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How DirectTV Saved “Friday Night Lights”

On Friday night at 8 PM, the fifth and final season of one of the great TV shows of this era, Friday Night Lights, will come to an end on NBC. Set in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, the show followed, among other people, the Taylor family:Eric (Kyle Chandler, in the role of a lifetime) as the head football coach of the Dillon Panthers,Tami (Connie Britton) as his loyal wife and guidance counselor; andJulie (Aimee Teagarden), his high school aged daughter. Through Eric, we learn about his players, the Dillon community, and the pride that football brings to the state of Texas. With fully realized, rich supporting characters and brilliant production values (including amazing dialogue, musical scoring, and editing), the critically acclaimed show will go down as one of the great televised works of the early 21st century, taking its place with The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Lost. And if you just yawned from that whole description, it features sex, booze, drugs, violence, Taylor Kitsch (for the ladies), and Minka Kelly (for the dudes) too. The only problem is that, unlike the majority of those shows, Friday Night Lights was never popular, and never had the high ratings to be safe from cancellation. In fact, without a major fan campaign, it may have been cancelled after one season, and without being thrown a humongous life raft by a satellite outlet known for their sports packages, it would have undoubtedly been gone after two. Blame can be passed in a few ways, from the show being poorly marketed in an odd time slot to the show being too complex in its characters and having too slow of a build-up to ever get a fully mainstream audience behind it. Regardless, it’s had a very bumpy ride with a happy ending for everyone.

Season 1: Critical Success, Popular Failure

The first season of FNL (We’ll refer to it as that from here on in) followed the aforementioned Taylor family, as well as members of Eric’s football team. These included:

Jason Street (Scott Porter), the all-state quarterback who (spoiler alert) suffers a paralyzing injury in the first game of the season. The horrific injury deeply impacts the lives of his family, his teammates, his girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Kelly) and everyone else around him. His struggle to adjust to life in a wheelchair is a crucial part of the first few seasons.

Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), a fast-talking, talented running back whose chances to get a college scholarship could save his family from poverty.

Tim Riggins (Kitsch), a brooding, alcoholic fullback from a difficult family whose on-and-off relationship with Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) shows his inner humanity.

Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a sophomore back-up quarterback faced with the task of replacing Jason Street, living with his dementia-ridden grandmother after being left by his mother and his father’s entry into the military. His relationship with his best friend, Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons), would be, for the most part, the comic relief of the show.

Critics quickly warmed to the show, but a marketing campaign by NBC that overly emphasized its football qualities instead of its interpersonal relationships, the true heart of the show, alienated many viewers, especially women. The football team’s drive to win a state championship was the overarching theme of the season, but the characters, especially Chandler’s and Britton’s, were the true reasons to watch the show. As talks of its cancellation circulated, NBC was bombarded in the mail by petitions and mini-footballs, all in an effort to save this beloved show. NBC eventually renewed it, but there would be issues.

Season 2: Network Intervention, Fan Alienation

As the second season began, Coach Taylor was working at TMU (a fictional Texas college) as an assistant coach, leaving Dillon behind. But Eric’s leaving Dillon wasn’t the only problem with the show. In what was widely considered to be a result of extra intervention from NBC, as a provision for bringing FNL back, the show took on a few storylines that felt disingenuous to what it had established in season 1. Julie (Eric’s daughter) started dating a sketchy older man nicknamed “The Swede”, Street impregnated a woman in a failed one-night stand, and, above all else, Landry killed a man who had attempted to rape Tyra and hides the body. Considering that one of the attributes that set season 1 of FNL apart from other dramas was its realism and believability, this all was extremely off-putting to the show’s small but loyal group of fans. When the writer’s strike hit in early 2008, the show was in the middle of filming, and only 15 of the 22 planned episodes for the season aired. The season had no resolution and the widespread belief was that the show would be cancelled. Fans of the first season were upset with the difference in quality, despite having moments of strength. When the writer’s strike ended, the show was briefly shopped around to TNT, E! Network and CW, but then it found its hero.

Season 3: DirecTV Brings Salvation

Before season 3 of FNL started, it was announced that NBC and DirecTV would form a partnership to produce the show. They would split production costs, and in exchange, DirecTV would have rights to run the entire season before NBC, on its Channel 101. NBC would air the episodes later in the TV year, in the winter and spring. DirecTV would air the episodes in the fall to coordinate with the actual high school football season.According to this New York Times piece, in 2008 DirecTV had an audience of 16.8 million households, 15 % of what NBC had. DirecTV hoped that the deal would entice tens of thousands of viewers to sign up for their system. Eric Shanks, the executive vice president of DirecTV, said at the time,

“We have exclusive content around sports with the N.F.L., college basketball and Nascar. Why can’t that same model work with entertainment? Why can’t we go out and get exclusive entertainment properties and use that as a differentiator as well? If fans are passionate enough to ditch cable and come to DirecTV, we can help keep shows alive.”

The Quality Returns

This new deal was like Christmas for FNL fans. Not only did the show have solid financial and network footing, but it was allowed to get back to its creative roots. Taylor was back as the coach of the Panthers. A main story revolved around Saracen, now a senior on the team, being challenged for his starting quarterback spot by youngster J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), and Taylor was being equally challenged by McCoy’s abrasive father, Joe (D.W. Moffett). Smash’s final push towards college was a key point to the beginning of the season, and may have touched the strongest emotional chord of any storyline in the show’s history. As the high school football careers of Saracen and Riggins came to an end, the show’s dynamic changed permanently.

Seasons 4 and 5: Changes Abound, and an End Date is Set

After season 3, DirecTV renewed their commitment with NBC to produce Friday Night Lights. As an added bonus, it was decided that they would produce seasons 4 and 5 together, and that the show would almost certainly end after that. This let the writers and producers figure out an endgame for the show, and these last two seasons flowed together much more evenly than any other two seasons did. After a tumultuous end to season 3 resulted in Coach Taylor opening up a new football program in newly formed East Dillon High School, seasons 4 and 5 centered around the progression of that team. Almost all of the old cast left, with the exception of the Taylor family, Riggins, and recurring members of the Dillon community, including Brad Leland as Lyla’s father, Buddy. Some new characters included:

Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-juvenile delinquent with a drugged-out mother who changes his life and future thanks to football, Coach Taylor and his girlfriend, while becoming a star quarterback.

Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria),  a well-off two-way (offensive and defensive) player that has to deal with not quite being the superstar that he hopes to be.

Becky Sproles (Madison Burge), a neglected high school girl that looks up to Riggins as a parental figure and engages in a difficult relationship with Cafferty.

The new blood injected life into the show, and allowed for fresh stories to be told, all while knowing that there was an end date in place. And now, we’re here. For a more detailed history of the show, Grantland produced an oral recollection this week. On Thursday, FNL received its first-ever Emmy nomination for Best Overall Series and analysts consider it a dark horse to win the award. Chandler and Britton were also nominated for Lead Actor and Actress, and have fighting chances to win. The show has had an excellent run and will have a firm place in TV history as a great show, but without DirecTV, none of this would have happened.

The Future of TV Integration

Since the success of DirecTV’s contract with NBC, DirecTV has gone on to co-produce Damages on FX, and eventually has bought the show out. Now, that show only takes place on DirecTV. Can this continue in the future? Over the last few years, ‘webisodes’ have become increasingly commonplace from shows. These are very short episodes revolving around primarily supporting characters, and are only available on Youtube or the network’s website. The Office was among the first shows to feature these, in 2006. Most shows now have exclusive content online, and some even have features only for mobile components. The success of the FNL merger meant that co-producing shows was a possibility and it’s only a matter of time until a low rated but beloved show moves its product to a website that can support new episodes. Netflix recently announced that they’ll be producing new programming, which is a big step in the right direction. With FNL’s success in a non-traditional medium, an already-established TV show moving online would be a logical next move.

Conclusion

As it comes to its ultimate conclusion, Friday Night Lights represents the best of TV of the past and, possibly, of the future. With its simple and effective storytelling and dialogue, the show is reminiscent of a time when TV shows didn’t have to rely on big murders, shocking plot twists, gratuitous violence, ugly gangster warfare, and nostalgic trips to the past to keep an audience engaged. Simply having compelling characters that spoke the way that people in their situation would was more than enough. But Lights’ ultimate success may be the bridge it provided from traditional broadcasting networks to the vaster possibilities of satellite service and the Internet. As we say goodbye to a truly great show, we can look ahead to what its existence may have given us: the chance for quality programming to have a chance to survive, even if its audience isn’t wide enough for a massive appeal. That would be unforgettable, even outside of Dillon.

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