Addictive television

Last week, two iconic programs — Lost and 24 — came to an end. Perhaps their most notable feature was that they were prime time and addictive. That is, each required you to have invested in the program early on — more so Lost than 24 — something that had not really been the case since Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 a decade and a half earlier. This was highly unconventional from a commercial TV perspective because it meant that the series’ audiences would likely shrink rather than grow over time. Also, from a consumer perspective, it worked because there was some trust that the stories would be completed.

Recent attempts at a similar set of addictive stories including Journeyman, Dollhouse, Defying Gravity, The 4400, and Flash Forward have undermined the ability for addictive television to continue. These series have been canceled early on and without resolution. What that means for any new attempts is that, from a consumer perspective, it is not clear they are worth investing in. That means no initial audience upfront and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom for the series.

This is a shame because advertising funding models were uniquely suited to addictive television. Pay per view models suffer from the fact that those broadcasting such programs have an incentive to price low initially and ramp up prices as people become addicted. That risk will itself stop those programs from succeeding. No similar risk from advertising existed as only the advertisers would be charged more as addiction set in.

3 thoughts on “Addictive television”

  1. What about shows like The Wire, Mad Men, Sopranos, True Blood, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood – all of these had complex multi-epsiode, even multi-season story arcs, and while you could get something out of a stand-alone epsiode (with the possible exception of The Wire), it certainly required addictive viewing to maintain.  I wouldn’t be so bold as to state the death of addictive television at this point!


  2. I was thinking the same thing Tom, especially regarding The Wire.
    I would have thought the DVD/download market for such series is substantially larger than for the standalone shos (e.g. the ‘procedurals’ like House, the Law and Orders and CSIs).
    Any sense of the economics of the DVD sales?  Presumably they are not substantial enough to justify keeping a series on air.  What proportion of the costs of production are met by the networks (and therefore the advertisers) relative to these post-broadcast offerings (which I presume may have usurped the old syndication revenue streams)?


  3. Why is the moral hazard problem absent from network TV?  With viewing behaviour as inelastic as you describe wouldn’t there be an incentive for the network to keep rates to advertisers the same but increase the advertising time during the show?


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