Brilliant Television Writing Does Not Guarantee Television Viewers

In response to my  recent article “Superheroes Are Dropping Like Flies! An Investigation Why Television Seems to be the Genre’s Kryptonite,” one commenter offered his opinion that superhero shows are failing because the shows are not well-written.  But unlike in the movie Field of Dreams, the theory of “If you build it, they will come,” does not hold true on television.  In fact, if anything, time and time again, great writing is an anathema to the average television viewer.  It does not lure in more viewers and it does not guarantee a higher retention rate.  Great writing is but one ingredient needed to draw and retain viewers.
Examples of ratings-challenged television shows offering superior writing include a large number of “brilliant but cancelled” shows from the past decade.  Among those are:  TERRIERS, BATTLESTAR GALATICA, DEADWOOD, FIREFLY, VERONICA MARS, EVERWOOD, WONDERFALLS, ELI STONE, KINGS and even fan-favorites TERMINATOR: SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES and DOLLHOUSE.  (If looking at the current television landscape, it also includes such current shows as the Emmy-winning MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD and newcomer FX’s JUSTIFIED.  It appears that no matter how many awards or how much critical-acclaim, even those will not draw in viewers.)
What is fascinating about all these shows is that whether they were immediately heralded as “brilliantly written,” now that they are gone those are the tags we put on them.  Why?  Because they were.  For whatever reason, the average viewer just did not see or perhaps appreciate the superior writing of these shows when they were on.  It is certainly true that a small devoted and vocal bunch of viewers immediately saw and appreciated what they had — but in television, small is never better.  Television shows only survive if they can pull in a large number of viewers.  More viewers equals more ad revenue and thus a longer chance at longevity.
There is a reason all of these shows are now called “brilliant but cancelled” — they simply are.

But great writing just is not enough.  Whatever viewers are looking for, it does not rest on the quality of writing alone.  If that were true, a large portion of what is succeeding would have died a long time ago.
Instead, shows that offer comfort and familiarity succeed, like NCIS, NCIS:LA and THE MENTALIST.  Those shows offer a steady stream of formulaic stories each week, but viewers flock to them.  The consistency works in their favor.  In addition, they offer surrogate families for viewers to visit each week.  It is a winning combination of comfort and charisma.
Simply put, viewers crave “comfort food” television more than they seek out riskier fare such as MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD.
In addition, the prevalence of reality television shows perfectly illustrates how attractive and deep-rooted the mass television audience is with “voyeuristic” and competition shows.  Viewers enjoy the titillation of peeking into someone else’s life and seeing what they are doing, such  as TEEN MOM and JERSEY SHORE — alas, transparency into whether or not such reality TV shows are scripted, storyboarded or staged is not so clear to viewers.  The average viewer also wants to see people engaged in dramatic, sensationalized competition shows such as DANCING WITH THE STARS and SURVIVOR.  These types of shows offer another kind of viewing “food group” that satisfies the viewers’ cravings.
The last category is alternative scripted television.  This is where shows like FRINGE, CHUCK and STARGATE: UNIVERSE consistently hover.  They are not offering the “comfort food,” nor sensationalist/titillation of competitive and/or voyeuristic television shows.  Instead, they are competing for the remnants of the available television audience — ones who are looking for something different, something entertaining, and, sometimes, something that will ultimately be labeled “brilliant but cancelled.”
While it is true that not every low-rated television show offers brilliant writing, it is true that most brilliantly written television shows tend to consistently pull in a lower number of viewers.
Over the years there have been anomalies as shows like THE WEST WING and LOST somehow eluded the curse of low-ratings while offering some of the best television writing ever to grace the television screen.  But THE WEST WING and LOST also possessed more than one secret ingredient:  they also offered large doses of “comfort food” and charisma.  These were surrogate families that the mass viewing audience were more than happy to tune in to see every week.
Many have noted over the years that making a successful television show is like capturing “lightning in a bottle.”  It is rare.  It is extremely elusive.  To gather each piece needed to launch and sustain a high-rated television show requires a remarkable number of “stars to align.”  A show needs a great showrunner, fantastic directors, a phenomenal cast, brilliant writing, and a zillion other phenomenally talented crew to make it all work flawlessly.
It is not to say that the networks and studios do not try.  They spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to replicate “lightning in a bottle.”  But even copycatting what has worked before is never a guarantee.  Why?  Because viewers are fickle.  They do not always appreciate a recycling of a successful formula — sometimes they do, like with the CSI, LAW & ORDER and NCIS franchises.  But other times, like with LOST and THE WEST WING, viewers tend to shy away from something they feel is a rehash of another successful show.  One reason is that LOST and THE WEST WING were heavily serialized shows and once the story is done, it is done.  The CSIs and LAW & ORDERs offer procedural stories — the crime of the week — and thus, it feels less like a repeat of a story already seen — and if it is, it is okay, because it is only for one episode, not 6 or 7 years.
The trick is to come up with something that will take all the key ingredients and whip up a new confection of television delights.  Televisions shows require a special recipe for success — they cannot subsist on just one ingredient alone.
So in response to the edict that a television show failed because it was not written well, I remind you:  there are lots of fantastically, if not brilliantly, written television shows that fail each year.  If only writing alone would guarantee television viewers, then so many amazing televisions shows would still be on the air today.  Alas, the average television viewer is not lured by writing.  The average viewer’s taste seeks something much more elusive — a magic ingredient that is never really known.
Television success is like magic — it never feels real, but when it happens we are enchanted.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

  • Tiffany Vogt

    You must not be watching enough TV. I could throw a rock and hit a number of shows with truly terrible writing that regularly pull in over 10 million viewers each week.

    As for “Dollhouse” — it was panned for its initial episodes, but as it continued into its 2nd season, it was much more critically acclaimed as the stories and writing became stronger.

    Then as to “BSG,” it could have gone on for years to come but for the fact that it was struggling to pull in viewers. Syfy stood by their product because it was so creatively strong and critically acclaimed, but ultimately it was decided to set an end date so that it would go out on a high note and allow the writers a chance to wrap up the series.

  • Cecilia Rb

    You forgot Pushing Daisies, awesome show cancelled too soon. :(
    I guess the truth is the majority of people watch television to numb the brain. So, it’s understandable that they don’t want a “well crafted” show. But I think the big networks could invest in shows with less viewers (but loyal ones), trying to earn money in a different way… Like selling toys, books etc.
    Maybe with time people will start to refine their tastes and demand better written shows… Fingers crossed! :)

  • Tiffany Vogt

    “Pushing Daisies” absolutely belongs on this list! Phenomenal show that died way before its time. I miss it greatly.

  • Sourabh Shetty

    This is exactly what I tell people when they cite low ratings as their reason to not watch shows I recommend.

  • Phil

    It is an absolute shame that Stargate Universe got cancelled. As a sci-fi super-fan, I think this is probably the best written and most brilliant sci-fi show I have ever seen. The challenge for Stargate Universe, along with a number of other well-written, highly-creative television shows, is that new viewers have a hard time following the show if they’ve missed several episodes.

    Some complex shows like True Blood or Lost did a great job of creating “Summary Episodes” which catch new viewers on what they missed and prepare them for the upcoming episode. My favorite shows all seem to be substantially more complicated than the average serial with big multi-episode and multi-season arcs. Newbies can’t just start watching the show and fully understand what is going on.

    I’d agree that poorly written shows, like The Cape, have little chance for success. Formulaic shows, which I personally dislike, seem to do better. And having hundreds of different viewing options at any point in time has a way of canibalizing the viewing audience; makin more expensive productions less likely to get made.

    Kudos to ABC for Lost. I wish they would have given Daybreak, Life on Mars and Flash Forward a longer leash.