Back in the “golden years” of television, pictures streamed forth from the 4:3 cathode-ray tube in the corner that audiences worshipped. Changing channels was a physical activity (thus the channel didn’t change often). We accepted what the networks deemed fit to broadcast to us, and we lapped it up accordingly. They presented us with stars to watch & adore, newsreaders to learn from unquestioningly, & shows so good even if they felt bad they must be good (after all, they’re on TV). Those golden years barely 20 years ago.

Needless to say, those days are gone. The internet has changed a lot of the way we view and consume television – we now can access up-to-the-second news reports, live stream (and download) TV shows at will via network-supplied catch-up services and the like, and the fourth wall has been broken down between the audience and the stars of the shows we watch as we interact with them via social networking channels.

The tide has turned. TV audiences now have too much power, and it’s not a good thing.

With a swift tweet or facebook status update and a change of channel, the modern-day TV audience can now pass premature judgement on a show, and thanks to ever-present and aware network staff monitoring these missives along with the nightly OzTAM ratings the show in question hangs daily on a knife-edge as to it’s survival. In 2011 alone we’ve seen shows like Live From Planet Earth, Same Name, Suits, Top Gear Australia, Camelot, 30 Rock & Top Design be unceremoniously cancelled, be shunted around in the schedule until they’re impossible to find, or be hidden away on a digital multi-channel with barely a whimper of promotion to advise viewers about it. All this is due to TV networks responding to audience “feedback”. [Please note this list is not offered as an example of good programming – a lot of these shows deserved what they got in my opinion]

That doesn’t mean that networks won’t hang in with shows. The 7PM Project recently celebrated 500 shows on air – no mean feat for a show that audiences predicted would be lucky to last two weeks and has drawn a consistent audience accordingly. The Renovators is still on 6 nights a week despite flagging ratings. Similarly 6:30 with George Negus is still broadcast 5 nights a week, flying in the face of the numbers it’s pulling. These two shows are still on, as much for the investment the network has in them as the public embarrassment it would cause them should they be pulled. Depending on how forgiving the respective networks are, we may see new shows like The One, Hamish and Andy’s Gap Year and Good News World vanish too. At least one of which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Being a TV programmer is a tough job. It’s as much a dark art as it is a science. How do you guess what audiences will like? Just because they liked it in the USA doesn’t mean they will like it in Australia (and vice versa, of course). Niche programming is tough as any audience those shows have are likely accessing it via methods other than free-to-air TV, so airing it is a waste of time, right? One wrong programming move can cost a network millions in advertising revenue. Audiences across the country constantly pillory network programming decisions – either for the dross offered up or their favourite show being moved. Don’t get everyone started on shows running much later than the time advertised, either. Who’d do that job?!?

With the shift in access to technology and a network willing to kow-tow to the whim of the audience in general, TV programmers are in a tough position. Do you persevere with your schedule and risk alienating the audience (and, in the process, unearthing some gold), or do you chop and change your program based on last night’s ratings results and the tweets of the vitriolic (and, in the process, remove shows from our screens that with a chance to breathe and develop could be the “next big thing”)?

I’m not saying a return to the “good old days” where TV networks decreed and we lapped it up is in order, nor am I saying that the current approach where every episode is make or break for a series is ideal either. Can’t we find some sort of pleasant middle ground? Please?