Goodbye, Wisteria Lane

With ‘Desperate Housewives’ Ending, TV Networks Ponder Future Without Massive Hits

Jace Lacob examines the plight of serialized drama at the broadcast networks in the post-'Desperate Housewives' era.

The fall of 2004 kicked off a television season that brought us some of the biggest hits of the last decade, launching Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, and House. Seven years later, those supernovas are either burning out or dead altogether, victims of audience fatigue or oversight, as their once-huge numbers dwindled year after year. ABC announced on Sunday that Desperate Housewives will end its run in May—the demise of the once powerful drama signals a death knell for serialized storytelling at the broadcast networks.

The TV graveyard is littered with the remains of ABC’s attempts to find replacements and companions for its surprise hit Lost (which ended in May 2010), none of which clicked with viewers. (Remember The Nine? No? You’re not alone.) With the loss of Desperate Housewives and the eventual loss of Grey’s Anatomy, ABC faces a terrifying challenge of making do without its event series, as its viewership erodes under competition from cable, the Internet, Netflix, and delayed DVR viewing. Can any upcoming serialized show on the broadcast networks even dream of the enormous ratings these shows once pulled in their prime? (Grey’s Anatomy lured 11.4 million last season, compared to a second season high of 19.8 million; House has lost nearly half of its audience in the last four seasons, as Season 7 drew 10.3 million versus Season 3’s 19.4 million; Housewives’ 11.9 million last season is way off from the 23.7 million in Season 1; and Lost’s final season drew its lowest ratings ever.)

Fox believes it has a shot at ratings glory with its prehistoric/time travel drama Terra Nova, or it could have an expensive disaster on its hands. But what it likely won’t have is an opportunity to ensnare nearly as many viewers as Housewives or Lost did back in their respective heydays, when both shows commanded more than 18 million viewers. While the seemingly halcyon 2004-2005 season may not seem that far off, it represents an era of veritable possibility compared to the complicated times the networks are facing right now. Whether or not Terra Nova clicks with viewers, for the broadcasters, these are desperate times indeed.

What we’re seeing in no uncertain terms is the slow, painful death of the galvanizing, hugely popular serialized drama: While it was just a few years ago that Mary Alice shot herself on Wisteria Lane, it seems a lifetime ago for the audience. Viewers are still watching reality-TV shows like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars en masse, while they dissect every moment on social-media platforms at the same time. But the days of those gigantic 20-million-strong audiences eagerly discussing what’s in the hatch on Lost or the latest mystery on Desperate Housewives are gone forever, it seems.

Of course, CBS’ NCIS still commands huge audiences, one of the few scripted dramas that is actually building its ratings. (In its eighth season, it grabbed 19.4 million, nearly twice many as its first year.) But it’s also a procedural that repeats well and is syndicated on other networks, allowing new viewers to jump in whenever they want. The series has had some WOW moments—the unexpected deaths of Sasha Alexander’s Kate Todd and Lauren Holly’s Jenny Shepard come immediately to mind—but this isn’t a show that takes its viewers down the twisty rabbit hole in the same way that Lost did. (But should NCIS choose to jolt its viewership with a plot twist, the show would be shocking roughly 10 times the number who watch AMC’s Mad Men.)

Was there really a time when more than 30 million people watched ER? This seems incomprehensible today, but there was an earthquake in living rooms across America when Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Greene misdiagnosed a pregnant patient way back in Season 1, or when who shot J.R. was revealed on Dallas, to the tune of roughly 83 million viewers. (Likewise, during its entire 10-season run, Friends never dipped below 20 million; a typical episode of Roseanne during its landmark second season would get anywhere from 21.9 million to 30.5 million viewers, and these weren’t Very Special Episodes, but average, run-of-the-mill installments.) These events were part of the cultural zeitgeist, generating identical morning-after conversations because everyone who wanted in on the discussion had actually watched it live. Those days of televisual gestalt are long gone.

ABC, like all of the broadcasters, isn’t going down without a fight. It has several shows waiting in the wings as potential replacements for Housewives. Female-skewing dramedy GCB (formerly known as Good Christian Belles and, alternately, as Good Christian Bitches) is something the network has high hopes for and which wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Desperate Housewives, and vengeance fantasy Revenge captures some of Housewives’ early darkness. And ABC will use the final season of Housewives to launch period drama Pan Am, which weaves together workplace intrigue, romance, and espionage.

But even if one of these shows is a hit, they can only hope for a fraction of the ratings that made their predecessors global franchises. However, the networks can still find financial success with smaller-sized hits, just not on the scale that they once did. Technology is changing the way in which we consume our television, and the conversation itself. Netflix has entered the original series game, paying a massive sum to air David Fincher’s U.S. remake of the British series House of Cards, which will air exclusively on the company’s streaming service. Will new episodes appear, say, every Sunday evening at 9 p.m.? Can viewers watch whenever they want? These are questions swirling around this new emerging business model, which cuts the cable provider and the networks themselves out of the equation. (Netflix is reportedly in talks for other original series as well.)

Add to this the fact that DVRs and online streaming platforms like Hulu and Amazon have split viewership into narrow audiences able to watch whenever and wherever they like (thank you, HBO Go), but any niche can seem all-encompassing in the hinterlands of Twitter, where the conversation becomes deafening at times. It’s easy to think that 20 million viewers tuned into the season finale of The Killing and had gone to the Web to express their frustrations, but it’s head-scratching to realize that the angry few were in fact at most only 2.3 million very loud individuals—that is, if every single finale viewer had stormed Twitter. (It felt like it.)

Terra Nova will provide a good test for the broadcasters, quite possibly the last one where they try to summon huge groups in such a crowd-pleasing, momentous way. This is a less than ideal case, given the problems that the beleaguered production has faced (multiple reshoots, delayed special effects, missed deadlines, and more) but if a Steven Spielberg-produced show with dinosaurs doesn’t work on a grand scale, then viewers have indeed fled Wisteria Lane, never to return.