No remote control. No ad breaks. The resulting experience is a bizarre mÃ©lange of television, cinema or theatre (the lining up, the getting of tickets, the milling around), and a special exhibition or filmfest screening (the introductions by execs, the location).
This forced me to wonder how the new context messed with my expectations. Some of these shows would be fine if I was channel-flipping and landed on them, but as shows that I fought my way through Manhattan rush hour pedestrian traffic for, then lined up to see, the bar is raised higher, and I need more to justify my efforts than I do when simply twitching my thumb on the channel up or down button on my remote. Moreover, the filmfest feel of the event teases me into expecting either high quality or experimental work, and thus numerous shows face added expectations that I’d imagine are not common for television viewership.
The lack of a remote control is disconcerting too. Take the procedurals or reality shows, for instance: I rarely watch an entire episode of either while at home, since I tend to watch them in concert with other shows. And at this level, I find Law and Order, CSI, and their various iterations, or Hell’s Kitchen, America’s Next Top Model, and their various iterations all fairly enjoyable or at least not unenjoyable. But deprived of my magic wand here, many of the procedurals such as Life began to drag, while the reality shows such as Kitchen Nightmares seemed too excessive, in need of watering down. The experience of watching such shows thus rendered clear to me how many television shows are better when watched alongside other shows. Last year, for instance, when Heroes and 24 went toe to toe, their ad breaks rarely matched each other, and I enjoyed watching both at the same time more than watching either by itself: each show’s individual problems bothered me less when part of a viewing miasma.
And speaking of miasmas and of televisual flow, the previews’ lack of ads also changes the nature of the product. When I lived in England, I loved 24, partly because of the sheer adrenaline it demanded, with 45 continuous minutes of action when played on the BBC devoid of advertising. With ads, and while watching in America, the show lost some of its appeal: I could now take a breather, and I could debrief scenes with my wife, rather than hurtle ever forward with the narrative. Watching the fall previews similarly chains one to a moving train, allowing no breaks or breathers. Personally, I found this hurt the reality shows – an excessive genre by nature, reality seemingly requires time for one to take a break, and time to mock the people with one’s fellow viewers. I sense I’d like Kitchen Nightmares on “regular” television, and might find Nashville slightly less offensive (though probably not: it’s really bad in any viewing context), but KM proved too much for a 45 minute block, while Nashville just made me worry for the future of the human race.
The lack of ads similarly causes problems in genre- and mood-switching between shows. Thus, for instance, after watching Pushing Daisies, complete with its magic realist Amelie-esque vibe and its cavalier, comic treatment of death and murder, the early death of Peter Kraus’ father in Dirty Sexy Money felt more like a prelude to comedy than I’m sure its directors intended. As reflected upon in the above paragraph, watching these previews thus allowed me to greater appreciate not advertising per se, but the artistic purpose of an ad break, and of the benefits of inserting little mindless imageplays inbetween shows or segments to allow those shows to grow or simply to sit in a viewer’s mind.
If the juxtaposition and placement of images and texts and segments is important in and around ad breaks, though, it’s also vital (at least to a non-TiVo-owning sod like me) at the level of schedule. Each night I’ve felt handcuffed to evaluate the shows properly until I get home and see what they’re up against. For instance, I was pleased to see that Chuck (a surprise winner of the previews for me) is up against a bunch of shows I can easily miss, and that included no obvious audience-sapping megalith for its obvious demo of young men (it faces off against Dancing with the Stars, the shark-jumping Prison Break, How I Met Your Mother, and Everybody Hates Chris). Pushing Daisies, however, while another pleasant surprise (though I’m a bit dubious about the concept’s longterm viability) faces harder competition in the aggressively-marketed Kid Nation, America’s Next Top Model, Deal or No Deal, and Back to You.
Certainly, one of the reasons I’ve come to the previews for three years (apart from the free food and drink – itself a powerful lure) is to see them away from the distractions and hard choices of “real” television. On one level, it’s odd that to watch television, I feel I need to leave television. But on another, I therefore wonder how accurately I can evaluate the shows when they are not their normal selves.
Tags: fall previews
, viewing context