Viewers, TV execs driven by distractions

Laura Innes is one of the stars of The Event, an NBC drama with a lot of plot twists. It isn't expected to return for a second season.
Laura Innes is one of the stars of The Event, an NBC drama with a lot of plot twists. It isn't expected to return for a second season. Jordin Althaus/NBC

LOS ANGELES — James Wong knew he was in trouble when his own daughter turned on him.

The co-executive producer of The Event, an NBC drama about the repercussions of a government cover-up of an alien landing, was watching an episode with her when she yelled in frustration about all the flashbacks the show employed to tell its story.

"She stormed out of the room and never watched the show again," Wong said, l aughing.

She wasn't the only one. Many tired of having to pay such close attention to all the plot twists in The Event. "I kept hearing, 'After a hard day's work I don't want to have to think,'" Wong said. The show premiered to almost 11 million viewers, but last week's episode had less than half that, and The Event probably won't make it to a Season 2.

The sci-fi show wasn't the only new drama to struggle this season. Of the 22 dramas that have premiered on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW, only five are likely to make it to a sophomore year.

Networks will present their fall lineups to advertisers this week at a series of events called "upfronts."

Part of the problem, producers say, is that digital-age audiences don't focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the highway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

"Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs," said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery Castle. "If you don't capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don't have a chance."

Indeed, research conducted in 2009 by Ball State University's Center for Media Design backs up the theory of the distracted viewer. According to the center, about 20 percent of TV watchers also are playing with computers or other media at the same time. And that study was conducted before the iPad was released and the iPhone really took off. The figure is certainly higher now, said Michael Holmes, the center's director of insight and research.

If a computer or iPad is on, the television quickly becomes "the second-most important screen in the room," Holmes said. "The Internet is a very engaging, interactive medium, so your attention is on that and the television recedes into the background."

The challenge has forced producers to become even more creative in trying to keep viewers engaged. Robert and Michelle King, the married co-creators of CBS's The Good Wife, go with the hostage approach. Typically on The Good Wife, the opening credits and first commercial break don't come until at least eight minutes in, much longer than most shows. Last week's opening act ran 15 minutes.

"When do you want to let people have a bathroom break, one minute into telling them the story or 15 minutes?" said Robert King, who added that the goal is to "get the viewer pregnant with the premise of that episode."

The rise of the multitasking viewer has reminded producers to keep their stories simple.

"If you had to explain the whole season, it wouldn't take you more than a couple of sentences," said Bruno Heller, executive producer of the CBS murder mystery The Mentalist. "Any scene that has to begin with, 'As you know...' or where you have to explain previous events, we avoid."

Viewers with short attention spans aren't the only problem. While cable channels are accustomed to smaller audiences and usually have the patience — and financial wherewithal — to let a program blossom, cash-strapped broadcast network executives often have itchy trigger fingers.

"There is a cynicism that if it is good and complicated, it is going to get canceled," said Ryan. "People don't want to get emotionally involved."

"Network television has to be the Bruce Springsteen, while cable can be Patti Smith," Heller said.

Some cable networks, however, are backing away from the art-house approach. FX canceled Lights Out and Terriers after one season even though critics loved both.

"Three years earlier, FX would have kept both on," said Lights Out executive producer Warren Leight, who added that FX president John Landgraf had told him before his show premiered, "Don't get me Mad Men numbers and Mad Men acclaim, that's not what I need." (AMC's Mad Men is a critical darling but has a relatively small audience.)

The new technologies, which include the DVR and iTunes, present other headaches for networks as well. More than one-third of the audience for NBC's family drama Parenthood tunes into a recorded version of the show. "They know they can watch any time," said the show's executive producer, Jason Katims.

The problem though is that the audience that uses DVRs, iTunes or Hulu isn't nearly as valuable to the network and advertisers as those who watch live because commercials are fast-forwarded, out-of-date or not included.

Even top industry executives sometimes prefer watching on their own schedules.

Said Katherine Pope, a former NBC executive who now oversees the television operations for Chernin Entertainment: "I watched the first two seasons of HBO's The Wire on DVD, and once I caught up, I was annoyed because I didn't want to watch one episode a week, I wanted to watch three or four episodes a night."