In Depth

Adalian Column: Eight for ’08: The Stories That Shaped TV

Is it over yet?

Queen Elizabeth famously described 1992 as her “annus horribilis.” For the rest of us, including much of the TV industry, 2008 no doubt will merit a similar epitaph.

The year began with the Writers Guild of America still on strike, and lots of bad reality shows filling in for much better scripted shows. By the time 2008 reached its end, networks and studios were slashing budgets and payrolls, everybody’s ratings were in a slump and all anyone could talk about was just how bad things might get in 2009.

To top it all off, Oprah this month declared that she’s fat again. Will the gloom and doom never end?

Despite the tough times, 2008 still produced plenty of teachable moments for TV types. Here, in no particular order, are eight of the stories that defined the year past. (I had planned a list of 10, but my editor decided it was time for some right-sizing—see No. 8.):

1. The collapse of “Heroes”: Nothing symbolizes the struggles at NBC better than the sad saga of this once-promising series’ decline. Nearly 14 million people tuned in for the second-season premiere of the show in September 2007; a year later, less than 8 million watched its fall finale.

Heroes

It would be easy to blame executives at NBC for the lightning-quick manner in which “Heroes” has faded—and, indeed, the suits there bear some culpability. The show was barely an infant when NBC began rolling out all manner of brand extensions and interactive Web-based elements related to the series as part of its big “NBC 360” initiative. There’s nothing wrong with trying to exploit a hit, but NBC moved too far, too fast, undoubtedly forcing creator Tim Kring to divert his attention from the central mission of making sure “Heroes”—and its vast, layered storylines—continued to entertain.

But while the network may have emphasized revenue streams over quality control, Mr. Kring certainly didn’t complain. He embraced, even seemed to relish, the idea of transforming “Heroes” into a multimedia empire overnight. Or maybe he just got caught up in the crushing hype that now surrounds anything approaching a pop-culture phenom, be it “The Hills” or the Jonas Brothers.

Whatever happened, the decline in quality of “Heroes” was evident in the show’s season-two premiere, and it has continued, despite several attempts at pressing the reset button.

Fans (and former fans) of “Heroes” are again being fed all sorts of promises about a creative revival when the series begins a new chapter in February. My mom swears the show has already gotten better, but I don’t know if the other 6 million or 7 million of us who’ve given up are ready to trust again.

How I Met Your Mother

2. Patience pays: For years, some CBS suits have privately fretted over the just-OK ratings for “How I Met Your Mother.” While the show has been a critical darling since Barney’s first “awesome,” some folks at Black Rock seemed perplexed as to why the ratings didn’t quite match the hype—which explains why “HIMYM” always seemed to snag last-second renewals. Now, in season four, the show is generating its best ratings ever—and some weeks has beaten “The Office” for the title of TV’s top sitcom that isn’t “Two and a Half Men.”

The moral of the story? Viewers in the early 21st century need time to find good shows. Lots of time. Networks that demonstrate patience, rather than panicking and ordering endless tweaks or constantly changing time slots, will be rewarded. (See also “NCIS” and, if NBC is smart, “Chuck.”)

3. HBO and Showtime reach parity: For decades, HBO was unquestionably the dominant pay-cable network, home of the most cool shows on TV. Then, post-“The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” the reporters who cover television switched their allegiance, declaring HBO in decline and Showtime on the rise (despite the former network’s insanely huge annual profits).

True Blood

This year, the pay cable wars ended—and both networks won.

The success of HBO’s new vampire-fest “True Blood,” combined with quirky smaller shows such as “Flight of the Conchords” and “Summer Heights High,” seems to have revived HBO’s cachet among critics and brought back the fan buzz. And new entertainment chief Sue Naegle may be having more fun than anyone in Hollywood these days putting together a development slate that seems to add another eye-catching project monthly.

Weeds

But guess what? Showtime, under Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt, just keeps getting better. “Weeds,” “The Tudors” and “Dexter” are all brands as strong as any of HBO’s newer series. “This American Life” has established Showtime as a player in the unscripted space. And if “The United States of Tara” and “Nurse Jackie” are as good as the clips I’ve seen, Showtime will launch two more winners in 2009.

4. RIP, overnight ratings: In 2008, networks that started touting ratings based on live-plus-seven-day DVR data, or those that tried adding in viewership via iTunes or streaming video, were no longer spinning. They were being realistic.

Take Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica.” Despite being a pop-culture sensation, its raw ratings haven’t seemed to match the hype. But according to Nielsen, “BSG’s” audience grows a whopping 53% when DVR data is factored in. That’s a lot of frakkin’ geeks.

While the TV business remains obsessed with the numbers Nielsen spits out every morning from the night before, overnights simply aren’t the most accurate way to gauge a show’s true health anymore. Viewers, especially those under 35, are increasingly growing accustomed to the idea of watching shows on their own schedules, whether via DVR, Hulu.com or DVD box sets. Networks (and advertisers) need to adjust their expectations accordingly.

Rachel Maddow

5. The rise of Rachel Maddow and the resurrection of Katie Couric: Ms. Maddow’s stunning success in 2008—and it was stunning—shows how the viral video nature of the Internet has started spreading to the small screen. While networks once needed to spend millions (and sometimes wait years) to birth a hit, Ms. Maddow rode a Netroots wave of goodwill to emerge as an instant ratings success for MSNBC.

Katie Couric

As for Ms. Couric, she also took advantage of the Internet to help correct the overblown reports of her demise at CBS News. The impact of her pitch-perfect interview with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin came not from its broadcast on “The CBS Evening News” but in millions of YouTube hits and e-mailed video clips.

6. Reality role reversal: Cable has long aired more unscripted shows than broadcasters do. This year, however, it seemed the wired networks also made the best—or at least the most culturally relevant—reality shows.

Bravo owned the upscale space with “Top Chef,” “The Real Housewives of ...,” “Million Dollar Listing,” “My Life on the D-List” and (for now, at least) “Project Runway.” MTV and VH1 have cornered the tabloid genre with shows such as “The Hills,” “A Shot at Love” and “Charm School.” And networks as diverse as Oxygen and TLC, Spike and A&E all could claim shows that have broken through the crowded pop-culture landscape.

And the Big Five? While “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “The Biggest Loser” and “Dancing With the Stars” continue to thrive, broadcasters seem stuck in the past with retreads such as “Momma’s Boys,” “Secret Talents of the Stars” and “Stylista.” No surprise, then, that 2009 will begin with new reality chiefs at three of the five networks.

7. The aftershocks of the Writers Guild of America strike linger. Double-digit ratings declines for all the networks. A sophomore slaughter of promising series such as “Pushing Daisies,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone,” “Life” and “Lipstick Jungle.” The least inspiring crop of new fall series in at least a decade.

On the bright side, think of the hundreds of dollars in additional new-media revenue the writers are earning. The Screen Actors Guild would be crazy not to walk out next year!

8. Size doesn’t matter. NBC led in at least one key category this year: bold pronouncements declaring new paradigms in network television. The network backed up its talk with action, of course, whether it was firing virtually all of its top development executives, filling its airwaves with product integration or announcing plans to decamp from the 10 p.m. hour to make room for “The Jay Leno Show.”

But NBC wasn’t the only network that discovered the joys of shrinkage (or, as executives there called it, “right-sizing”). Fox sold off its Saturday morning kiddie block to infomercial producers. The CW (unsuccessfully) tried to hand off its Sunday night to an outside studio. And Disney began discussing a merger of its studio and network development teams.

Given all the downsizing taking place in so many other businesses, the networks would be suicidal not to continue experimenting with new models. If they’re not careful, however, they risk throwing away the very specialness that still makes most viewers check them out first before surfing elsewhere.