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Down with cliff-hangers

Television is a risky business.  Of course, producers and writers are constantly trying to up the ante with the thrills, chills and shock value.  But the real danger isn’t for the actors or stunt-people.  It’s for the viewers.

I’m not talking about the Darwinian morons who ignore the “don’t try this at home” warnings.  No, I’m referring to the innocent viewers who are loyally tuning in to their favourite shows.  They’re hunkering down with a box of Ding-Dongs, risking their health, relationships, and, sometimes, sanity for that one hour – 44 minutes without commercials, 22 minutes for sit-coms – of their life that they can never get back.

They live with the stress of holiday re-runs, presidential pre-emptions, irregular season lengths and the obligatory finale cliff-hanger.  And they’re willing to do so because they know there will be a payoff.

Until now.

To many, season finale cliff-hangers are a staple for great TV.  Ironically, they weren’t common until Dallas kept us guessing “Who Shot JR?” for an entire summer in 1980.

By today’s standards, an oil baron getting shot late at night in his office is pretty tame.  But it did the trick.  Co-workers spent hours around the water-cooler (Google the term – I’ll wait) debating all the potential suspects and motives.  And yes, there were a lot of motives.  JR was, after all, the man America loved to hate.

So successful was the marketing campaign that followed, that Dallas jumped from number six in May to the number one watched show that fall.  And other networks took notice, following suit with their own season ending shocking twists that have become de rigueur in television today.

However, in 1980, there were only three major networks competing for viewers’ attention.  Furthermore, there was nothing to record the shows.  So viewers paid careful attention to their shows.  And if you missed an episode, you had to ask others about it or wait for a re-run.

Consequently, the cliff-hanger had almost no downside.  It pumped energy into the medium and encouraged conversation.  Spoilers were never an issue because information was judiciously doled out by the networks in magazines and on television.  And most shows ended with a formal finale.

The same can’t be said today.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s recent dance with the cancellation devil is proof.  The show was axed without warning by Fox in May.  This devastated fans because the season had ended on a major cliff-hanger for one of its characters.

However, viral – and feral – viewer outrage had NBC picking up the comedy as a shorter mid-season series just two days later.  Crisis averted.

But Nine-Nine’s showrunner has already decided he will never do a finale cliff-hanger again, claiming it’s not fair to the fans who deserve a resolution to their story.  He’s right.

Networks need to find another marketable writing tool.  Considering how easily shows disappear from the numerous networks and streaming services, a cliff-hanger is just too risky.

Especially for a population with potential blood pressure issues from sitting for so long.

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