Sunday, April 13, 2008

NBC wants you to steal this show

The story beyond the screen of "Friday Night Lights" is a common one. People who watch it love it (as do the majority of TV critics,) but that group of people is few and far between, as the landscape of television watchers goes. After two seasons of below-average ratings (and reading NBC head/party boy Ben Silverman's "30 Rock-themed" non-endorsement), it looked as if time had run out on the Dillon Panthers. But surprisingly the show was renewed for a 13-episode season in an agreement between NBC and DirecTV that seems puzzling in its logic.

In exchange for DirecTV ponying up a hefty percentage of the production budget, season three of FNL will debut in October only on homes currently subscribing to DirecTV (about 15% of homes with televisions.) Then in February or March of 2009, the season will be re-run on NBC as a midseason replacement., which houses many NBC shows for online viewing, will not make FNL episodes available until they air on NBC.

For viewers of the show who don't have DirecTV, the message seems simple. If you want to watch this show without waiting a year, you'll have to download it illegally. Granted, NBC has tried this type of move before, previously allowing "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" to air on the USA Network before airing on NBC, but shows like "Law and Order," "CSI," "Without a Trace," or "NCIS" have fan-bases that, while large, are not nearly as passionate about the shows that they watch. (Translation: The people who watch those shows in primetime are old.) On the flip side, people who watch "Lost," "24," or "Friday Night Lights" are rabid in their fandom. Consider the pattern set this past season by viewers of "The Wire," which HBO posted OnDemand a week before each episode's air date. The show had dismal ratings because most fans had already watched each episode on demand by the scheduled "over the air" debut each week. This didn't matter on HBO, which doesn't rely on advertising dollars or the ratings that dictate said ad cash, but the experiment is surely something that would never be tried by a network program.

So who does the "FNL" deal benefit in the end? You could make a reasonable argument that it benefits DirecTV by giving them an early jump on air dates, although a smarter move for DirecTV would have probably been to try and buy out NBC's rights completely and make "FNL" an exclusive property, similar to their NFL rights. From a cost standpoint, it benefits NBC on the front end, but makes no sense on the back end. Ratings (and subsequent ad dollars) should nosedive even further from their mediocre averages last season. Had NBC allowed DirecTV to broadcast each episode a week in advance of the network broadcast dates, the show would likely garner much more respectable ratings.

The big winner in the end will be BitTorrent sites hosting illegal copies of the show for downloading, as they will be the primary source of product for over 85% of the population. Those who already use torrent sites will continue, and likely many people who have never used those sites will start doing so shortly after the DirecTV premiere. It also represents a victory for fans of the show, a rarity when it comes to underwatched programming. They get what they wanted - more episodes. They'll just have to a bit more creative in how they find what they're looking for.

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