Sunday, 14 July 2013

Sharknado: What the hell happened to television?

When I was planning this blog I thought I should limit myself to one negative post per month. I want the content on here to be mostly positive, a celebration, a place to inspire instead of bemoan. I find it all too easy to be negative - it’s kind of my default setting - and I thought I should instead challenge myself to focus on the good things.

Then Sharknado happened and I thought to hell with that.

And so here is me complaining for a while.

First I should mention that I have not seen Sharknado, nor do I plan to ever witness it. It seems like the kind of television which could be used to torture me if I ever come into contact with government secrets. I have a rule against criticising things I haven’t seen. I try very hard not to do it, to the extent that I sat through the first two High School Musicals and the first Twilight movie just so I could complain about them legitimately. This post isn’t really about Sharknado. It’s about what it represents, which is a general decline in quality programming on network television (by which I mean general channels funded by advertising, excluding subscription based channels like HBO and Showtime).

It’s easy to forget that SyFy Channel used to be the home of quality genre programming when you look at its productions today. This used to be the channel which gave us Battlestar Galactica, aired Farscape in the US and, more recently made Alphas, Warehouse 13 and Eureka. Now it seems to be mostly populated with reality television and for some bizarre reason WWE wrestling. Currently, the only fictional programming SyFy actually makes itself is Defiance, Haven, Being Human US and Warehouse 13 (which ends next season). If you discount the recently cancelled WH13 and the remake of the British series (and therefore not an original concept) Being Human US, that leaves SyFy with only two original fictional programmes to call its own.  For a television channel which claims to be for science fiction and fantasy shows, having only two original scripted series on your schedule seems a little ridiculous. How can SyFy still claim to show genre programming when the vast majority of its schedule is taken up by reality television? Science fiction and fantasy are as far away from reality as you can get so why focus on reality shows instead of putting effort into new fictional ideas which actually fit your remit? The reason behind this inane decision is, as it always seems to be with television and life in general, money. It’s simply cheaper to make crap reality shows like Ghost Hunters than invest in developing new scripted show ideas. Making reality TV doesn’t involve a team of writers or a long development process, you don’t have to hire actors or, as this is SyFy Channel after all, pay for special effects. It’s cheaper and easier to make crap so networks go that route instead.

It has pretty much always been this way. It’s always been cheaper to make something bad than it is to make sure your finished product is decent quality. Shitty writers don’t need to be paid as much as good ones – or will be more likely to accept a lower wage – crap actors are the same. You don’t need to spend as much on post-production if you don’t care about something looking good on screen. However TV didn’t used to be quite as full of crap shows as it is today, or at least it didn’t seem that way. If it’s always been cheaper to do a bad job, why didn’t networks do this all before? Why did they bother investing money into something good? I think it has to do with the amount of respect a network has for its audience. Back in the golden age of TV whenever that was, reports differ; networks respected their audiences enough to assume they’d just stop watching if the product they delivered wasn’t good enough. The networks were there to serve their audiences and give them quality programming lest they defer to another channel or just switch off altogether and go read a book instead. They expected their viewers to be intelligent, active participants who wanted good TV. This is especially true of the BBC, which is funded by the taxpayer in the UK so had to make sure it was worth the price of the license fee. Networks were at the behest of the viewer, we had the control because they assumed us to be discerning. This, it seems, is no longer the case.

When the craze of reality TV set in, around the introduction of Big Brother in the year 2000, the networks realised they’d overestimated the vast majority of the viewing public. If 4.5 million people would tune in to watch average people live in a house for nine weeks with no script, basic camera work largely done automatically, no real sound design and only editing for the highlights shows, why the hell should they continue trying so hard to make good scripted TV? Why should they pay out money to make quality programming when Channel 4 were getting mega-ratings from cheaply made footage of random people sleeping? Big Brother showed just how stupid we all really are and the networks realised this. So they stopped trying, they stopped respecting their audience and started making crap. And we watched it. Wife Swap, Jeremy Kyle, The Hills. People watched these shows in droves. People tuned in week after week to see constructed “real life” drama which cost the networks a fraction of the price of a scripted show. At least for a while anyway. Then the faze was over, we’d all gotten over seeing average Joes on our screens and were bored of it. The curtain had been pulled back and we’d realised what we were seeing on television wasn’t really reality at all, channels started having to read out disclaimers before reality shows explaining “some scenes have been created for entertainment purposes”. We were all kind of done with reality TV. It wasn’t cool anymore, it wasn’t new. Now it resides as guilty pleasure viewing – we sit watching Real Housewives with the furtive shame of a meth addict getting our fix of schadenfreude for the week. It’s not water cooler talk anymore, at least not with people whose opinions you value anyway. We’ve moved on to greener, more intelligent pastures now. We talk about Game of Thrones, Scandal and Girls. We’re interested in programmes which challenge us, both intellectually and socially, which make us question our ideas about life and society and which require concentration to enjoy. We binge watch, we watch communally and tweet each other in the ad breaks. We’re proud that we watch this kind of television, proud we understand and value the artistry and happy we get to discuss it with others at the click of a button.

But the thing is network television doesn’t seem to have caught up yet. Two out of the three shows I just mentioned are on HBO, a subscription based channel which doesn’t have to rely on adverts for its funding. It’s common knowledge that the best television is coming from this type of channel in the US, that the most original shows are being made by HBO, Showtime and the previously non-ad funded AMC. Along with the Netflix phenomenon, it’s become even clearer that people are willing to pay more for better quality TV. The odd thing is that network television seems to be leaving them to it. The networks seem incapable of making good new shows and keep cancelling their decent old ones. NBC is a prime example. Last season marked the end of both 30 Rock and The Office, two of NBC’s most critically acclaimed, if not always well watched shows. They shortened Community’s run to only 13 episodes, both for the woeful Dan Harmon-less fourth season and the shock renewal upcoming fifth season with Harmon back as showrunner. The only comedy they renewed fully last season from its previous golden Thursday-night-is-comedy-night schedule was Parks and Recreation. Instead they packed their rota with new comedy shows like Animal Practice, Guys With Kids and 1600 Penn, none of which made it past their first season. NBC also cancelled the Matthew Perry led comedy Go On, which seemed to be its only real critical success from the last season, because of less than stellar ratings. Any sensible television fan with an ounce of taste could see this coming a mile off. The promos for NBC’s new comedies reeked of mediocre half-assery. They all looked so terrible and clich├ęd that they ended up fitting the description given by Kenneth Parcell in the last season of 30 Rock of how television comedy should be – where a man looks at his dog and says “Don’t even say it!”. You can almost imagine the pitch for Animal Practice being something like “See it’s funny cuz there’s a monkey. Monkeys are funny right?” Annie’s Boobs was far too good for that show anyway.

It was glaringly obvious that NBC had become fed up of being the channel critics raved about that got left out of the ratings race. They didn’t like their reputation as the home of intellectual, irreverent comedy that only garnered a niche audience so they catered for the lowest common denominator instead, hoping to entice the idiots away from The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. The very fact that these two shows, and Chuck Lorre himself are still so successful, shows just how far the stupid vote will get you in television nowadays. I mean in a world where Rules of Engagement is still getting made, what hope is there that TV will smarten itself up again? It seems with comedy, the masses appreciate a laugh track. The fact that crap comedy still gets made annoys me immensely on its own. I happen to think that television airtime should be reserved for shows of merit, you should have to work hard to get your show on the air, you should have talent. Getting a show commissioned should be an achievement for good work. However I’d be much less annoyed at the presence of the bad comedies if it weren’t for the fact that they’re destroying the good ones. Community’s fourth season was terrible because NBC fired Dan Harmon. NBC fired Dan Harmon because he wouldn’t make his show more ratings friendly (and because they valued Chevy Chase more than him). NBC wanted Community to be more ratings friendly because The Big Bang Theory aired at the same time and so many people watched that instead. I wouldn’t mind if the shit stuff just stayed quietly in the background, being watched by perpetually high stoners or drunk people, and of course the idiots – but it doesn’t, people watch it, a lot of people watch it. This means that networks renew bad television, shows which people watch half-heartedly, stuff viewers have on in the background because it’s dumb and doesn’t require too much attention. They see the good ratings and renew the crap, they see the mediocre ratings and cancel the good stuff. Bad comedies on television mean that good comedies get cancelled, like Happy Endings and Go On, or changed beyond recognition like Community’s season four. Good comedies getting cancelled means that networks stop making good comedies, they stop trying so hard and do a botched job because they think audiences will lap it up like they do anything that Chuck Lorre makes (I really hate Chuck Lorre). They stop respecting their audience and they stop trying to impress us.

Which brings me to Sharknado and the SyFy Channel. For the past few years SyFy had been developing a trifecta of shows which all shared the same universe. First there was (A Town Called) Eureka, then Warehouse 13 and later Alphas. The common universe was more obvious in Eureka and Warehouse because of their crossover episodes but minor characters from WH13 appeared in Alphas for the eagle eyed viewer to spot. This seemed to be a plan by the channel to build up this shared universe and further tie together the three shows’ mythologies. It was an ambitious and impressive idea, to have three programmes running simultaneously whose storylines could intertwine at any moment and whose characters could appear anywhere in the three series. It also seemed like a clever move by SyFy to attract more viewers to its scripted shows. If you watched Eureka, you should watch Warehouse 13 too because there’s a crossover episode and you’ll understand more of the universe it’s set in. If you watch Eureka and Warehouse you’ll want to watch Alphas too because its storyline might shed light on something in the other two shows. It was a canny way of cross advertising the network’s new content and reduced some of the inherent risk involved when taking on a new original project. But then something went wrong. I was watching all three shows, hoping for something big to happen which explained their connections, when I heard that Eureka had been cancelled. It baffled me seen as they’d just introduced a WH13 character into Alphas and confirmed it too shared the same universe. Why put so much work into that idea and then cancel the show that started it all off? SyFy then cancelled Alphas after only one season leaving them left with only Warehouse 13 from its common universe trilogy. In the past month it was announced that Warehouse 13 is too going to end after its next, fifth truncated season, meaning the ambitious and impressive idea never reached its potential and was essentially a waste of time. 

I enjoyed all three of those shows. They were by no means perfect and both Eureka and WH13 suffered from their family friendly vibes, but the characters were good and I cared about what happened to them. Alphas was an interesting take on the superhero genre and I was looking forward to where it went. Considering again, that this was the network that brought us Battlestar Galactica and was clearly at a time capable of great, adult storytelling, Alphas –the most adult of the three – could have developed into something great. So why cancel? Warehouse 13 especially was SyFy’s most watched show for most of its run and both Eureka and Alphas had their devoted fanbases – Eureka being a geek haven with its guest starring roles for Felicia Day and Will Wheaton. SyFy claimed it was money issues, as they would – that they couldn’t afford such expensive programming when it wasn’t bringing in as many viewers as the other channels. It seems a shame to me that so many networks compete against other channels in the ratings instead of competing with themselves. Surely you want to retain your loyal fanbase more than you want to poach new viewers who probably aren’t interested in your content anyway. This seems especially relevant to SyFy Channel seen as they have always been aimed at a niche, cult audience and would surely be aware that they were never going to beat out the broader ranging channels like CBS or Fox. This brings me again to the fact that SyFy aren’t even really making Sci-Fi anymore – hence the ridiculous name change. They have Defiance and they have Haven but they hardly reach the heights of say Fringe or The Walking Dead. When broader channels are making better niche TV than the channel dedicated to that niche there’s a serious problem and that problem is this: SyFy just doesn’t care about being good anymore.

Sharknado (I hate having to type that so much) is just the latest in the line of the crappy B movie type creature features that SyFy Channel thinks are more worthy of their investment than decent scripted shows like Alphas or Warehouse 13. It follows such classics as Sharktopus, Piranhaconda and Mansquito. These films are actively made to be terrible. That’s their supposed appeal – that they’re bad and everyone knows it. Originally B movies played before the main feature, they were made very cheaply and so were often of bad quality and featured ropey special effects. The appeal of B movies now is their nostalgia, seeing old techniques in filmmaking, laughing at what once was and recognising how far we’ve come. SyFy doesn’t seem to get this, it thinks that people like laughing at badly made films so they’ll make something terrible and people will enjoy it. They get viewers on the cheap and everyone’s happy. But for me it stops being funny once someone actively tries to make something bad. SyFy are investing millions of dollars into purposefully making a lot of awful films instead of trying to bolster their original series slate and make something decent. To me this shows an utter lack of respect for both the medium and the audience. To spend that much time and money to churn out something shitty that people might tune in and watch for a laugh at its poor quality and never watch again seems almost sacrilegious to a medium that’s close to my heart.

It’s a waste of both money and airtime but more importantly it’s disrespectful. Sharknado says SyFy channel thinks you are stupid and you watching it just proves them right. “But I’m watching it because it’s stupid!”, “It’s entertaining because I know it’s bad!” The problem is Neilson ratings don’t measure your intention. They don’t measure how much of a show you can remember, whether you’ll buy it on DVD or how many times you’ll re-watch afterwards. Neilson doesn’t know that you’re watching Sharknado ironically, it just knows you’re watching it. So SyFy gets its ratings for a change. It sees everyone tweeting about their shitty movie and it’s happy it’s trending, it doesn’t care that everyone’s taking the piss out of what they’ve made because that’s what they’ve made it for. Sharknado was everywhere last week, it’ll be forgotten by next, but SyFy will remember the publicity and they’ll remember the ratings and they’ll know once again that they can make bad TV and still get an audience.

Until audiences start demanding better television, and start voting with their remotes, it seems we’re destined to a wasteland of actively terrible network TV. Things won’t change unless we start changing them, and quality TV will continue to be solely available to those who can afford it.


  1. Excellent post! I didn't know about the shared universe idea, and now I'm frustrated and disappointed that SyFy seems to have scrapped it.

    Good point about FOX and Fringe.

    What do you think about original series from Hulu or Netflix? Any potential there for quality programming that respects its audience?

    1. I think subscription channels and mediums like Netflix are the only places where you can consistently find good quality television right now. The problem is that a subscription to HBO, Hulu or Netflix costs money, so some people are basically being priced out of quality programming.

  2. Greetings:

    My name is Garrett Miller and I work for 1World Online, a public opinion research startup based in San Jose, CA.

    We are planning a poll to run on our website/mobile app, asking if people think the quality of TV programming has declined in recent years, and would like to feature an excerpt from your blog post:

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    Please let me know if you are interested, or if you have any more questions regarding our service. In the meantime, feel free to explore our site,


    Garrett Miller,
    Content Editor
    1World Online, Inc.

    1. Hi,

      That would be great thank you. I'm glad you think it worthy.

      Jasmin Billinghay
      The Second Screen