According to Metacritic, of the 44 scripted shows that debuted on major networks in the 2015-16 season, only 19 were renewed. Any show that survives its first season has beaten long odds.
What's next? Making it to season three, of course.
These five key elements of season two success are based on Insight Strategy Group’s extensive experience surveying and interviewing media audiences.
1) Build Cliffhangers Around a Show's Main Characters
Planning for season two success must begin before season one ends.
To build anticipation for season two, build mystery into the end of season one. But not just any mystery. Cliffhangers should involve the characters that the show's superfans care about most. Storylines about secondary or less-beloved characters won't build audience interest—audiences just don't care.
Know which characters your superfans connect with before you plot your season-ending storylines.
2) Develop a Business Plan
No show makes it to a second season without a devoted core audience. But if that audience doesn't grow, a third season isn't likely to happen.
Going into every new season, a show needs a business strategy. Often this is a choice between deepening engagement among the target audience or expanding the show's appeal to a wider audience.
For example, many of today's prestige shows have a unique narrative structure. These shows might be able to reach a broader audience with a more conventional structure, but that would turn off the audience they've built.
It's a tricky problem—one that research can help solve.
3) Learn How to Super-Serve Your Core Audience
Audiences connect with television shows for a combination of these reasons:
Connection to Characters
Insight Strategy Group research shows that nine in ten TV viewers 18-49 say they enjoy characters dealing with moral or ethical dilemmas.
Audiences take the scraps and hints about television characters and construct versions of them that make them as real as anyone they know. Viewers’ investment and emotional connection make them care about the character's life.
Audiences often watch television to help them process challenges in their own lives, or to challenge their own intellects.
Insight Strategy Group research shows that more than seven in ten TV fans 18-49 say they love shows that make them reflect on their own lives.
Viewing Occasion Needs
Audiences pick different shows to fulfill different needs at different times of the day: The show they watch in the den after Sunday dinner with the rest of the family is not the same one they watch in bed on their iPad.
Once a show has made it through season one, research can identify which of these factors drives audiences to watch. Creators can then decide which aspects of the show to emphasize to delight the audience even more.
4) Keep the Focus on the Main Story and Characters
Now that viewers can get an entire show's run on demand, few pick up a show in the middle. If a target viewer hasn't watched a show yet, they will catch up before the season two premiere.
As such, rather than using early episodes of season two to re-introduce the characters, shows should immediately pick up the cliffhangers from season one.
Shows should also never suddenly introduce new characters that might take the spotlight off of the ones audiences love. Audiences aren't as likely to connect with new characters unless they link to the main characters' families or existing relationships.
In addition, because audiences are so engaged, "previously on" montages don't need to be as long by the second season of a show. Many viewers fast-forward through them. "Next time on" clips are a better way to use this time. Viewers love getting hints about where the story is headed.
5) Use Teasers to Create Urgency and Intent-to-View
Fans follow entertainment news and even actors' Twitter accounts. They don't need to be reminded that a show exists—they want to get excited about it.
To fulfill this need, develop teasers to air in the weeks leading up to the season two premiere that are designed to:
- Energize existing viewers, getting them to talk about the show and share the teasers on social media
- Compel potential viewers to move a show out of their consideration queue and into their active list of shows
In conjunction with the marketing campaign, make all episodes of season one available free on demand so potential viewers can catch-up.
Season two teasers can incorporate the audience research from season one, highlighting characters and other aspects of the show that viewers love. But never reveal major plot points from season one, or anything definitive about the cliffhangers heading into season two. No spoilers! Audiences will want to make these discoveries on their own.
Once a scripted television show navigates the treacherous waters of season one, season two provides calmer sailing. Audience research helps by identifying the essential elements of a show's success, as well as what can be added or changed to increase fan devotion or audience size.