Saturday, January 19, 2008

Marathons and why they work for TV

I created a rule for myself that I could watch TV shows, but I couldn't watch them on a TV set. This may seem like an arbitrary distinction, a loophole in my decision to stop watching TV two weeks ago. However, the reason I stopped watching was that I found that once the TV was on, I was almost incapable of turning it off. While there are many reasons why TV lends itself to addictive viewing, I'm convinced the primary reason is the phenomenon of the marathon.

When I watch network TV, I either flip the station after my show is over or turn off the TV. The smartest thing cable channels have done in the last decade is to run an entire season's worth of shows in one sitting. If you tune in for a show and watch it till the end, you probably liked it--so why risk viewers switching to another show when you can serve more up just like it?

Other than cult scripted shows in deep syndication, the most effective marathons are reality TV shows and the master of this formula, in my opinion is Bravo, home of Project Runway and its spinoff Top Chef.

What's so effective about a marathon? Well, if you've never seen the series, they instantly get you caught up. If you were already hooked but somehow missed an episode, you can get right back into the storyline instead of drifting away. Reality shows, especially competition shows, get you caring for or hating their reality "characters"-- either way, you keep watching because you either hope your favorite makes it through or you can't wait to see the villanized contestant get their comeuppance. And during every episode, they will show a preview of the next show in which something happens that "you won't believe" or is "a first." And lucky you, you don't have to wait long.

I started wondering why the networks don't follow suit and run marathons of their hit shows and realized have several constraints. They have "appointment television"--shows that people build into their daily schedules. Their schedules are so packed that they can't do marathons without running into another show. And while the demographic for a particular show maybe relatively narrow, the demographic of the entire network is wide. So, even if they did have the space in their schedule to air a marathon, of say Medium, a very successful show on NBC, they would lose viewers in other demographics for several hours. People wouldn't ever know if they could tune into NBC without wondering if it was going to look like Oxygen or Spike.

On the other hand, Bravo and most other cable channels, are just that--channels. They are narrowly segmented to a specific demographic-- in Bravo's case, people who care about fashion, food, beauty, home design, and pop culture. As long as the show fits into the categories of shows that works for their demographic, a marathon of that show could easily gain a new fan that happens upon it while surfing with the remote. And while they do have regular time slots for new episodes of a series, their weekends and weekdays are completely free of local TV, sports, soaps and talk shows so they have lots of room for long uninterrupted blocks of time.

The best combination is when a network is part of a media family with cable channels; such is the case with NBC, SciFi, MSNBC, and Bravo. My husband and I got into the first season of The Apprentice because we were able to get caught up on MSNBC, then watched it on NBC going forward.

I don't see the marathon phenomena going away anytime soon. And in fact, the internet lends itself to the same "what's next" mentality that marathons have--I often find myself endlessly clicking links from page to page. However, the content on the internet will pretty much always be there, whereas TV is ephemeral, like it must be watched now or it will disappear (in reality, the number of reruns and reairings on cable as well as DVD releases makes this less of an issue).

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