RTÉ and the mystery of the disappearing US dramas

‘Seen it already,’ say some viewers. ‘It’s on at what time now?’ say the rest


It is cancellation season in America. Dozens of dramas and comedies have been given the big chop by the US television networks, among them The Mysteries of Laura, an intriguingly named police procedural in which Debra Messing plays a tough New York cop who raises rowdy twin boys while solving crime.

Luckily, other police procedurals are available. The cleanout is yet another reminder of the insane size of the US television industry, and it is only getting bigger: a record 409 scripted dramas and comedies aired on cable, broadcast and streaming outlets in 2015, almost double the number for 2009.

With this higher volume of shows comes a thicker, faster stream of casualties. They include CSI: Cyber (the last remaining spin-off from the 16-year CSI franchise), Marvel’s Agent Carter and Castle, all of which have surfaced at some point on RTÉ2.

The channel ultimately needs acquired dramas and comedies to pad out its smattering of low-budget, home-produced offerings (of which only the already recommissioned First Dates Ireland has been really doing the business on ratings of late). But RTÉ has a love-hate relationship with its imported shows.

During the “love” phase, it schedules quality dramas at times when people might actually watch them.

During the “hate” phase, it sticks them out some time overnight, but not necessarily once a week or on the same night every week. As anyone foolish enough to try to follow high-calibre imports like The Americans on RTÉ2 will know, the practice keeps your DVR on its toes.

Post-midnight scheduling

The final season of The Good Wife, for example, goes out on RTÉ One at roughly 11.15pm (or later) on Thursdays, which compares favourably to the post-midnight scheduling for last year’s final run of Mad Men, but isn’t anywhere near as likely to attract viewers as the original 9.35pm Monday slot it was awarded for its first series back in 2010.

The logic is, if RTÉ can show a US import before anyone other channel available here, it may give it a decent time. Homeland, for instance, has settled (sort of) into a Tuesday 9pm “See It First” slot. But any sniff of a show going out elsewhere, even if it is on a minor channel (like More 4), and there’s significantly less chance of RTÉ scheduling it before bedtime.

RTÉ’s former director-general Noel Curran recently called the business of acquiring foreign imports and broadcasting them a “sunset industry”, at least for public service broadcasters like RTÉ, which cannot compete with richer content-buyers like Sky.

In times when RTÉ is relatively flush, it will want to pour its money into original drama anyway, not the imported kind. But at the moment, it doesn’t seem to have much of either.

TV is a competitive business, and some imported dramas to which RTÉ originally had first-window rights in this part of the world, such as the never-ending Grey’s Anatomy, were subsequently snapped up by Sky. RTÉ is not alone in losing out to Sky. But Sky is not its only problem.

One of the reasons so much television spaghetti is being thrown against the wall in the US is that broadcasters are desperately trying to outwit streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. The online crowd have themselves added to the tally of productions, making 44 original scripted programmes in 2015 compared with 27 the year before.

Spoiler avoidance

We don’t know how many people actually watch Netflix originals like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, because Netflix doesn’t share its viewing figures. But its shows certainly garner hype. Viewers seem to like what it has to offer, at the price that it offers it. The price of my subscription has just increased 43 per cent, but I’m not too upset - at €9.99 a month, it’s still good value.

And Netflix and Sky are just the legal competition. The audience with the know-how will have illegally downloaded their favourite shows as soon as they are broadcast in the US, in part to avoid spoilers. A significant chunk of The Good Wife’s fans in Ireland will have already seen its series finale, for example, notwithstanding the fact it is yet to air on either RTÉ One or More 4. They never complain about scheduling, because they never put themselves at the mercy of a scheduler.

The segment of the viewership that has never knowingly used BitTorrent, meanwhile, is stuck. If they won’t or can’t pay for Netflix and/or are not a customer of Sky, the current boom in US drama may be almost entirely passing them by.

The art of scheduling for a two-speed audience is complicated and only going to get more so. But at the moment, it seems the audience that is most loyal to watching linear television is the same audience that will have its patience most tested by it. And that is a mystery.

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