Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The TV Shows "Leverage" and "Psych"

"Leverage" is a show that could be mistaken for a USA Networks "Characters Welcome" show, but it's a TNT "We know drama" product. One revels in Intimate Adventure and the other avoids it strenuously.

Now remember from last week that the purpose of all fiction is to attract eyeballs so advertisers can warp behavior and extract money from viewers, but that purpose is strenuously resisted by all viewers/readers for a good reason.


So they're always trying to figure out "which genre" is more popular, more compelling for audiences.

The only problem is they're going about it all wrong because advertising only modifies the behavior of the younger demographic, not the elder, but the elder is more interested in fiction and has more money to spend (though not discretionary spending money, they buy bigger ticket items, but not much on impulse).

My post here last week gives a suggestion for re-thinking the advertising model.

This time let's look at a couple of TV shows designed to "leverage" the current advertising model.

According to Nielsen, these two shows are duking it out over audience share.

Here's a quote from the Nielsen's rating service Feb 4, 2010:


Robert posted last week about the 20% ratings fall Leverage suffered against the season premiere of Psych. Last night Psych got hit hard in a post-premiere slump, and Leverage was mixed, but topped Psych in average viewers and closed the gap in adults 18-49.

Psych slid almost 35% to just 2.856 million viewers (vs. 4.367 million for the premiere). It’s A18-49 rating fell to a 1.1 from a 1.5 for the premiere. The “USA strategy of moving dramas off Friday was a success” pronouncement may have been a bit premature.

TNT might have hoped for a big rebound for Leverage, but it was effectively flat. Down 4% in viewers to 2.913 million (from 3.020 million last week). But it got a little boost in its A18-49 ratings to a 0.9 from a 0.8 last week.

Read that again and pay more attention to the thinking that produces sentences like this (never mind the numbers). What's important? What's the point that's being made? (take careful note of how boring you feel this writing is)

Also note because it's really important that there are over 330 million people in the USA alone, maybe a hundred million TV sets and households maybe more.

Only about 3 million watching a particular cable TV entertainment show?

Of course a fiction writer would be thrilled to sell 3 million copies of a book!

But the trend I've been tracing in these blog entries on Tuesdays is all about the convergence of TV, Film and text into one mammoth Fiction Delivery System.

Here is an item that supports that thesis.


Analog Magazine - the venerable SF vehicle - made a deal with a production company named Fourth Floor. Here's a quote from that article

Production company and management firm Fourth Floor Productions has closed an impressive deal with the legendary sci fi mag, “Analog,” to exclusively develop the periodical’s content for the next two years. Fourth Floor topper Jeffrey Silver told FNB that his company will have rights to the stories published in the monthly (there are usually six or seven pieces per issue), and already has writers working on several stories.

But it costs less to produce a book or text magazine than a TV show. The secret to the writer's business model problem is the ratio of the size of the audience to the cost of delivery of the entertaining item. That was the business model problem the "Dime Novel" solved so elegantly, and we need to invent one of those solutions to fix our current Fiction Delivery System.

So we're talking about a niche audience for "Leverage" and "Psych." Note that these 2 shows are not SF and don't use much in the way of special effects. They are relatively cheap to make.

With a writer's eye, you can contrast/compare these two TV shows and see immediately that "Leverage" has a more dramatic beat and includes hot love affairs and crumbling love affairs, as does "White Collar" where the lead character's main motivation is to reconnect with the girl he loves (but she almost never appears onscreen).

Psych has a buddy-story but not enough really strong Romance or even an interesting love story that might become a Romance.

Love is used just as a character motivation in these "action-drama-comedy" TV offerings, a background element, or backstory element, not the main plot.

"Leverage" is a little different this season as an ex-wife incident puts emotional pressure on a very tattered main character. It's one of those impossible to resolve Situations such as "Beauty and the Beast" dealt with, or such as Ann Aguirre deals with in her second Corine Solomon novel Hell Fire.

Hell Fire (Corine Solomon, Book 2)

Hell Fire is an excellent novel, by the way, searing triangle romance, breathtaking paranormal elements, intimate adventure, mature point of view and really solid writing craft. I will review it in my print magazine column.

http://www.simegen.com/reviews/rereadablebooks/2010/ -- is the index to the archive for my print column that goes back to 1993.

I talked at length about Ann Aguirre's novel Doubleblind which held my attention despite having elements I dislike in it because it's well written:


Back to television.

The development of the deeper intimate relationships in a story-arc (a format that was forbidden before "Babylon 5" and "Dallas" proved it could work in prime time) glues the audience to the screen, but Hollywood still doesn't quite get that point.

Producers who make these emphasis decisions dance around the edges of the importance of Relationship, never mind the central core of Romance and its place in developing the mettle of a character. And this has something to do with the lack of esteem for the Romance Genre, though how the puzzle fits together, I'm not sure.

Like "Lois and Clark" or "Beauty And The Beast" a show's audience deserts when the romantic tension is resolved -- which means the plot-line they were following was the Relationship, not the Action.

A show like "Murder She Wrote" has a contrasting dynamic. The audience comes for the puzzle-solving and the Relationships just form momentary obstacles to the problem solving and neat tag-lines.

So television is wary of diving into a serious romantic-tension driven plot line because the audience will desert the show if the show is successful!

If you draw the story-arc out too long, people get bored (B&B) and if you do what every good writer (like Ann Aguirre) knows how to do -- "don't pull your punches" and drive that Romance right to the altar, then the show is over and the audience goes away.

If a show is pulling huge audiences, the advertisers don't want it to be "over" regardless of how that would validate the drama and the characters. If a show is losing its audience, the advertisers desert it first and there's no time for the writers to complete the story-arc. The producer gets a bad reputation.

So basically, a TV show premise has to be structured such that it doesn't HAVE an ending. Like action-drama or mystery, each week brings a new problem that is resolved in 44 minutes of air-time, and there's no end to problems you can throw at the ensemble. The story-arc is spice, not substance.

Star Trek originally was an "anthology" show - episodes that can be viewed in any order and still make sense. After Babylon 5, Star Trek reincarnations went more with the story-arc plot, series of shows to view in a particular order with major changes just once a season.

In either case, Nielsen rules story development, not the rules of good fiction construction that I've been harping on in previous posts here.

As with the cancellation of StarTrek:TOS by NBC, those Neilsen numbers still aren't accurate. The polling organization doesn't change its methods fast enough to keep up with changes in audience preferences.

Star Trek's Nielsen numbers looked non-viable to NBC because the real bulk of the audience was clustered around TV sets in college dorms -- back in the days when there was only one TV set per dorm floor and "demographics" hadn't yet been invented. Nielsen didn't have any dorm TV's wired and there wasn't technology that could measure the number of people crowded around a single TV.

Today the problem lies with online downloads and various alternative methods of time-shifting and gaining access. College dorms have wifi, people watch TV on their notebook computers. Source doesn't matter.

In between it became VHS tapes that fans would make and mail to each other -- sometimes in foreign countries (where the people would have to buy the right kind of VHS to play the kind of tape made at the source). Shows barely surviving in Britain had huge audiences in the USA via this method. Nielsen couldn't measure that.

As I pointed out in my last entry


people will do anything (really ANYTHING) to avoid having fiction interrupted by commercials, except maybe the Commercials made for the Superbowl.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100208/media_nm/us_superbowl_advertising which is titled Alongside gags, Super Bowl ads plumb male psyche

For the Superbowl, it's almost as if people have already accepted that the point is the ads, and the broadcast itself is just to keep you busy between ads.

Here's a quote from that article:
That would be a major victory for any marketer. With a national audience that could reach an estimated one-third of 300 million Americans, the National Football League's championship game is the biggest day of the year for advertisers.

Sometimes known as the Ad Bowl or Buzz Bowl, prices for 30 seconds of commercial time during CBS's broadcast topped out at more than $3 million. Most deals were done in the $2.5 million to $2.75 million range, ad executives said.

1/3 of America's 300 million! Compare that to the 1/10th or 3 million who might watch "Leverage" or "Psych."

That 1/3 point hasn't happened for any fiction feature I've heard of yet.
Presidential campaign speeches don't draw like the Superbowl.

There is a huge battle behind the scenes of our fiction delivery system between those who want an advertising supported fiction delivery system and those who want a fiction delivery system supported advertising model.

So those people who sat through commercials in college dorm TV rooms (so they wouldn't lose their place to the standing room only crowd) are now older and watch TV online, streaming, bootlegged, or buying the blu-ray later.

The younger people are also watching online streaming, even on smartphones if they can.

The TV audience is not sitting in living rooms clustered around with family members, watching only what everyone in the family wants to watch. Many homes have TV's in the bedrooms, too. Larger ones. With blu-ray, wi-fi etc. People can take their notebook anywhere in the house and watch via the family wi-fi network.

Just as with the avid but changing Trek audience, Nielsen isn't keeping up.

Nielsen actually serves the advertisers who want objective measures of the number of eyes they are reaching with their commercials.

The Superbowl is watched "real time" -- fiction doesn't have to be.

The advertisers only care about the people who accept fiction with commercials. So advertisers aren't motivated to follow the ever-squirming audience that wants to get away from commercials.

Naturally Nielsen has missed another Trek sized call.

This time it's the TV show Heroes.

I've been seeing this tweeted on Twitter by crew working on Heroes -- yeah, their jobs depend on renewal, true, but these folks really understand the fiction being created here. Here's one of the posts circulated by a champion tweeter.

NathalieCaron New Blog Post!: Save #Heroes, Save the World!! http://bit.ly/8ZACx2 #SaveHeroes

That's the tweet that alerted me to this blog post about what's going on, and it's no coincidence it's on a Star Trek blog. Here's the unshortened URL unfurled:


According to that post, it seems to me NBC is about to make the same mistake with Heroes that it made with Star Trek and possibly for the same reason, technology.

This post shows how decisions are made about what you may, or may not, be allowed to choose from as your fiction fix of the day.

The decision isn't about you. It isn't about what you need out of your fiction, nor really even about what you want out of your fiction. The fiction itself isn't important at all in this equation.

It's about how much product they can move. Or perhaps more importantly, about how much product THEY THINK they can move (it's all estimation, even though the math has become very elegant).

How can we make it about the quality of the fiction, about the satisfaction you derive from that fiction?

They failed to recognize and utilize the Romance elements in StarTrek:TOS and gave it the ax because they measured the impact of the show incorrectly.

They have failed to exploit the Romance elements implicit in Psych. They are tip-toeing around the Romance elements in Leverage, developing the angst more than the healing properties inherent in Love Conquers All. And now they want to abandon Heroes without crystallizing the incredible power of Alien Romance inherent in a bunch of The Talented in desperate need of bonding to become sane!

How can we prevent "them" from making these mistakes?

The commercial fiction marketplace needs a new philosophy and business model, such as I started playing with last week.

What we, as fiction consumers, need is a marketplace driven by the dynamic of serving a small (niche) audience that is wildly energized and supremely dedicated to getting their hands on this piece of fiction (in whatever format).

What they, as fiction purveyors, need is a marketplace that is huge and ever-growing, serving a widely diverse a demographic with little or nothing in common, maybe not even language (AVATAR being one recent example -- remember I noted how movies are made for an international market and cross-cultural understanding).

These are diametrically opposed requirements, but I think I hit on one way to serve both needs in my previous post.

The problem is that the smaller market is most desperately determined to get the most expensively produced fiction but they can't afford it.

Two solutions are obvious.

Reduce the cost (computer applications are doing that - see what scifi channel has done with "Sanctuary");

... or increase the size of the market (by using a story that appeals all across demographics)

Seems to me Alien Romance is the key to that, AVATAR being an example of a sort.

So we see a really fumbling and faltering TV fiction delivery system, making bad decisions.

Meanwhile, if you've been following this blog or almost any other writing blog, you know more than you could ever want to know about e-book publishing.

But solving the puzzle of why Romance in general lacks the respect we see that it deserves may require paying attention to publishing from yet several more angles.

Here is a blog entry where a really good Literary Agent talks about what makes her take on a client after seeing a manuscript sample:


In this blog entry Rachel Gardner says:

Story refers to the page-turning factor: how compelling is your story, how unique or original, does it connect with the reader, is there that certain spark that makes it jump off the page? Is it sufficiently suspenseful or romantic (as appropriate)? Does it open with a scene that intrigues and makes the reader want to know more? Story comes from the imagination of the writer and is much more difficult to teach than craft (if it can be taught at all).

And I commented:
I think the big clue is in the idea that a "story" has to "be compelling".

As if compellingness is a property of story that can be infused into words on purpose! It's not.

Whether a particular person finds a story "compelling" depends on the person not on the story at all.

It's a subjective response, not objective.

Writers who try to make their story "compelling" on purpose (rather than make the plot compelling which is just craft) will likely freeze up, stop writing, or produce something awkward.

So just write your story. Then find the audience it compels.

My advice will lead to pleasing a niche audience supremely, but not an "Avatar" sized audience.

That blog entry compelled me to post that comment, but you likely won't find my comment among the dozens instantly posted! It is a very popular blog of a very good Agent who knows the business of being an interface between publishing and writers.

To solve our problem, you have to work with the VISION of what the business of Fiction Delivery is about from the point of view of those cogs in the wheels of the system.

The Agent is the Writer's point of entry into that system, and if the Agent believes that compellingness is a property of STORY not READER then you have to look at it from that perspective in order to understand why a show like HEROES gets canceled (or not) and why shows like LEVERAGE pull only 3 million viewers.

Get a hold on this VISION and you will begin to see the convergence of these various media into a single mammoth Fiction Delivery System.

See that and you may be more effective at directing your career and re-casting the view of Romance in the eyes of the world.

Careers in Fiction Delivery

Here is a blog entry I saw mentioned on twitter

JaneFriedman Sadly prescient: Career Reinvention for Publishing Professionals: http://bit.ly/bP16EV

The link leads to an article describing Andrew R. Malkin's meteoric career spanning decades inside publishing.

Here's that link unfurled. Read this carefully:

This is the story of a man who can talk PUBLISHING without ever referencing a compelling story, plot, worldbuilding, background, character arc, or any of the things that matter to us readers and writers.

From Andrew R. Malkin's perspective, publishing isn't about "compelling stories" at all.

At most, he mentions one author's name - and without a word about what delicious, beloved characters this author has made famous! He never talks about the fascinating relationships among characters, the drama, the penetrating themes or pithy language as sources of the success of his own efforts to market them.

This is a description of a "characters welcome" character, a career marketer, a kind of person that a writer never, ever, encounters, but upon whom a writer's career depends!

The writer deals with the Agent, the Agent deals with the Editor, the Editor deals with her Managing Editor or Committee -- the book is contracted, edited, copy edited, designed, assigned a cover -- turned over to publicity (some writers get to know their publicist; most don't) -- and then some layers beyond that publicist, the property reaches this man's hands where it lives or dies without having been read by most of the people who packaged the product.

It doesn't matter how COMPELLING your story is or how marvelously smooth the craftsmanship when this man causes success or failure of the book.

The same multi-layered business model structure is used by TV and Film industries, eventually causing films to live or die at the box office on the expertise of a man just like this one.

This is the structure of the "Fiction Delivery System" the very existence of which is hidden from the writer. The writer is never trained in how to leverage the existence of these decision makers upon whom his/her destiny depends. The reader/viewer never hears about these people.

Read this man's career carefully:


Here's a quote from this career track summary:
Last April, I decided to make another leap in order to expand my knowledge and experience in the book industry at a critical time. I left a trade house, Rodale, for Zinio, a digital publishing distributor known for their technology and marketing services, originating in magazines.

Read that blog entry describing his history and his shift into the electronic book publishing industry and you may come to understand better "what" is happening to ebook publishing as the big guys take over, and why they do what they do despite anything we can do or be or become.

If you regard TV and Book Publishing as IDENTICAL industries, you may see the pattern I can almost discern in the shifting Fiction Delivery System structure.

Note that TV also delivers non-fiction (as do films sometimes).

The Internet and the Web, especially social networking, are bringing these two delivery channels of the identical product (entertainment -- even non-fiction is a form of entertainment) together in ways that aren't clear yet.

Andrew R. Malkin is a fellow I wish was a fan of my novels! Or my favorite TV shows. I wonder what he does read.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Homepage: http://www.simegen.com/jl/


  1. Jacqueline, you have blown me away with your detailed, in-depth analysis of the industry of selling fiction.

    All the aspiring fiction writers who come to me hoping to break into publishing need to read this and understand exactly what they're hoping to break into.

    Thank you!

  2. Victoria:
    Thank you, and I have been aiming these posts on the craft and business of writing at those who have not yet reached your desk.

    I know what you're up against, and the last thing you need is a tussle with an unprepared writer.

  3. Jacqueline,

    Sorry I could not read your post in full - too much to digest quickly. But the news about Analog jumped out at me. I've been reading Analog since the mid-sixties, and have rarely missed an issue. Even when I was down and out on the streets of Boston, I'd eat at the free food programs and panhandle for my Analog money.

    Now I wonder if there's any point any more. I'd stare at a calendar, and try to make the date read April 1st, but I know it wouldn't help. This news is way too bizarre to have been made up.

    Will Stan Schmidt stay on? What would he do?

    This is a sad day for old-school SF.


  4. Sorry.

    I probably misread the Analog item. On closer reading it appears to imply that Fourth Floor will develop conetnt FROM Analog for other media, not develop content FOR Analog.

    (Huge sigh of relief)

    I had visions of Analog being taken over by media sci-fi. Fighters that go "whoosh" in the airless void of empty space. (Never watched Star Wars, never will).

    Sorry for the confusion,

  5. Okay,

    Once I got over into the comment page with black type on a white background, I found I actually could read the rest of your post. (Although I didn't follow the links).

    And I must both agree and disagree about "compelling" stories. Yes, compellingness is a quality of the reader - or rather of the reader's interaction with the text.

    Interestingly there are "writer advice" sites that give FORMULAS for stuff like "putting tension into every scene", "maximizing tension". "structuring the rythym of a scene", etc. Now I regard this stuff as disgusting and reprehensible. But I can't deny that it works.

    Compulsion (the noun form of "compelling) is closely related to "addiction" or "obsession" which in turn are related to neurochemistry. "Tension" is intimately connected to "attention".

    So the real issue is what gives tha reader continued squirts of adrenalin, or norepinephrine, or dopamine (depending on genre, of course). And I believe the people who say this can be produced by formula are (sadly) correct. It may well be crap - but it will sell like hotcakes.

    All that being said, of course different folks have different conceptual triggers for their neurochemical events. The "compelling" story is one that excites triggers in a broad enough demographic to be well-salable.

    Just a thought,

  6. Steve:

    Thank you for adding your excellent thoughts. There are a lot of issues connected with that "compelling" observation I found on an Agent's blog.

    And yes, my posts are all way too long for BLOG posts. That's a whole subject for a very long blog post!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  7. The convergence of all the mechanical elements of the Fiction Delivery System may be in this Cloud Computing model that's developing so fast.

    Note this news story Jean Lorrah pointed me at:


    And for those who are interested, you can now follow me on Google's new aggregator called Buzz.

  8. Jacqueline, that's a kind thought that you'll be able to reach the unprepared writer before they get to me! But the truth is they're struggling so hard to become whom the marketers and promoters tell them they can that they have a heck of a time finding real information on what that exactly is.

    Except for those who've published before, they're all unprepared. I think things are going to be very different after a few years of independent publishing teaches them the hard way what's really meant by both "craft" and "marketing."

    Yes, there are guidelines to craft. Some are simple ("don't bore your reader"), and some are complex. But they're all about the quality of the work--the compellingness--which is not by any stretch of the imagination the same thing as the marketability.

    I think you are correct that it is the marketing, not the quality, that sells fiction these days. Marketing has simply become that intensely powerful of a tool in the hands of people who thoroughly understand it.

    Writers need to know the difference and decide for themselves, "Am I writing because I love fiction and want to craft it as beautifully as possible? Or am I trying to use writing as a way to make lots of money?"

    Good luck on that second one.

    As far as cloud computing, my husband wrote an article on that for IBM's DeveloperWorks site last summer. It's an interesting concept for fiction, but keep in mind that it allows the owner of the server to retain ultimate control over the product. Last summer Amazon got in all kinds of hot water for retracting sold copies of certain e-books. There's the same potential scenario in cloud computing.


  9. Victoria:
    Thank you for the link to the article on Cloud Computing.

    That's another one writers aren't going to have a choice about. We ride piggy-back on Big Business as we do with having access to a Word Processor (which were invented for secretaries not writers).

    We just leverage the tools big business offices adopt. We have to figure out how.

    Your analysis though is correct. Commercial Fiction and Good Fiction are diverging farther than they ever have.

    Yet on the third hand, really good artists can leverage the commercially generated trope to get their own unique points across.

    What seems like an irrational restriction of form can become the vehicle or showcase that facilitates communication with the reader.

    It's going to be a wild decade, that's for sure.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  10. Anonymous7:35 AM EDT

    Leverage is one of the best show ever. Its funny, smart, engaging show, with terrific characters. I watch this show on weekend.