Tonight's 'Event': The Possible Death of a TV Genre

Tuning In: Why NBC's Complex, Troubled Drama Is a Litmus Test for TV Programming

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When we look back on NBC's "The Event" one day, we may well think its big happening was really the end of the complex serial-drama genre previously made hot by "Lost" and "24."

NBC is returning the show to the air tonight with two new one-hour episodes. But that's a potentially difficult ask for viewers who haven't turned in to the show much -- and there are a decent chunk of you -- or who haven't thought about it since NBC yanked it in late November.

'The Event'
'The Event' Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC

According to Nielsen, around 8.9 million people on average have watched the show -- not bad in today's TV world, but certainly not on the level of the 10 million or more it requires to be a bona-fide broadcast-TV hit.

And NBC's decision to take it off the air (and then delay its return, which was supposed to happen in late February) brings into question the network's ultimate level of support for the show after praising it like gangbusters before the season began.

NBC and many viewers had nurtured high hopes for "The Event," just as many networks have had for their own efforts to launch a serial drama that would sustain and build fan interest over many seasons.

The first episode garnered more than 10 million viewers overall, but ratings began to sag after its first few weeks on the air. "The Event" seemed like it had everything: conspiracy theories; aliens; the president of the United States involved directly in the plot; a killer shot of a jet plane hurtling toward said commander in chief and his family; and a winning young protagonist trying to live episode to episode using just his wits. A smart-aleck might joke that "The Event" would be the natural result if "24" and "V" decided to have a kid, but required "Flash Forward" to act as as surrogate.

Indeed, "The Event" seems to be suffering the same fate as "Flash Forward," the ABC sci-fi serial about ... well, your guess is as good as ours. The show focused on U.S. spies' efforts to figure out who the heck made all of humanity black out for a few seconds and catch a glimpse of the future in the process. "Flash Forward" launched with massive hype in the fall of 2009, only to be taken off the air for weeks as the network tried to fend off the troubles of declining viewership. It returned, momentum undermined, but was not picked up for a second season.

Seemingly unreproducible standouts such as "24" and "Lost" aside, the "serial drama" increasingly seems ready for the tar pits. Very few stand out. Most prove unable to sustain the massive initial interest from audiences and, in turn, their networks. And they are expensive.

TV outlets love to try these shows again and again, of course, because they bring out sci-fi devotees and other fans who are decidedly more fried than the average couch-potato. People who love these programs will talk about them online, follow extensions on digital outlets when the programs aren't on and even watch reruns retooled with clues or commentary on the mystery at hand.

And networks make the case that these rabid audiences are worth big bucks to advertisers, because they are significantly more engaged in the program than the average tube-watcher. Given the nature of "Lost's" over-curious viewers, for example, ABC sought between $850,000 and $950,000 for the its series finale -- and this with the program's ratings ebbing in its later seasons.

Yet for every "Lost," there's a "Kidnapped," "Vanished," "The Nine" or -- cable counts too -- "Rubicon." Audiences decide the early furor surrounding such programs was just that, and start to drop off when the show's plots and stories don't meet their expectations. When a network takes such a show off for months, there's little hope that audiences will return with the same relish or fervor.

NBC certainly felt "The Event" would give it an edge; or NBC's previous management did at least.

"We would love to see a show like 'The Event' really break through," Jeff Gaspin, then chairman of all of NBC Universal's entertainment divisions, said in an interview with Advertising Age last May just before the network unveiled its 2010-2011 lineup. "We think there's potential there because it is so unique and different and because shows like 'Heroes' and '24' and 'Lost' aren't coming back. We think that this show can really fill the gap left behind by those high-octane series that are going away."

Of course, everyone who helped put "The Event" on NBC's air -- Mr. Gaspin, NBC prime-time entertainment head Angela Bromstad and now NBC chief scheduler Mitch Metcalf -- has left the company. It's our theory that Comcast, which has assumed control over the network and its affiliated businesses, is less enamored of traditional Peacock fare going after urbane, high-income viewers and more interested in stuff that might brings TV fans in real droves, a la CBS.

What all that potentially means is fewer smarty-pants programs such as "30 Rock," "The Office" and, yes, "The Event" that seek to mine the nation's intelligentsia. In fact, with so many broadcast and cable dramas working overtime to provide an hourly formula that guarantees viewers end-of-the-hour satisfaction, or drilling down deep into a particular drama -- singing high-school kids! sauced ad agency executives! -- we wonder if we'll see the likes of the complex serial drama on screen for the next five or six seasons, or at all.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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