(The following is an excerpt of my work in progress book about the business of pop culture.)
I'm not going to assume that you're familiar with the term "Jumping The Shark," because not everyone is as internet hip and savvy as I am, which is bad, because I am not at all internet hip and savvy in any way. But I do know what this term means.
It comes from an episode of the long running sitcom Happy Days, where all the characters went on a trip to California and retro-cool icon The Fonz somehow saved the day by going on water-skis and jumping over stock footage of a shark. It is at that moment that fans say the quality and viewership of the show began to decline until the show became a sad parody of itself with only a few remaining original cast members simply showing up for the paycheques, and not much else.
This is the flip side of shows that get cancelled before they get a chance to succeed, these are shows that succeed early on, but are kept on the air well past their sell by date, and finally end up on proverbial life support.
This situation leaves us with two questions that scream to be answered.
Why do these shows burn out?
Why do they stay on the air even though they are burnt out both creatively and with audiences?
Let’s answer the first one…
Why do they burn out?
There are several reasons why a show may burn out creatively.
Old Writers. Writing television is hard work, and many writers can just run out of fresh ideas, and they can fall into some pretty common creative traps. I’m talking about repeating story-lines, relying on familiar and/or popular catch-phrases, contrived situations, or just going for really silly and hackneyed bits to fill time.
New Writers. Sometimes the writers that made a show a hit don’t stick around. Sometimes they leave for what they hope are greener pastures, sometimes they are forced out of the door either because their work is slipping, they got too expensive, or for some internal personal-political reason. They are then replaced by writers who don’t know the characters and stories that they’re supposed to be writing for with the same depth or interest as the people they replaced.
Meddling. Scripted television is a writer’s medium, but it’s also ripe for meddling by people who think they know story better than the people who write them for a living. You have the production company, the studio, the network, and the stars all perfectly willing to jump in with their two cents at the first opportunity. Sometimes this meddling can tear a show in a bunch of different directions. The production company and the studio want the show to be more family friendly for syndication, the network wants it to be sexier for ratings, and your star actor wants to change his image from loveable nerd to action hero.
That’s just some of the things that can go into forcing a show over that proverbial shark.
Why do network’s keep shows on after they’ve jumped the shark?
The three most common reasons are:
MONEY. Sometimes the show may be dead creatively, but enough of the audience sticks around to keep the show profitable. Network logic is that it’s still better to have a sinking ship that’s making at least some money than take a risk on a replacement that could completely flop from the beginning.
CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATIONS. Other times the networks have contractual reasons to keep a show on the air. They could include wanting to keep a highly paid star in something that generating at least some revenue until their contract is up. Sometimes they’re just trying to get enough episodes to make a good syndicated rerun deal.
STUBBORNNESS AND HOPE. And then there are situations when the people running the network are positive that they can fix the problems and put the show on top again.
Of course if a network refuses to give up on a show it could lead to the dreaded retooling, which is a topic all by itself.