We are now in the second week of one of the more intriguing experiments going on in the television world: the shared production between NBC & DirecTV on Friday Night Lights.
Last year, just prior to the start of its problematic second season, it seemed like Friday Night Lights was doomed, despite the fact that it was one of the best written and acted dramas on TV.
And, in fact, it was doomed, especially as the writers strike cut short the second season just as it was finally beginning to shake off its sophomore slump. It really seemed like there was no way that it was going to come back, and those of us who had fallen in love with it were going to lose something unique in TV history: a show that took a hard, smart look at small-town America and the institutions that that were important to it — including, of course, high-school football.
Cue the last desperate improvisational drive towards the end zone as time is running out and options are running thin.
And cue the partnership between DirecTV and NBC, which rescued it with a deal that benefited both partners: DirecTV would get a window to a critically acclaimed TV show to entice new customers, while NBC would be able to keep it on the air, hoping that a mass audience might discover it the way audiences eventually discovered initially low-rated shows like Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld.
I certainly hope that is exactly what happens, but I worry that it won’t, and for three reasons.
- Buzz. Despite the quality, Friday Night Lights is neither popular enough nor buzz-worthy enough to be a catalyst for people switching to DirecTV. A lot of factors are in play when people choose between cable and satellite, and I don’t believe that a single show is one of those factors. Switching from cable to satellite is a much bigger decision than paying a few extra months a month in order to join the cultural conversation surrounding an iconic show like The Sopranos or Sex in the City.
Especially considering that, for all of its quality, Friday Night Lights is not one of those shows. It works on a much smaller, more human scale, and is obviously not ever going to bust out into the mass consciousness in a significant way. And, even worse, the first DirecTV episode had dismal numbers, getting a little bit more than one-third of the audience — percentage-wise — than it was getting on NBC.
- DVD. Meanwhile, there is going to be a percentage of the dedicated fanbase that won’t switch to DirecTV or watch the commercial-infested versions on NBC. They’ll just wait for the DVD. Maybe. It will depend on the reviews of this season.
- Bittorrent. And finally, a show that is this loved by its cult is going to be easily found on the internet. If the fanbase doesn’t want to wait and/or watch the commercial versions, they’ll find it. The analogy here is Doctor Who, which gets so chopped up on BBC America that large amounts of its fans just watch the torrents. And eventually — maybe — buy the DVD.
The guess here is that the combination of all of these factors will add up to much lower numbers all around than either DirecTV or NBC are expecting, and they’ll take a long, hard look before they do it again. Which would suck.
On the other hand, if the entire 13-episode run is as good as last week’s season debut, it is entirely possible that there will be enough buzz around it that the mass audience will be interested and the numbers will be good. Here’s hoping.