Looks like Jack Bauer is going to have another really, really bad day. Fox Television has announced it is bringing back the ruthless superspy in a new 12-episode season of 24, the groundbreaking show that made Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland an international star.
The episodes will begin airing next year in May, right in time for the sweeps period. Fox is obviously looking for a hit to boost its rating, but the return of 24 is raising questions about the show in particular, and about television in general.
Namely, will a show that cashed in on the post-9/11 paranoia of the George W. Bush era have any traction in Barack Obama's America? And will people still tune into appointment television in an age when Netflix and DVDs make it possible to watch entire seasons of shows in one sitting – including brand-new shows?
The Atlantic Wire calls this the "binge-watching era" in a piece about 24's return. As they point out, Netflix recently released all 13 episodes of its first in-house production, House of Cards, at once, rather than the traditional one a week. It was a daring move that worked; House of Cards has been a hit for Netflix, which has since said it will produce a new season of the cult series Arrested Development.
The question is, do network TV viewers still have an appetite for dramas that require dedication to follow? This is the great dilemma facing networks, which rely entirely on advertising for revenue and must have much higher viewership than subscription-based cable channels in order to survive.
Millions of viewers gobbled up 24 when it was launch just months after 9/11, and they were kept in thrall over subsequent seasons as writers developed plots that raised questions about torture, terror and Islamophobia. Basically an action show, it was bolstered by strong acting, especially that of Sutherland. Critics called it one of the best and most innovative shows on TV.
But in one way, 24 foretold the future of TV. When full seasons of 24 were released on DVD, people who'd never watched the show before snatched them up. There was an obvious desire among consumers for entertainment that didn't require tuning in to the same channel at the same time each week, and that is the way television has been going ever since. Lost was the last great episodic drama on network TV.
Nowadays, the networks release episodes of hit shows sporadically, some times going three weeks between shows. The only place appointment television still exists is on cable networks (Game of Thrones, Girls on HBO; Mad Men, The Walking Dead on AMC). Fox is betting the other way – that TV viewers will still watch a network show where every episode ends in a cliffhanger and put up with waiting a full week to find out what happens next.
Even if we are willing, will we bother to watch a show about a terror-fighting spy? That might be a safer bet. The popularity of the Showtime hit Homeland indicates audiences still have an appetite for these things, as does the success of the film Zero Dark Thirty. And, sadly, terrorism, and the use of torture and other no-so-civilized measures in the fight against it, are still part of life.
Add to that the goodwill left over from the success of 24 last time around, and it's a good guess that Fox will get the ratings boost its looking for next May.