People are getting their heads smashed. A witch is nursing a newborn frog from a nipple on her thigh. And [sniffs the air] why, I do believe I smell a sharknado a-blowin' in!
If you've been noticing more absolutely cuckoo plot devices, premises and twists on your TV, you're not alone: it's a deliberate programming and business strategy. In my print column for TIME this week (subscription required), I preview next week's debut of Sharknado 2 on Syfy, looking at how it's become increasingly important for TV networks to create viral "events" like this one that play well on social media. The reason? The more "HOLY CRAP!!!" a show creates on the second screen, the more urgent it becomes that you watch it live or as soon as possible--in other words, that you watch within the time frame that advertisers will still pay networks for:
Just as a tornado erupts from converging hot and cold air masses, the Sharknado is a perfect storm formed from two opposing media trends colliding. The first is that technology threatens TV ratings and revenue: when people record shows and watch them long after they air, networks don’t make money off the ads. (People now watch two hours more video a week than in 2011, Nielsen says–but about 10% less of it is live TV.) The second is that technology can help traditional TV, by driving viewers to watch certain buzzy shows live: if your friends are burning up Twitter about Scandal, you want to OMG along in real time.
This means that networks are increasingly interested in creating “events,” like Sharknado or NBC’s live Sound of Music, that people will want to watch as they air. When you tweet about Sharknado, you’re not just a viewer–you’re a marketer.
And in this week's New York Times magazine, the always-sharp Tara Ariano detects the rise of what she calls "bonkers TV"--shows like WGN's Salem (of the aforementioned frog scene), American Horror Story, Scandal and more, which are not just TV series but WTF-generation machines, constructed to deliver jaw-dropping moments that create online freakouts and and compel audiences to watch live, in the company of the social-media Greek chorus:
DVRs made recording shows easy for even technophobes; so easy that some of us might have forgotten where and when they were shown (making the concept of “airing” increasingly archaic). We also lost the discipline of paying attention to a show while it’s on, because we could now pop back eight seconds if we missed a piece of dialogue or pause it to go to the kitchen. You know how irritating it is to watch TV in a hotel room? We used to live like that all the time.
Our ability to focus on a TV broadcast has been further chipped away by the rise of Twitter, even as the industry has embraced it. Last year, Nielsen created a TV-ratings metric based on Twitter. Seemingly overnight, more and more networks urged us to tweet about their shows, suggesting hashtags in the lower corner of the screen. But there’s an obvious problem: If we’re all watching our shows not when they’re on but whenever we feel like it, we’re not really talking to one another about them. How can any TV show triumph over the convenience of the DVR and get the greatest possible number of us to tweet about it all at once?
Bonkers TV’s solution: Make every night like the Oscars.
It's yet another example of the push-pull of change in the TV business. The same audience fragmentation that threatens the established business model of TV makes it possible for shows to survive with tinier audiences than ever. And the same diversity of outlets and mediums that allows TV to become more adventurous and intelligent also pushes it to get more outrageous, to attract scarce and fleeting attention.
In many ways TV is smarter than ever and in many ways it's more ludicrous than ever--often at the same time. The near future of TV is full of promise. But it's also one that encourages programmers to live every week like it's Sharknado week.