The people behind MyNetworkTV are characterizing their forthcoming national network as something new, and it certainly is that. Starting September 5 on stations around the country, the network will feature two programs per night: Desire, at 8 p.m. EDT, and Fashion House, at 9 p.m. EDT. The innovation is that each program will consist of 65 episodes in a single story arc, shown five nights per week (with a "weekly recap" on Saturday nights). The programs are filmed in high-definition video, and the visual quality looks quite good in the commercials and on my computer screen. (Sample clips are available at the network’s website.)
It’s a very clever idea. The long-term trend in TV drama programs has been to include an overarching mystery element to the series while having each episode deal with an additional story that wraps up in that episode. The idea is to give viewers the satisfaction of a full resolution while encouraging them to return the next week to find out what’s happening in the main story line.
In Monk, for example, the mystery of the murder of the title character’s wife, which happened before the events of the series began, is always in the background and affects the way he reacts to events. In Veronica Mars, each season includes a mystery that works out over the course of the season, often coming to the foreground. In Crossing Jordan, the long-ago murder of Jordan’s mother reenters the story on a regular basis. Lost, Alias, Desperate Housewives, and other such programs are more directly serial in their approach, stretching out the story lines over the full run of the program.
The MyNetworkTV series are the next step in the process: limited-run series—if you can think of 65 episodes as being limited—that move through a single overall story arc consisting of several plot threads linking the lives of a central group of characters.
Fashion House, for example, features 1980s sex symbols Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek in what the promotions suggest will be a continuing series of catfights set in the sexy, sassy, intensely competitive fashion industry. (Desire doesn’t have any big stars attached to it, if either Derek or Fairchild can be considered big in any way other than in cup size, so I simply chose the most cliched-looking actor for the accompanying photo.)
Fashion House sounds like a Dallas or Dynasty presented five nights a week, as in cable reruns. Desire seems like an attempt at a grittier version of those programs, in which the danger to the main characters comes from their being pursued by the Mafia (don’t ask). Dallas and Dynasty and their spinoffs did awfully well in their original runs, of course, with the two originals often leading the ratings, but their production values and scripting were topnotch. It remains to be seen whether the MyNetworkTV series will receive a like investment. It seems unlikely that they should, but if we think of each program as being five series, in budget terms, it is possible that economies of scale could come into play. Plus, the decision to shoot the programs in hi-def video, which is in fact of greater resolution than most film stocks, will also help keep costs down.
All of this could allow the producers to achieve higher program quality than one might expect. The proof will be in the pudding, of course.
To help viewers keep abreast—excuse me, track—of what’s going on in the series, the network will use web technology in addition to the nightly updates that customarily precede episodes of serials such as these. Updates will be regularly available on the MyNetworkTV website, and viewers can also sign up for regular email updates. In addition, the website includes numerous "prequel" clips for each program, in which the characters speak directly to the camera about the problems they face in the series. Each of the two series adds a new clip every day.
Rather like a Wilkie Collins novel, these programs apparently will aim to present sensational fiction in an epic form. The extended attention to melodramatic story material could either elevate the stories or constitute an epic waste of time. It will all depend on what the creators put into it. And that is always true of any work of art, popular or otherwise. As a result, MyNetworkTV might be a positive innovation, or it may be a form of cultural decadence—but it will certainly be interesting to see.