I have things to do today, but I can’t let this one rest. The news this morning that tvN is shortening Ex-Girlfriend Club from 16 episodes to 12 is pretty pathetic. I can think of one good reason for cancelling four episodes: maybe the drama writer based the plot on real-life exes who are threatening to sue. What TV executive can stand up to lawyers?
But barring exes with lawyers, the reason is probably the show’s relatively low ratings. Ex-Girlfriend Club is averaging below 1%, with episode 7 hitting only 0.65% ratings. These numbers are surprisingly low, given that, on balance, reactions to the show have been positive.
Cable shows generally claim to be successes if they average above 1%. And if we call anything that isn’t a success a failure, by that definition Ex-Girlfriend Club is a failure.
But by that measure, tvN’s autumn thriller Liar Game was also a failure, with ratings at 0.96%. Yes, 0.96% is close to 1%, I know. My point is that the numbers alone don’t give an ironclad indication of a show’s quality. Liar Club didn’t have a giant audience in Korea, but it was well made. And it was a cult hit with overseas viewers.
The executives who make these decisions have access to detailed numbers that I don’t have. But they’re human beings and they can be driven by fear, too. TvN executives say that they want to make grown-up shows about real-world situations. Yet cancelling Ex-Girlfriend Club indicates that when they get what they asked for—a smart script with plausible emotions (combined with implausible hair-pulling)—they panic.
The online comments about the show’s shortcomings are probably an echo of what executive meetings at tvN sound like. The story moves too slowly! No, it moves too quickly because the characters have back-story! The exes get too much screen time! No, they don’t get enough screen time! Song Ji-Hyo is too old! Wait, Byun Yo-Han is too young!
But it doesn’t matter what the shows strengths and weaknesses are. Because Ex-Girlfriend Club is in a time slot competing with Producer. (Among others; a full discussion of the competition is at the May Drama Report: Ratings and Reactions.)
TvN executives can’t compete with Producer, because although Producer has weaknesses, it has top stars Kim Soo-Hyun, IU, Gong Hyo-Jin and Cha Tae-Hyun. It also has a connection to reality television. And reality TV is the real ratings winner these days.
Yes, girls, reality TV.
By acting “shocked, shocked” that Ex-Girlfriend Club is performing poorly opposite Producer, executives are acting like they don’t understand their own industry. They act ashamed of their own “product,” which they deliberately scheduled for a difficult time-slot. They’re afraid to look past the numbers at whether the show is good or not. Perhaps they don’t trust their own judgment.
Small-audience cable channels like tvN need to make good shows, not just well-rated shows. Good shows can find additional audiences overseas and make cable worthwhile. (Of course, ideally, they would make great shows, but even great shows usually start out as merely good.) The financial viability of twenty-first century drama has to take into account viewers who are online, international, or watching on “time-delay.”
Even American cable channels rely on overseas and “time-delayed” audiences. Few Americans actually watch a “hit” like Game of Thrones. I only know a handful of people who pay the exorbitant cost of premium cable. And I know even fewer who watch shows on the day they broadcast. The “popular” American cable dramas are watched in real time by a tiny percentage of the American population. They get many more viewers internationally and online, but they still have relatively small audiences. They’re what we used to call cult classics.
Generally, Korean executives seem to understand these market forces. But when they cancel a pretty good show for not getting enough viewers in three weeks (Exes Club debuted May 8), they’re acting like a broadcast channel, not a successful cable channel. A smart cable executive would have confidence that the word will spread and the show will get viewers. Anything worth approving in the first place is worth approving for the last four episodes. But apparently, tvN executives don’t trust their original decision to make this show.
C’mon, tvN, you say you want to be different than the broadcast networks, but you’re terrified to do what it takes: have good taste and believe your own judgment. If you were cancelling a show with low ratings and generally bad reviews, like Hyde, Jekyll, Me or Blood, I might understand. But you probably wouldn’t make those shows in the first place, right?
Given tvN’s shortening of the quirky Surplus Princess last fall—and its treatment of The Three Musketeers—it looks like the channel has misgivings about its goal to offer something different. Right now it only wants to offer something different if it can compete with Kim Soo-Hyun. Good luck with that one.
I certainly have misgivings about watching another tvN show before it has finished airing. I like tvN’s dramas, but I don’t like looking forward to something, then having it yanked away.
The disappointment of a small group of viewers might not matter much to tvN in the accounting ledgers, but it does hurt a network’s brand reputation. The economics of making dramas, like the economics of telling any stories, are difficult and unpredictable today. But it’s foolish to think you can cancel your way out of the economic risks.
You never have a guarantee of making your money back in the story-telling business. But you can still make good shows, if you don’t lose your nerve. ♥
I would translate this into Korean and send it to tvN, but unfortunately, my Korean is only good enough for swearing. Which tvN might not appreciate, though it captures my feelings. (>_<) Big hugs to everyone who is as annoyed as I am!