The TV Curve

Cracked, again one of my favorite websites, has an infographic on the rise and fall of TV shows, arguing that they start out shaky in the first season, get better the second, reach a plateau and then start to decline by the sixth.

This is more accurate than they realize. One thing I used to do was copy episode ratings from TV.com and see how the quality of shows changed over time. I love analyzing pointless data — hence the astronomy career. Anyway, the TV.com ratings allowed me to look the evolution of TV shows from a biased but consistent point of view. Biased, because they are online ratings and do not necessarily reflect the general audience’s perception. But consistent, because they are the same or similar audiences (and the registration requirement mitigates vote rigging).

A few things I discovered, based entirely on these ratings:

First, most TV shows tends to follow a pattern very similar to the one described by Cracked.

1) At first, the quality is uneven, slowly improving, but with the occasional clunker thrown in.

2) The show hits its stride and is consistently good.

3) The clunkers begin to reappear and the quality falls.

4) The show ends.

No show, none, exemplifies this pattern better than The X-Files. I started watching in season four, when it was simply outstanding television. The sixth season was still good but the seventh was hurting, the eight was bad and I didn’t even watch the ninth. As the infographic notes, a big problem becomes twisting characters to fit plot … in this case, keeping Mulder and Scully from hopping into the sack because the writers thought it would ruined the show. It would have … but sometimes you got to let characters do what characters are going to do.

Some shows have an accelerated curve. Star Trek hit its stride almost immediately but had a bad third season. I would argue that Friends did the same thing — putting together a couple of great seasons before falling apart and turning its characters into caricatures.

Other shows end before the decay phase can kick in. Babylon 5 was consistently great after the first half of its first season. It decayed a little bit in the early fifth season but recovered by the end. Fortunately, by ending the series at five seasons and having the plot written in advance, Joe prevented the decay phase. Star Trek the Next Generation also lacked a decay phase, although, in my opinion, it was showing some decisive cracks in its seventh season.

Doctor Who shows a number of interesting patterns. The ratings jump when it went to color, stay high through the 70′s, peaking in the late-Pertwee, early-Baker eras. The ratings collapse in the Baker II and McCoy era before recovering with a strong season right before the show was cancelled.

Although I haven’t run the numbers on the latest season, the first four seasons of the new series were rated as high as the classic series, with a slow improvement in both quality and consistency. This improvement is mostly the disappearance of dreck like Love and Monsters.

So how did Doctor Who avoided the typical pattern of improvement, peak and decline? Or at least stretch it out over 26 years? By constantly turning over actors, directors and producers. Doctor Who was constantly remaking itself — from the educational show of Hartnell to the suspense of Troughton to the action-adventure of Pertwee to the gothic horror of early Baker. In fact, the decline of Doctor Who occurred, quite possibly, because a producer who had reinvigorated the show stayed on too long.

That’s one of the great things about Russell T. Davies leaving Doctor Who. He did a great job, but his era was showing cracks at the end, with episodes getting more and more outlandish and ridiculous. Fortunately, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat have, to some extent, reinvented the show and we’re looking at another good run.

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