The return of 24 this week proved to be a solid hit with 8 million viewers and a 2.5 rating in the all-important 18-49 demographic. The other day I touched on why Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) was game to restart the franchise, but based on Monday's numbers, it makes sense to examine why fans were happy to jump back on board. TV owes a lot to the series and so do investors of TV networks.
24's impact expands beyond advertising and ratings -- it opened the door for a new type of programming. Before The Shield's Vic Mackey and before Breaking Bad's Walter White, there was Jack Bauer. A dedicated agent of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit), Bauer morphed into a one-man wrecking crew who didn't let anything stand in his way.
Every season Bauer went deeper through the rabbit hole. This was a new type of character that was just beginning to evolve. Unlike The Sopranos' Tony Soprano, Bauer was on the right side of the law and that made his blurring of the lines ever more fascinating to watch. Audiences weren't as used to this type of character and it made them a little uneasy ... but they still watched. How far would Bauer go in the name of protecting his country?
Bauer's descent into this spiral also sprung from one of TV's greatest twists endings. After 23 hours of edge-of-your-seat action and stunning swerves, the producers saved the biggest jolt for the end. Audiences were so programmed to seeing the good guy come through in the nick of time; they sat in stunned silence as they watched Bauer (decade-old spoiler alert) cradle the body of his dead wife Teri (Leslie Hope) as the clock's final seconds ticked off on-screen. Despite all of the day's events, he failed where it counted the most to him on a personal level.
With the death of his wife and his daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) blaming him for it, Bauer became untethered, a turn that opened the door for massively successful shows like Rescue Me and House to explore areas that executives had previously thought audiences would shy away from; instead they embraced it.
The average numbers for season one of 24 were around 8.5 million viewers, with that number jumping to nearly 12 million the following season. Audiences weren't running from this new style of TV and that meant more profitability for all parties.
This was also the start of a new type of "smarter" TV that got people talking ... for better or worse. 24 debuted in 2001, not long after the 9/11, attacks which could easily have stopped the show before it even aired. Some critics and viewers were appalled that a network would air a show about terrorism. Remember, the first episode also included a sequence where one of the villains took out a commercial plane ... not exactly the type of image Americans were going to be comfortable watching.
Fox, to its credit, stayed the course and while producers made edits to the scene, it stayed in the episode. It couldn't have been easy to do that either as both Fox and the show were reliant on its sponsors, many of which were still trying to figure out their post-9/11 plans.
As it turns out this was only the start. The show became a larger target as its use of torture in its storylines dovetailed with real-life events. Politicians on both sides of the aisle got involved in the conversation and tried to inject themselves into the argument. The fictional drama ignited a real-world, which 24 then incorporated into one of its final seasons.
24 also became the first TV show to have an African-American president ... something some credit with paving the way for the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Played by Dennis Haysbert, President David Palmer was one of the show's most popular characters. He was smart, dignified, and possessed a strong moral code -- a shining example of what you hope a president would be.
When producers saw the reaction to 24, they sensed an opening and they pushed it as far as they could with an insane number of twists and turns -- arguably to the point of overkill. With the exception of Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, nobody was safe. After doing the unthinkable in the first season finale, the series raised its game every season. Primary characters would be killed off without warning and audiences never knew whether the good guys were actually good.
It was an odd concept, but it allowed network executives and producers to try new things. Shows like Scandal and The Walking Dead exist because of shows like 24. Even beloved characters are getting killed off in recent seasons that it's become an epidemic. The usual business model of a TV season is no longer valid. Big plot points are no longer reserved for season premieres and finales. Audiences get bored easily and when they do, they just turn to another option. 24 helped prevent that as the show never gave its viewers a chance to breathe.
Granted the show's storylines didn't always make sense and didn't always hit the mark, but they succeeded more times than they failed. That's the appeal of show like this and Fox's approach to this reboot will strip away all of those layers of filler that came with the traditional 20-something episode model. AMC, HBO, FX, Showtime, and cable as a whole are surviving because of elements of 24 and now ironically 24 is coming back utilizing elements of those networks. How's that for full circle?
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Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.