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Sharknado 2: Is TV jumping the shark, or are sharks jumping the TV?

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:

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:

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.


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