Monday, November 6, 2017

THE 12 COMMANDMENTS OF TELEVISION

About twenty years ago, when I was head of scheduling at NBC, I got a call one day from Don Ohlmeyer who was President of the NBC West Coast operation. He asked me and Eric Cardinal, our head of research (he’s over at the CW now), to come up to his office.

Don was an inquisitive dude and loved research. He and I would have long conversations about the business, the audience and the kinds of shows we should be making. He was a big tent guy. I had a relationship with the GE (our parent company) R&D group and, once in a while, I would come up to Don’s office with a new toy that the R&D gang and I had developed.                          

If I remember correctly Eric and I met with Don at the start of a new year and he wanted us to give him a set of rules which we could use to evaluate the coming crop of pilots. He asked us to go through the pilot testing data and see if we could find the connections between successful shows and what we could cull from the testing. His concern was that we may see a solid pilot but will it translate into a successful television show.

Eric and I worked on this project for a few months and finally presented Don with twelve “rules” which we called “Research Homilies”. Don embraced them and, when pilot season arrived, he had us hand them out to all the executives. Don encouraged them to evaluate the pilots with these rules in mind.

I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Creative executives are generally opposed to research so I knew that I was in for a hard time with several of my colleagues. I kept trying to explain to them that we weren’t saying that you had to follow this set of rules. The point that we were trying to make was that if a pilot did not exhibit some of these rules there was a good chance that it would fail as a television series. They weren’t buying it.

To make matters worse someone leaked the Research Homilies to TV Guide and they appeared in the magazine during pilot screenings. Let’s just say that didn’t sit well with our boss.

I have had several opportunities to present these Research Homilies to various groups and they generate some very lively discussions. When I went over to FOX several development executives asked me for a copy which they hung up in their office.

It’s been twenty years since Eric and I developed these rules and I thought it would be a fun exercise to share them with you and see if they still apply to successful shows. Now it is important to keep in mind that the definition of success has changed over these two decades. There are now several factors that go into the renewal of a show that go beyond the ratings. Be that as it may broadcast networks can still develop shows like THIS IS US, EMPIRE and THE GOOD DOCTOR which most would agree are “hits” by today’s definitions.                                                     

I accept that there is more niche programming as platforms need to be fed. I think that these rules also explain why a lot of shows that are critically well received will never expand beyond their narrow audience. Jeff Bezos recently demanded that Amazon move beyond their narrow creative model and start looking for their GAME OF THRONES. Easier said than done but I think it would help him to study these rules.

What I love about these homilies is how obvious they are. We did not reinvent the wheel but simply reminded creative executives that there is something universal about what the viewer is looking for in a television show. It’s fascinating how often these pretty obvious rules are ignored.

So, this is the prelude to a series of articles which I will call THE TWELVE COMMANDMENTS OF TELEVISION. Let’s see if they still help us understand today’s hits.

As a tease, here is the First Commandment:


“TRIED AND TRUE = DEAD AND BURIED – NOT!!!”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS AT TCA?

TCA the Television Critics Association Press Tour is rapidly approaching. I’m not going to go into my annual rant about its obsolescence but rather I want to recommend that you check out these thought pieces written by two of the preeminent Television writers. Alan Sepinwall and Tim Goodman. I respect them both although Time finds it necessary to block me on Twitter for some fakakta reason.

Tim’s piece is in the Hollywood Reporter titled “The Post-Review, Post-Premiere, Post-Finale World of Peak TV”. Alan’s article can be found at UPROXX with the catchy title “Does Anyone Still Have Time To Wait For Shows To Get Good?”. The reason why I recommend them prior to the start of TCA is that both, in their own way, are pointing to an existential crisis among those who write about, review or recap shows. Both articles also point the finger at “Peak TV” as the cause of the current woes. I’ll talk more about the myth of Peak TV in another column.


Tim’s concern is that, as viewing becomes increasingly untethered from a schedule, reviews and recaps are still “linear”. The review comes out before the premiere, Recaps are generally written the day after and discussion of the finale occurs at the end of the run of a show. The consumption of the writing is becoming untethered in the same way schedules are becoming less relevant. What’s a writer to do and, oh yeah, he or she can’t get to everything either.

Alan comes at the woes of Peak TV from a different angle. His thesis is (and I agree with him) that, with so much TV to consume viewers no longer have the luxury to wait for a show to “get good’ in the sixth or seventh episode. Consumers will move on and the critic has to accept that they will not return. Viewers don’t have the luxury of screening several episodes before realizing that something may be a gem. Alan points out that it may take well into the second season of a show before it blossoms. He credits his wife with the term “hope-watching” to describe this phenomena.

One of the more interesting points in the article is Alan’s theory that part of the blame for the slow starts of shows is that streaming series are dropped in entirety (most of the time) which emboldens the show creator to see his or her oeuvre as a movie rather than an episodic TV show. What is even more intriguing is that Alan posits that this form of storytelling is being adopted by cable and even network television.

I have talked about cable envy, the notion that networks started to see more failure as they tried to act like a cable network in show selection forgetting that many quality cable shows get small audiences. I actually had to shut down my blog back in the day for making this point regarding a show called LONE STAR. Whether intentional or not Alan has pointed out that there is now “streaming envy”. I want to think more about it because I also think it has some negative consequences for the biz.

What’s sort of ironic about these pieces is that network television has been described as a dinosaur by many who write about the business and now they are realizing that the same is true for their game. Theses to pieces talk about how to adapt to the new realities…something the networks have been doing for decades.


I could go on but read these two excellent think pieces. My guess there will be a lot of talk about Peak TV and the business of writing and reviewing at this year’s TCA.

MID-SEASON MASKY TIME

It’s mid-season MASKY time. Sorry for the delay. Was away for a while and before I left I started watching the mid-season shows and unfortunately started with the two comedies at the bottom of the list below. I decided I needed to take a break. Fortunately, I started up again this week and found a few pleasant surprises.

There are two shows that I will definitely check out again and one might work but probably not. Comedies continue to be not funny but there was one that at least made me chuckle.

There are two procedurals (DECEPTION and INSTINCT) that are in the classic ‘he’s a/she’s a” mold where one partner is someone in law enforcement and the other has a “super power”. INSTINCT features Alan Cumming and it’s ELEMENTARY so expect a second season.

So here are the MASKYS for best mid-season comedy and drama. Just to be clear the MASKY is awarded to the show that I feel has the best chance of being renewed for a second season. Last year I went 50/50 but I have a pretty good track record of awarding shows that go on for several seasons. Just to review DYNASTY (THE CW) and YOUNG SHELDON (CBS) won the Fall MASKYS for Drama and Comedy respectively.

The MASKY for best mid-season Comedy goes to AP BIO (NBC). Comedy is hard but this attempt at a SCHOOL OF ROCK sensibility sort of pulls it off. The kids are offbeat and there are several funny adults in addition to Glenn Howerton like, for example Patton Oswalt.

THE RESIDENT (FOX) wins the MASKY for best mid-season Drama and was the only pilot this year to get an A. It’s not groundbreaking or anything but it has Matt Czuchry which could draw in the GOOD WIFE contingent and Emily VanCamp. It’s just a really solid medical drama with Bruce Greenwood as the sort of villain of the show. There were just enough surprises to keep me invested.

I want to also suggest you check out RISE (NBC) which is GLEE meets FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. There are so many similarities to GLEE that it comes close to taking the show down for me but it’s far more solid and has a much better chance of staying on the tracks whereas Ryan Murphy shows have a tendency to implode.

Here are the grades for the mid-season shows that I could get my hands on. No BLACK LIGHTNING or LIFE SENTENCE (which I hope carries on the JANE THE VIRGIN, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, RIVERDALE tradition of the CW). You go with what you got.

Within each grade, they are ranked in descending order, sort of.


A
THE RESIDENT (FOX)
B
RISE (NBC)
INSTINCT (CBS)
AP BIO (NBC)
C
THE CROSSING (ABC)
CHAMPIONS (NBC)
ALEX INC. (ABC)
LA TO VEGAS (FOX)
DECEPTION (ABC)
FOR THE PEOPLE (ABC)
REVERIE (ABC)
D
BY THE BOOK (CBS)

SPLITTING UP TOGETHER (ABC)