Save Our Shows? Save Your Voices.

A quarter-century ago, the internet was nascent, premium original scripted content on basic cable was yet to exist and streaming was a term usually most commonly used among urologists.  And USA Today was the dominant national newspaper, with dozens of thick, full-color editions readily available on newsstands and in almost hotel lobby in America.

And it was into this landscape that the staff of the purple Life section introduced an interactive poll that began just as network pilot season was ending and decisions were being made by the Big Four and the Little Two broadcast networks in advance of the Yom Kippur of television, the upfronts.  Save Our Shows was a simple poll that listed the shows whose fates for the following fall had yet to be determined. In a manner akin to how participants for the Major League Baseball All-Star game were selected, readers were encouraged to show support for “bubble” shows, particularly those with ardent and vocal fan bases that didn’t necessarily translate to immediately salable Nielsen ratings.  To gain the support of the networks and studios, USA Today argued that it would provide them with yet another way to show that there were reasons for shows to be renewed from constituencies beyond Emmy voters, and they offered a far better advertising ROI than the likes of the daily trades that would typically be where the extensive media budgets were deployed.

For many years, the results were anticipated and meaningful.  NBC and Universal kept a low-rated Friday night sci-fi show called CHUCK alive for several additional seasons based on their continually strong showings in the SOS polls.  Or so they claimed.  And, personally, I participated in several such lobbying campaigns for several Sony series, including the first show to win in back-to-back years.  Shawn Ryan’s appealing but ratings-challenged drama TIMELESS, led by an incredibly passionate group of online fans called Clockblockers, was the first show to win in consecutive years, resulting in a 16-episode second season and, subsequently, a two-hour wrapup movie that created a sellable (albeit limited) series.   The elation I felt in being able to deliver these results to an incredibly invested team of talent behind and in front of the camera was seldom matched by anything else I had the privelage to contribute to in my lengthy career.

When we gathered to celebrate our successful year in a swanky beachfront hotel, over aged spirits and expensive charcuterie, an inebriated business affairs executive who shall, for obvious reasons, remain nameless here took me aside and snarked “Your naivete is surprising”.

“Your poll (snark emphasized) occupied less than ten seconds of our meetings.  NBC couldn’t have cared less what a bunch of superfans think.  Chuck was renewed all those years because it had great international and home video appeal, and they continued to take lower license fees and salary cuts to keep the show going.  They used those examples against us.  We gave NBC concessions and rights we never budgeted for largely because of the pressure your poll put on our bosses to have us make a bad deal to save face.  We made the best deal we could in spite of your poll, but a celebration is hardly warranted”.

Talk about a Clockblocking moment.

But when one looks at both the timing of and the results of this year’s poll, released this morning by the newspaper’s Gary Levin, that snarky reality check I received is even more apropos:

The results are in: Fox’s rescue drama “9-1-1,” starring Angela Bassett and Peter Krause, was the clear favorite among voters in USA TODAY’s 26th annual Save Our Shows poll.  More than 59% of voters wanted “9-1-1” back, and just 8% wanted it dropped; the rest said they didn’t care either way. Other top winners: ABC’s medical drama “The Good Doctor” (54% wanted to keep it); ABC’s freshman drama “Alaska Daily,” starring Hilary Swank (48%); and CBS’ “S.W.A.T.” (42%). The fates of these series, and the rest of the 21 scripted primetime broadcast shows hovering “on the bubble” between renewal and cancellation, will be revealed over the next two weeks.

Yep, several days after the announcement that 9-1-1 had been renewed, USA Today took its victory lap.  And all but explained that it was ownership and left pocket/right pocket versatility that drove its renewal, as was the case for the 2022 poll winner, Universal’s MAGNUM, which moved from CBS to co-owned NBC.  Yet another strong international title with tonnage to be relevant to a struggling streamer , let alone drive sales and viewership for the fondly remembered original iteration.

A mere 57,000 total votes were cast this year from (ostensibly) readers of a newspaper that still sells nearly a million copies a day and, combined with digital, reaches 2.5 million daily consumers.  And many of those votes are cast by employees from multiple IP addresses–not necessarily the fans.

And if you’ve seen what a copy of USA TODAY’s print edition looks like these days, you’d note that it’s a lot thinner than it was in 1998, and not even as colorful.  And if you can easily find one, consider yourself lucky.  Even where I live, in a relatively busy section of a major city, far fewer newsstands that carry it exist nowadays, the once-ubiquitous coin-operated boxes are long gone, and I haven’t found a hotel in recent years that has copies plopped in its lobby.  So one has to assume that most of those votes are coming from online polls, which any researcher can tell you without proper safeguards and firewalls are anything but scientific.

So I suppose those that are still around to react are laughing and snarking even more  heartily than my onetime colleagues and their buds were just a few short years ago?

It’s safe to say that this poll was perhaps the least meaningful one yet, and certainly nowhere near as anticipated as were the first 25.    And considering even the renewed shows won’t produce new episodes for a while, there are even fewer reasons for victory laps this year.

Save Our Shows?  Maybe next year’s installment should be refocused as  Save Our Polls.

Personally, I’ve already cast my vote.  You can probably guess what it is.

Until next time…

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