Brow Beat

Why People Aren’t Watching New Comedies

Hannah Simone and Zooey Deschanel on New Girl (FOX)

When Fox boss Kevin Reilly faced the assembled journalists at the Television Critics Association winter tour this morning, most of the questions focused on the graphic violence in The Following, the Kevin Bacon serial-killer thriller that premieres on Monday, Jan. 21. These are legitimate and important concerns—shortly after the first ice pick to the eye, the only way I could get through the premiere was with a lot of help from the fast-forward button—but they’ll make more sense to most viewers (and Slate readers) when the show hits the schedule.

Of more immediate interest was Reilly’s diagnosis of broadcast television’s biggest problems: the proliferation of viewing choices, and the DVR’s ability to delay viewing until after the point at which the networks can monetize it (currently that’s within seven days of airing). “TV has so many access points, so many availabilities. DVR, binge viewing,” he said. Indeed, Reilly seemed genuinely annoyed by the number of people who told him, during the early days of Fox’s fall 2012 lineup, that their biggest televisual excitement was coming from marathoning entire seasons of Breaking Bad.

Comedies are especially hit by these changes, because it’s easier to score big live and same-day ratings for drama. Reilly reckons people will check out The Following on the night it airs; there aren’t competing dramas at 9 p.m. on Mondays, and the outcry over the graphic violence will likely drive curious viewers to check it out immediately. And whereas in the past hit sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld were nurtured from a slow start with “hammock” programming—that is, strong lead-in and lead-out shows—and were protected in their time slot, it’s now harder to drive a “passive sampling” of comedy, because people are binge-watching established shows before they check out new arrivals.

Fox has seen this on their Tuesday night comedy block—currently Raising Hope, Ben and Kate, New Girl, and The Mindy Project—which haven’t attracted the kind of audience a network chairman of entertainment wants to see. “Our shows weren’t rejected,” Reilly said, “they weren’t really sampled.” The shows didn’t see a ratings drop-off; instead, viewers are either piling up episodes on their DVRs, or the new shows simply haven’t gotten onto their radar.

The other big problem is one the networks themselves created. “A lot of the audience has no idea where anything is,” Reilly said. “One of the reasons they go to the DVR is that there’s too much churn. The way we’ve traditionally programmed these networks is with a lot of churn,” dropping low-performing shows and rejiggering the lineup throughout the season. Viewers have learned from the networks’ past behavior and they aren’t jumping onto new shows. Instead, they “wait to see what’s real, what sticks.”

Since Fox is “creatively very happy” with the Tuesday night comedies—and doesn’t have anything else to slot in that they feel would perform better, they’re going to stick with the current lineup in the hope that viewers will eventually find the shows. That seems like a good idea. If the networks want viewers to change their habits, they’ll have to change theirs first.