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Ding Dong, Appointment TV is Dead

With 24 being canceled and Lost ending its run next May, this season will mark the last year of so-called Appointment Television.

Everything is now available at our finger tips, and denying it is simply delusional.
It’s a given that people are currently watching television in a very different way than how they were used to for the past last 50-60 years.
Pure made-for-TV content is virtually gone. Networks are constantly thinking of new ways to use new media to promote a show on the air.

Appointment TV itself has gone through some changes throughout the years.
At its core, it can best be described as a can’t-miss show you have to see every broadcast week.
The reason you “can’t-miss” it is exactly what has evolved.

Appointment TV has been in existence since the early days of television at a time where only a handful networks existed. Everyone around the country would tune in to watch one of the few shows on the air, week after week.
When a finale aired, it was an event like no other that a majority of Americans would follow. M*A*S*H*’s series finale achieved a 77% share with 50.15 million households. Three years prior, the Dallas reveal of who shot J.R. attracted 41.5 million households for a 76% share.
To compare, this year’s Super Bowl, the most-watched television program in television history, “only” achieved a 68% share.

But don’t think this viewer problem is anything new.
Over twenty years ago, in 1988, LAT’s Peggy Zeigler wrote in an article entitled “Where have all the viewers gone?”:

And everyone has to figure out how to make network television back into a hits business. The buzzword is appointment television, industry shorthand for the kind of “can’t miss” shows that people make sure they’re home to watch — or they tape. Appointment television translates to hit shows: “Cosby” was appointment TV, so was “Moonlighting” and “L.A. Law.” Appointment television brings more viewers to the set; “The Cosby Show” single-handedly boosted Thursday night HUT levels when it debuted in 1984.

By the mid-1990s, NBC’s “Must See TV” brand was starting to die down, and so was widespread Appointment TV. Due to an increasing number of channels, everyone had their own little personal “Appointment TV Show,” but few were nationally-recognized as such.

A crazy storytelling form became at that point a bit more common: serialized narratives.
Though heavily-serialized shows wouldn’t catch on for another ten years, “softer” mythological ones would in the meantime not only become critical hits, but also cultural ones. Series, such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, succeeded in keeping an episode format while creating arcs over a full season.
Appointment TV was at that point apparently dead, replaced by Cult Television.

Then something happened: the Internet.
People could share thoughts and discuss mythological components, dissect a show, relay tons of behind-the-scenes information. But it needed content.
No new series had appeared to fill the void since the end of The X-Files.

24 premiered in 2001 and was an instant hit. Many reasons were given, a major one is linked to its serialized format.
It wasn’t only made to enhance “the watercooler factor,” but more importantly allowed the show to introduce a brand new concept: addictive television.
At the other end of the box, people had started to proactively change their schedules to fit a given show into their lives.
You wouldn’t necessarily want to do a Hill Street Blues marathon, but we’ve all heard countless stories of people watching several seasons of 24 back-to-back in one sitting.
After that shift occurred, virtually no episodic Appointment TV remained. Friends’ finale became an actual Television Event (thanks to the show’s influence on pop-culture), but the show never actually reached on a regular basis the levels of 80s sitcoms.

In 2004, Desperate Housewives brought back soap-opera to primetime with much success.
The same year, Lost smashed the mythological show rulebook and paved the way for new forms of television-related transmedia storytelling. Its complex mysteries also brought viewers, who tuned in week after week, wanting answers, or at the very least more clues. For its six seasons, countless time has been spent talking about the series and its content.

The void was filled, and the ultimate form of Appointment Television was born. If only with a decade to live.
Slowly but surely, the tool that helped it resurface was causing its very downfall.
The shows had become so serialized that you couldn’t miss an episode, and needed to use technology to catch up on them. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch for “can’t miss shows” to become DVRed and streamed instead of live-watched.
Ironically, Appointment TV had become a “must-see,” but not necessarily on television’s schedule.
What works best on television are episodic shows, and what works best outside television are serialized ones.

Meanwhile, Event TV (sports competitions, award shows, etc.) was emphasized as such thanks to Twitter, and other live-communities.
It now has grown into something new: Social Television.

Lost‘s series finale in May will be Event Television. Everyone around the country might not watch it, but they will surely talk about it. By that time however, Appointment Television will be gone forever.
Whatever the case may be, massive weekly viewings of a show are a thing of the past.
Welcome to the world of crossmedia.


  1. killertv

    Given Lost’s series finale ad revenue, I’m not entirely sure about this. The nets will still try to program appointment television, though I do think our understanding of what appointment means has changed.

  2. Alex

    I agree that the nets will definitely try to create some kind of new Appointment TV-type show (which is just another word for counterprogramming — against everyone/thing else). Hell, they’ve already tried to.
    But they haven’t gotten much success. And cable can’t do Appointment TV simply because of its availability.
    It will be hard now to create a television series that actually transcends the TV barrier every week (and gets a lot of people talking about it on a weekly basis).
    The nets will definitely market their new shows as such, but realistically-speaking, you just can’t compete with all the alternatives.
    The time of “everyone watching the same thing” (week after week) is simply gone.
    Even Lost, that started as Appointment TV, dwindled down as time went on.
    As for its series finale ad revenue ($900k/ad), that’s still more than four times its usual rate, which confirms the fact that this is an event, not a regular thing.
    And again, Event TV is not the same thing as Appointment TV. The latter could be described as “regular Event TV” in a way.

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