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24As just about everyone knows, the season premiere of the best show on television kicked off for two nights straight on last night and Sunday night with the first four episodes.  Serial dramas are hot right now, but having mixed success as a recent article in USAToday noted.  "24" remains the gold standard in those dramas.  For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows the adventures of a secret agent, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), over the course of an entire day in real time.  1 minute elapsed in the show is meant to be 1 minute real time – and from my viewpoint, the show’s success stems from a single principle all the other shows would do well to learn.  The show has a respect for its viewer that is frequently missing when it comes to television.  Here’s what I mean by respect:

  1. Avoiding "dumbing it down": The show build off previous seasons, but there is no lengthy explanation of the characters relationship to one another.  Where backstories need to be filled in, they are done through scene interaction and seamlessly.  The result is a great experience for loyal viewers, and enough information to engage new viewers without making watching the first five seasons of 24 a prerequisite to understanding the show.
  2. Wrapping up storylines: Yes, it’s a serial – but that doesn’t mean every episode needs to have a cliffhanger with unresolved plotlines.  In each episode you learn something new, and if something is going to explode, it usually does before the end of the episode.  At least you know it did, and you’ll come back to see how the characters react to it. 
  3. Airing an uninterrupted season: Kicking off this weekend, the show will run every week for another 20 weeks until the season finale in May.  No long breaks, no repeats mid-season, and no artifical extensions of the season just to try and sell more advertising.  Yes, people do notice this stuff.

Contrasted with "Lost" – another highly popular TV show, the difference is clear.  There is hardly ever a wrapup of storylines until the last episode of the season in Lost, and as of writing this, the show is on a very odd three month mid-season "break" until February.  What is the marketing lesson in all this?  Keeping customers is the same challenge as keeping viewers.  Standing out from all other serial dramas is not just about great writing – the entire experience has to live up.  Respect is at the center of this experience.  As a viewer of 24, I feel respected.  As a viewer of Lost, I don’t.  It’s no wonder 24 is the best show on television.