When I tell people that I work for a magazine devoted to the business of factual TV programming and film, they almost always remark on how ‘niche’ it seems, even for a niche publication. The irony is, one of the things I enjoy most about working on RealScreen is the diversity of the industry it serves. I love that factual programming describes everything from MTV’s voyeuristic hit The Osbournes to PBS’ new global issues strand Wide Angle, and that the TV universe has expanded enough to accommodate such a range.
Of course, it’s no surprise that Wide Angle isn’t running on any of the U.S. commercial terrestrial networks. They want sure-fire, first-season ratings hits, and the truth is that reality programs offer better short-term odds. But, it seems to me the commercial nets would be better off taking a cue from PBS. Why? Because a portion of the viewers who tune in to the likes of Fear Factor and The Amazing Race also crave weightier material. I watch American Idol on Fox and TV Ontario’s The View From Here; CNN Presents and CBS’ Survivor. Sure, I can turn the channel, but presumably the goal is to persuade me from doing that.
The problem is that the networks don’t want to risk investment in a program that has less than sterling ratings during its first season. Building an audience for a show like Wide Angle might take two or even three seasons. But looking back, how many great shows would never have gone on to become classics if their fate had been determined by first season ratings alone?
For the time being, the pubcasters and cable/satellite channels are more than making up for the lack of diversity among the commercial terrestrial nets. However, the pressure for ratings success is affecting them too. Even PBS has introduced reality programs such as 1900 House. (They categorize it as history, but what’s the historical value in watching someone break out of their temporary turn-of-the-century homestead to buy their favorite brand of shampoo?) That’s okay, as long as these shows join rather than replace the hard-hitting programs on the schedule.
PBS president Pat Mitchell says Wide Angle‘s future won’t be determined by ratings so much as the willingness of underwriters to continue putting up funds. I’m guessing, though, that it’s easier to get money for a show that’s a proven success, and success on television means ratings. Investors with patience usually receive higher dividends in the end. Hopefully Wide Angle‘s underwriters will bear that in mind.