TV Is Thinking Of Ending Things

The end is arbitrary. I don’t mean, like, existentially, I just mean generally. Endings are usually unpredictable, which is kind of a truism, but bear with me. As a writer, I have noticed endings announce themselves whether I want them to or not. It’s usually some subconscious pull towards finality, an understanding that the writing is pointing to everything wrapping up, though sometimes something equally unconscious is nagging at you to keep it going when you shouldn’t (like right now). That’s when an editor helps (Tom?). You might be loath to end something you’ve enjoyed working on, or rush to end something you haven’t. All that to say, the impulse to end a piece of “creative” work (something that doesn’t have clear boundaries like, say, a math problem) is ultimately internal, but there are still so many external factors that compete to determine its conclusion.

Unsurprisingly, a major external force is money. Why wouldn’t it be? The value of everything produced in a capitalist society is in some way or another derived from its earning power. Popular culture was always more aligned to finances than fine art anyway, just because of its aim in reaching a wider public and its association with corporate interests—the bigger the audience, the bigger the payoff. And if a piece of popular culture is popular enough—and sometimes that means trading in monetary value for cultural value—the idea of an ending becomes counter intuitive; it’s like asking the bank to stop giving out money.

Online, attention and money have become sort of equivalent (don’t worry, we’re nearly there). As much as popular culture is evaluated by how much money it makes, it is also evaluated by how long it can keep someone engaged watching (which, yes, also determines how much money it makes). In this context, in the case of television, the impulse is always towards making a bingeable show, not just by programming an app to automatically queue up each subsequent episode, but by actually constructing a show which trickles, which always has forward momentum, and which takes ages to finish. It’s a television formula which has historically worked. Before Prestige TV, TV was just TV. It was something measured in episodes (like The Simpsons, for example) rather than season-long story arcs. That was, until “The Judgment”—the two-part season finale of The Fugitive—in 1967.

By that point, the ABC crime drama was in its fourth season. Accused wife-murderer Richard Kimble was still running after the one-armed man (and real killer) to clear his own name. ABC ended the show with an episode like any other, with Kimble hiding in the mountains with the law on his heels. Resolutions weren’t really a consideration then—this wasn’t a book, it was television. You could pull the plug and not tell anyone; it’s just the way things had always been done. But after that last episode aired, ABC’s VP of programming was like, Wait, isn’t it kind of awful just to drop all those people who have been loyally following this story for several years? Leonard Goldberg took it to the higher-ups. Some of them were worried a proper ending would hurt syndication,…

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