Monday, April 11, 2005

The Overexposure of TV Series

Today on the Internet I was reading how ratings for Trading Spaces have dropped dramatically. Last year around 659,000 people watched Trading Spaces on Saturday night. That number is down to 429,000 this year. This dramatic dip in ratings for Trading Space would perhaps not be so serious if similar makeover shows, such as Clean Sweep and While You Were Out were not performing poorly in the ratings as well. The end result is that TLC's over all ratings are down from what they were two years ago, when Trading Spaces was still a hot show.

Quite simply, the problem was overexposure. TLC aired Trading Spaces ten times a week at its peak. On top of that, a whole host of imitators sprung up, such as The Discovery Channel's Surprise by Design and ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In the end, not only did Trading Spaces suffer from overexposure, but the entire genre of home makeover shows.

It seems to me that overexposure is a relatively new phenomenon in television. Indeed, I think what constituted overexposure has changed from what it was in the Sixties and Seventies. One of the old theories as to why The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. failed and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s ratings slid in its third season was that there was too much U.N.C.L.E. on the air--even though between the two shows there would have only been two hours of U.N.C.L.E. each week! Of course, this was at a time when any given prime time show might air six times a week at most. And that once only if prior seasons of a show still on prime time had been released to syndication! With but few exceptions (Batman and Peyton Place being two), most prime time shows on the broadcast networks only aired once a week.

It seems to me that the advent of cable channels changed all this. MTV would air episodes of The Real World and Road Rules as many as ten or more times a week. Lifetime would air reruns of various sitcoms at least twice a day. Even a broadcast network overexposed a show. ABC aired Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? so often that its ratings plummeted, taking the rest of the ABC schedule with it.

Why does overexposure hurt TV shows and even entire networks so badly? My theory is that there are two factors at work. The first is a simple case of supply and demand. The more times a show is aired, the more times people can watch it. As a result, the audience becomes spread out over several different airings. If the show was on only once or even twice a week, its ratings may well be higher as the audience would be forced to watch the show all at once. The second is that people probably just get burned out on a show when it airs too often. After seeing Trading Spaces too many times, people may well have tired of the show (not to mention its imitators), and so they sought other things to watch.

I think the lesson to be learned from all of this is that for both the broadcast networks and cable channels, overexposure should be avoided whenever possible. Too often a show's ratings can suffer as a result. And too often that show's ratings can drag the rest of the network or cable channel's ratings down as well.

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