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Why 'Friday Night Lights' are dim

The networks just aren’t interested anymore in stories about regular unglamorous people

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 24 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Why 'Friday Night Lights' are dim

The networks just aren’t interested anymore in stories about regular unglamorous people

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 24 2008

Why 'Friday Night Lights' are dim

THE BACK PAGES

tv

The networks just aren’t interested anymore in stories about regular unglamorous people

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Friday Night Lights is the show that is always on the bubble. The rapturously reviewed high-school football drama, whose second season was cut short by the writers’ strike (the truncated season will be on DVD on April 22), spends every season on the brink of cancellation— despite great reviews and a huge fan following. NBC was only able to green-light a third season when a satellite service, DirecTV, agreed to put up some of the money to offset the show’s high production costs and low ratings. The problem is that while Friday Night Lights has its melodramatic storylines, it’s mostly about the way life is lived in a football-obsessed Texas town; many stories are about down-toearth health, relationship and money worries. Executive producer Jason Katims told the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan that it’s about people who “will always live in this small town” and who “are not going on to incredible things.” It’s a throwback to a type of show that used to be on all the time: shows about regular, unglamorous people. NBC head Ben Silverman has said that the problem with a show like that is that “nobody watches it.” Which may simply mean that network executives don’t want to watch it.

After all, part of the problem Friday Night Lights ran into on NBC was that there was no similar show to use as a lead-in. Most other scripted shows on NBC and other networks are about people with glamorous lives and jobs; the TV characters NBC has renewed for fall 2008 include a young secret agent (Chuck) and a bunch of superheroes (Heroes). Even so-called “reality TV” mostly presents deliberately unrealistic situations; you won’t meet people like the American Gladiators on the street any time soon. It’s a far cry from the

’90s, when the proudly realistic blue-collar Roseanne was the most popular comedy in the world and even Homer Simpson actually had to show up for work at the power plant.

Other countries are following the lead of U.S. networks. The CBC has given us shows about a beautiful talent agent (Sophie) and professional hockey players (MVP)', lowerincome characters are hard to find. The U.S. cable networks aren’t picking up the slack: characters on cable TV shows have disreputable but fascinating jobs in the Mafia, serial killing or the advertising business. Cable programmers, sophisticated as they are, aren’t very interested in hard-edged realism.

What’s going on? The simplest answer may be that in an age of fast pacing and cutting, of 24-style action, TV has no patience for the leisurely pace that a true-to-life story demands; Friday Night Lights has relatively little action outside of the football games, and that may make it a tough sell in an era when TV drama is supposed to move at a faster clip than our boring regular lives. It’s not just in North America that the need for speed has crowded out everything else: in 1999, India had a hit with the marriage drama Saans, but the creator, Neena Gupta, later told the Times of India that the market for her scripts had dried up because in modern thrill-seeking TV, “people want immediate drama.”

Yet just because network programmers don’t want to make realistic TV doesn’t mean audiences don’t want it. Degrassi: the Next Generation, part of a franchise deliberately created as a less sanitized alternative to TV high-school stories, is still as popular as ever, both in Canada and in the U.S., for what creator Linda Schuyler calls its “emotional honesty” in dealing with teenage lives. And contrary to trends, Schuyler points out that her approach is more popular now than it was in the days when TV realism was more common: “We only did 70 episodes of Degrassi Jr. High and Degrassi High-, and this year we’re getting to l6o oiThe Next Generation. So there’s definitely still an appetite for it.”

Even if networks want to draw in affluent viewers, they might be better off doing it with non-affluent characters; Variety recently reported that despite its ratings, Friday Night Lights is “the most upscale-skewing drama on the broadcast networks,” appealing to people who make $100,000 or more.

And if NBC executives thought that the realism of Friday Night Lights was keeping it from being successful, they were wrong: the addition of some melodramatic storylines caused ratings to go down. Networks may think no one wants to watch average lives on TV, but the truth may be the opposite: if the next season of Friday Night Lights gives audiences a choice between small-town boredom and murder mysteries, audiences will find boredom much more interesting. M