Friday, March 18, 2011

Why do shows that were once good now suck?

Ready for some Friday questions?


lansing asks:

Do writers on a long-term show perceive when the quality of a program is in decline? A substantial decline in ratings makes this obvious to everyone. However, a ratings decline can substantially lag a quality decline.

Well, first of all, if I’m a show creator, that’s a problem I’d be happy to have.  By the time we jump the shark I'll be in Hawaii. 

There are several reasons why a show’s quality declines. You start running out of stories. Imagine if Shakespeare had to come up with 200 stories for Hamlet.  They'd be doing the talent show episode by season two.

You find yourself falling into familiar patterns. And you find that the characters no longer surprise you. You pretty much know exactly what they’re going to do in every situation since you’ve already put them in every situation.

Another reason is that often show runners get tired of the grind of producing a show every week and scale back their involvement (Aloha!).  The replacement writers, although they may be good, just don’t have the same feel for the show as the person who created it. So it drifts a little. That’s how we felt with MASH. David Isaacs and I, on our best days, were not as good as Larry Gelbart on his worst.

Sometimes your star over time will assume more creative control and that can cause a sea change in the show’s quality. Yes, I’m thinking of you, Cybil Shepherd. (Sidenote:  I see she's agreed to be in a sitcom pilot this season.  God help those poor writers.)

I used to welcome when we’d have a cast change because that would alter the chemistry and give the show a new sense of freshness. Charles Winchester on MASH and Rebecca Howe on CHEERS are two good examples. TWO AND A HALF MEN could experience that too. (Who should they get? Gary Busey? Mel Gibson? Randy Quaid?)

Someone who didn’t leave his name wondered:


When you were working on becoming a baseball announcer, did you ever have the cojones to ask Vin Scully to listen to one of your tapes and comment?

No. I never wanted to impose. Plus, I didn’t want my idol to think, “Jesus, this guy is horseshit!”

From Robala:

How many pilots will a network allow for a new show? For instance, I know that there two previous pilots for "All in the Family" (with two other actors cast as Mike and Gloria) and another pilot for the "Bob Newhart Show" where Jerry wasn't a dentist but in practice with Bob.

It all depends on how much faith the network has in the project. 90% of the time if your pilot isn’t picked up it’s dead. But there are times when the network is willing to redevelop it. There have been several HAWAII 5-0 pilots before the current version (one even starring Gary Busey). NBC made a couple of versions of the British hit COUPLING. And for some reason NBC just wouldn’t let the LIPSTICK JUNGLE project die. There must be a version starring every TV personality except Ivanka Trump.

Today, networks routinely recast and re-shoot parts of pilots after they’ve been picked up. That way if Gary Busey's and Cybil Shepherd's pilots doesn’t go, they can be inserted into yours.


Stephen wants to know:

What is your opinion on multi-year contracts actors enter into when they join a show, as opposed to the single-season contracts most actors are signed to here in the UK?

As a producer, I love it. That way I know that if the show takes off, I’m protected. My cast is locked in and so are their salaries.

For the actors, it’s not such a good deal. Based on one script (that is bound to change) you’re asked to make a multi-year commitment. For the quick income you make on the pilot, sometimes you’re then stuck on a terrible show… for five years. That's more of a sentence than some people get for murder.  And you don’t have a lot of time to think about it. There are a hundred other actors who would jump at that opportunity. That’s a big life commitment to make in six minutes.

And finally, sophomorecritic has a question about my book WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED (the Kindle version you can order here, the paperback you can order here), and all other ebook formats here.)

I would buy a book about Ken Levine's experiences in TV (easier than scrolling through all the back entries), but why would I be interested in his travels?

Ken's developed a readership based on his great firsthand accounts about working in TV and his insights into the TV/film industry. Does anyone else think it's a big mistake for him to self-publish a book that has little to nothing to do with what bought people to this blog in the first place?


That's a fair question.  But I like to think of my blog as more than just a TV industry and writing advice destination.  I post about whatever interests me.  And that may range from baseball to pop culture to radio to travel.  I happen to think readers would enjoy following my turbulent sojourns.  Doesn't mean I won't do a TV related book at one point... assuming this book sells.  So if you want a TV book, the best thing to do is buy ten copies of this one even if you have no interest or hate it. 

What’s your question?  Please leave it in the comments section and thanks. 

46 comments:

Akhen1khan2 aka Jack Eason said...

You're forgetting one salient point here Ken. People's tastes change along with time itself.

It's a pity that the executives in charge haven't cottoned on...

Joyce said...

I just ordered only one copy of your book ... if I really like it, maybe I'll pick up the other nine!

Ed Blonski said...

Good point on your response to why anyone would be interested in a travel book by you.

I'm thinking of the popularity of an icon of British comedy who, after his comedy troupe show ran its course and he did a couple of movies, decided to film himself taking a trip around the world in 80 days, go from the North Pole to the South Pole, travel through the Pacific rim countries and hike the Himalayas and the Sahara desert.

I think they were pretty popular and the books were good sellers.

Most importantly, they were projects that HE wanted to do.

Stick to your passions, Ken. I, for one, will continue to enjoy reading about them. (is that a little creepy? I better quit while, well, you get the idea.)

Charles H. Bryan said...

The reason to but Ken's travel book is that it's funny. Mr. Levine's writing has made me laugh on may occasions and in various media, but with this post, the funniest possible thing he could have written would have placed second to that Cybill Shephard pic.

Ye Gods. Fire that stylist.

Charels H. Bryan said...

Wow. Pardon my typing.

"buy" not "but"

"many occasions" not "may occasions"

sophomorecritic said...

I check this blog every week to see if Ken answered any of my questions on Friday and I wasn't expecting him to address that cause i didn't post it in the section specifically designated for Friday questions. Now everyone will think I'm a jerk.

Holt said...

Great post as always Ken - and there's no gel-on-camera that could soften that Cybil visage - yeesh.

Question, which can be treated rhetorically or not: Did you know that MASH was all in Tommy Westphal's (of St. Elsewhere) mind?...

Since my last comment about always walking by St. Elsewhere's exterior hospital, a co-worker of mine pointed out that, due to the inclusion of series within the St. Elsewhere universe, a boatload of series all exist in Tommy Westphal's mind (which is of course, how the series ended - St. Elsewhere was in tommy's mind). Including, crazily enough, MASH.

Here is the website that tracks the the Tom Fontana-verse: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~kwgow/crossovers.html

See both the exterior shot of St. Elsewhere and a recently taken shot of the building here (page down from the blog-post):
http://tholt.posterous.com/st-elsewhere-and-bmc

MBunge said...

"There are several reasons why a show’s quality declines."


Is the appropriate response to those declines ever "let's just pack it in" and end the show? Most shows that achieve any sort of success can usually limp along for a season or more after they're gone to pot, providing employment for a good sized number of people. And there's no guarantee that the next thing the creators come up with with will be 1/10th as good or successful.

So, should you ride a show into the ground or let it die with some dignity?

Mike

Mr. Hollywood said...

Alan Ball (who went on to write AMERICAN BEAUTY) told me a few horror stories of working with Cybil and Brett Butler when he was a writer on their TV shows. Truly loathsome people ... because he hated them so much, he started writing AMERICAN BEAUTY to get him out of the TV area and the rest is history!

Tom said...

Cast changes helping shows: In my recollection, adding Dennis Franz to Hill Street Blues as Det. Buntz singlehandedly made that show watchable for its last two years.

BTW, just finished your book. Splendid. Being from Chicago, thank you for the nice words about the people, and wholehearted agreement about the weather. I think you overstated the number of lawn ornaments per capita, but no trouble allowing for literary license. Thanks.

Another Stephen said...

Actually, most lead actors on shows here in the UK aren't on year contracts as such. Usually their contracts, if its a first series (we rarely do pilots), there's usually an option built in should it go to a second series. The prospect of losing the cast can be used to force a commissioner's hand on making the decision whether to commission that second series or not.

MikeBo said...

The Cybil pic caused me to flashback to one of my former lives and the face of a horrible executive I used to report to. Cybil's visage triggered a stage 5 PTSD episode . Fortunately my Kindle edition of your book provided the necessary antidote. I now wear my Kindle around my neck like a Mezzuzza (Sp?) and I'm not even Jewish.

Michael Rafferty said...

Hi, Ken. How do you decide whether a show is going to be 3 camera live audience or one camera no audience? Happy Days and The Odd Couple went from single camera to live audience. What are the advantages of one over the other and which do you prefer as a writer and director?

Marija said...

Hi Ken.

Is it possible to order your book in Europe(I'm from Belgrade, Serbia)? I checked amazon.co.uk, but they only have the kindle version.

I absolutely love your blog and would love to read your travelogues.

SharoneRosen said...

the book is not a big mistake, but a great sharing of great writing! I've always loved your travelogue, slice- of-life posts!

Karen said...

ordered your book a couple days ago on amazon. looking forward to reading it!

Dave Mackey said...

I love to travel - just wish I had more opportunity to. I bought your book and it will certainly keep me it of trouble.

rockfish said...

While writing for TV, how is the line drawn regarding tastefulness? I'm thinking along the lines of risque, dirty and off-colour humour, sometimes Gilbert Gottfired-like stuff done just for laughs... As tastes and the moral line have changed over time -- things that are allowed to air and be a punchline today would have seen the zombie corpse of Will Hays rise and smite all on set -- did you think your writing/show was leading that change? And is the nature of filming before a live audience affected what is written, or have you written/directed shows that were more ribald (intentionally) than you knew couldn't air as written? Not that I think you're in line to do the Howard Stern version of Sanford and Son...

Anonymous said...

B-U-S-E-Y

Mac said...

I did a show in the UK which had a pretty crap budget, so everyone agreed to pitch in on the understanding that there wasn't much money. When it went to a second series with a bigger budget, one of the main actors, knowing we couldn't do without their character - demanded a huge rise which ate up the extra money, and made for a horrible atmosphere on the set. By the time a third series was offered, it was such a joyless experience that everyone passed, apart from the same actor who was pushing for even more money.
So yeah, lock them in at the start.

Michael Zand said...

These days thing have speeded up considerably. Take the three "Friends" clones the air today: "Traffic Light," "Mad Love," and "Perfect Couples." All three started out with not hilarious, but decent pilots but turned to crap by the third show. The writing and the characters are so generic that you literally could have characters crossing over from one show to another and nobody would notice difference.

Pat Reeder said...

One of the funniest comments I read on a news site defending Charlie Sheen's $100 million lawsuit was by a Sheeniac who said that Chuck Lorre must be an a-hole because he's clashed with all the stars he's worked with: Roseanne, Brett Butler, Cybill Shepherd and now Charlie Sheen.

I replied that I've never met Chuck Lorre, but if he's worked with all four of those actors and never committed murder, then he must be a candidate for sainthood.

BTW: "Anonymous said...

B-U-S-E-Y"

We know it's you, Gary.

gottacook said...

As noted above, the addition of Lt. Buntz to Hill Street Blues during its last two years did soften the decline of the show somewhat (despite Steven Bochco leaving at the end of the previous season). But that was an interesting case because Dennis Franz had made a very big impression a few years earlier in a multi-episode arc playing a different character entirely, Sal Benedetto. Bringing Franz in permanently as Buntz was therefore more radical than, for example, adding Col. Potter to MASH after Harry Morgan's earlier role as a loony higher-up in a single episode.

WV: grogir - hey, it isn't Purim yet (but very soon).

Ken Levine said...

Marija,

Yes, you can order it in any format. Just got here.

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/45343

Thanks.

Ken

Phillip B said...

I know it has happened before, but cannot recall the circumstances - but I would not replace Charlie Sheen, I'd suggest taking the same cast and doing an entirely different show. If the best wisdom is to do "The John Cryer Show" so be it..

The only examples I can recall are semi-tragic attempts to convert sitcoms (Gomer Pyle, the Brady Bunch) to variety shows. And I can't imagine this cast in anything other than a sitcom...

VP81955 said...

Based upon the Cybill pic, I'm guessing that in her new sitcom, she plays the Secretary of State...

Jim S said...

Ken,

Great column as always. My question deals with the transition from "just a writer" (I fully acknowledge being a writer on a good show is like being just a .275 hitter in the major leagues - incredibly difficult) to showrunner?

Again, keep up the good work.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Isn't Cybill Shephard too big a movie star to do a sitcom?

Jeffrey Leonard said...

For those who haven't noticed...EVERY time Cybil Shephard appears on the David Letterman show, Paul Shaffer's band plays "Bitch" by the Rolling Stones as she walks out on stage. Apparently, she hasn't picked up on it.

Bill White said...

Ken-

I loved the book. Based on how much I enjoyed it, I would buy a book by you on any subject you cared to write about (although a "Tales From the TV Trenches" book would be welcome).

My question: Am I mistaken, or did you work on "The Odd Couple"? If you did, I'd love to hear some stories about that, as I think it is one of the best sitcoms of all time.

If you didn't work on the show, just write abut something else. I'll still read it.

D. McEwan said...

The combination of the column title and that photo of The Cybill is so hilarious that you almost didn't need the column below it.

Why do people still consider this just a blog about TV writing? It often has the travelogues, the AI recaps, lots of stuff I skip about baseball.

And hence my point; it's about what you want it to be about, and we can pick and choose which parts of the buffet to enjoy. Same with your books. (You have two now! Eat your dust, Harper Lee!!) I know I will love the new book, having been on that mailing list for them (Have to wait till start of the month to order it. Tight money month), whereas I have no interest in reading your baseball book. But others do, and it's clearly your passion, so should we be saying: "don't write about baseball, just M*A*S*H and Cheers?" Of course not. Makes no sense even to suggest you limit your topics to what one particular reader wants you to write about.

I'm looking forward to the Growing-Up-in-LA book you've treated us to excerpts from, and a book on your TV career would also be highly interesting (The chapter you could write on Ronny Gahame alone would be over-the-top hilarious), but that's no reason not to do another baseball book if you want to.

Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olson in The Adventures of Superman with Ben Affleck, I mean George Reeves, did not want to do that show, but his agent talked him into doing the first season. (He wasn't in the theatrical film Superman and the Mole Men which was basically its pilot.) Jack is a highly intellecutal and brilliant man. He's written operas, for Heaven's sake. He was a friend of Christopher Isherwood. Even so young, he felt this show was beneath him. But his agent told him: "Hey, it's a few weeks of work and a paycheck. It'll probably never even air. It's just a very silly children's show. No one will
ever see it."

"No one will ever see it."

Oops. Was ever a man more wrong, even George Bush? Jack found himself stuck saying "Jeepers, Mr. Kent!" for eight years, and even now, almost 60 years later, it still airs, and he's still Jimmy Olson to milions of people. He had to make piece with it, which he did.

D. McEwan said...

RE: Dennis Franz: He was very proud of having done his own nude-butt shot on NYPD BLUE You know who was jubalent about Franz doing his own nude-butt shot? The poor casting director who would have had to cast a Dennis Franz Butt-look-alike! Imagine those audtions! The one that actually made the casting director throw up would have gotten the job.

normadesmond said...

there should be a law:

the only known photograph of
cybil shephard should be this one.

John said...

Ken, since you and David's final writing for MASH was also the final episode for Gary Burgoff, is there any different approach you take to the script when you're writing an episode where a significant change has to happen by the show's end (i.e. -- when you know a pre-determined outcome, like Radar goes home, has to be resolved by the end of the show and has to air at a certain time in the season, as opposed to a more open-ended script that can play in any spot in that season's rotation).

Michael said...

Have you ever been asked to provide a blurb for a book and, if so, has it ever led to an awkward experience due to not liking the book?

Lairbo said...

Hey, Cybil Shepard replacing Charlie Sheen would be something to watch (she's his never talked about briefly ex-wife who, after years of legal wrangling has found a way to get his house), although it might push Chuck Lorre over the edge...

Tod Hunter said...

I've found that when a sitcom gets big, the creator(s) often will start a new show and move on from the original show.

The creator(s) love their characters. They invented them, they brought them to life. Every little quirk and witticism came from them, originally. They see themselves reflected in their characters and they nurture them. It's a lot like parenthood.

When new writers come in, they don't have the same warm fuzzy feelings for the characters. My feeling is that they tend to torture the characters, although some would say "challenge" or "create dramatic tension."

An extreme example would be the later seasons of "Caroline in the City," where a sweet, whimsical little show turned first into an opera of Caroline's unrequited love and Richard's sudden marriage to a European sexpot and then a jumbled mess where Caroline tried to fit her quirky little comic strip into a massive corporate structure -- kind of "Mary Tyler Moore" meets "Dilbert."

A sad ending for a once-sweet show.

--t

Naz said...

I never knew Cybil Shepard was so "difficult". Is that a secret? I just thought she looked ridiculous wearing sneakers when she would be a guest on talk shows.

Mike said...

Cast changes can help. While the Shelley Long years of Cheers are still my favorite, it really did get freshened up when Kirstie Alley came on board. After five seasons, the Sam-and-Diane relationship had been taken in pretty much every direction it could've gone. Even on Happy Days, the show was rejuvenated a little after Ron Howard left. The show was sort of stuck in a rut at that point, and by removing the "Richie in a jam, Fonzie to the rescue" formula, the writers were forced to focus on other characters, specifically Joanie and Chachi. In fact, in my opinion that first season after Ron Howard left (1980-81) was perhaps better than his last couple of seasons on the show.

But I suppose it all depends on the show, and how close to its
"sell by" date it is when one of the key cast members bails. For example, That 70s Show was pretty much running on fumes anyway when Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher left, and after they left the show became basically unwatchable. While the "who will replace Charlie Sheen?" question is obviously the more prominent question right now, don't forget NBC is going to try a Steve Carell-less version of The Office next season. And while the show's still entertaining, it's already been showing signs of them running out of ideas. So will replacing Carell rejuvenate the show, or just expedite its creative demise?

D. McEwan said...

"Naz said...
I never knew Cybil Shepard was so 'difficult.' Is that a secret?"


About as "secret" as the fact that WC Fields was funny. Actually she's not "difficult." She's impossible! At least Brett Butler was funny as well as a horrible person. Cybill's just a horrible person.

Johnny Walker said...

Don't forget about Roseanne. Lol.

Butler has always seemed so nice in interviews, it's a shame to hear that she wasn't nice in person.

I would love to hear more stories of misplaced confidence/insufferable insecurity leading to massive problems on set.

To be fair, being in such a position can be difficult and I'm sure bring out the worst in a lot of people. Work can be stressful, especially when it's your name which is supposedly carrying the show.

Speaking of which, I've heard the following tip for all TV show creators: Don't name your show after the lead character!

Kirk Jusko said...

Much has been written about how Carrol O'Conner and Norman Lear didn't get along while doing All In The Family due to creative differences. Well, O'Conner eventually did become Executive Producer, by which time the show was called Archie Bunker's Place, and it was just AWFUL.

From interviews I've read over the years, I get the impression Norman Lear doesn't really like letting a show run for so long until it becomes a shell of its' former self, though a number of his did do just that. Maybe it's because of pressure from the networks or the stars themselves (as with O'Conner) that that's allowed to happen.

Matt Patton said...

Where did you get that photo of Cybil Shepard? And how soon until you find her hiding in the back seat of your car with a boning knife?

Naz said...

Thanks D. McEwan. :)

VP81955 said...

The lady in my avatar humbly requests of Chuck Lorre that in future syndicated airings of "Cybill" (admittedly not likely, but some channel may need filler when it can't sell an infomercial at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday), her Hollywood Walk of Fame star be removed from the show's opening credits and be replaced by Constance Bennett's. (I don't know if Cybill has filed as many lawsuits as Connie did over the years, but were that the case, I wouldn't be surprised.)

Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles may have told Cybill plenty of stories about Carole Lombard, but what they evidently forgot to tell her is that Carole was beloved in Hollywood not only because she was beautiful and funny, but because she was nice.

Mr. Arkadin said...

Hello. I'm not sure if I should post my question here, or in the most recent post's comment section but I'm curious to know how you feel about Nancy Travis in the latest episode of "How I met your mother". Take Care