Thursday, August 18, 2011

On the eve of the fall season, an open letter to the networks

Been screening some of the comedy pilots for the fall season. Can’t really comment on specifics because (a) I haven’t seen all of them, (b) a number of them are being revised (some drastically), and (c) some were so fucking awful I couldn’t make it through ten minutes.

A few showed promise but sorry to say there’s not one real knockout like MODERN FAMILY in the bunch. And it’s not like they’re even shooting for it. TWO AND HALF MEN seems to be the gold standard. Several of these pilots felt like Disney Channel sitcoms with raunch. Tired themes dressed up with sex jokes and pretty young people. No one over 40 was cast unless they starred in at least four previous sitcoms.

I kept thinking while watching some of these leadened forced attempts at hilarity – these tested well? There were other pilots that tested even worse than this?

We all know network decisions are based primarily on research results (the rest on commitments) so obviously these pilots that made it to series did pass the grade in testing. And we also know that 90% of these new shows will fail. Among last season’s testing darlings were LOVE BITES, OUTSOURCED, RUNNING WILDE, BETTER WITH YOU, and the inexplicable PAUL REISER SHOW which was mercifully pulled after just two episodes. Testing is an in-exact science… at best.

So I have an experiment, a suggestion I throw out to the networks. Take one of your pilots – a show geared to a young audience (i.e. any of them) – and re-test it on the internet.

Make it available to everybody to screen, not just a few hundred hand-selected flood victims. Promo it on the air so you’ll drive new traffic to your online site. Let everybody rate it. Let everybody weigh in. Sure, you’re going to get 3,000,000 comments and 2,000,000 of them will be insane. And yes, you won’t have any control factors. You’ll have no idea how many of the test subjects watched the whole thing. And you won’t be able to vouch for the accuracy of their profile data.

But…

You might get some surprising results. You might get a reaction wildly different from the one you got through traditional testing. Or you might get the exact same reaction and that tells you something too.  And guaranteed you'll get a much larger sample size. 

So let’s say the results are very different. The show finally airs and is a hit or not. Which test proved to be the most accurate?

The time to do this is right now, before the new fall season. Take one show, just one, and offer it up on your website. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. You may have discovered a better research tool, and you may help generate good buzz on promising shows.

The best way to pick shows is to go with your gut, of course.  But since will never happen, then go with ours.   Who knows?  Maybe the failure rate will plummet to 75%.  And you'll have some really hilarious comments to pass around to your friends.

Part 3 of my Fall Movie Preview is here.

25 comments:

Antwon said...

This is an excellent idea, and I also wish one of the networks would have the gumption to take a flyer on this sort of thing. I'm not sure that umpteen scrillion units of noisy data would prove empirically better - I could see a lot of people approving of outlandish concepts that might hold for a couple episodes but would run out of steam before a full season aired. Still, given the current miserable track record, not sure how it could make show-selection appreciably worse.

YEKIMI said...

Saw a promo for CBS' "Broke Girls". I thought they may have perfected Smellovision because you just smell the stench of this show wafting from my set.

purplejilly said...

that's a really good idea. Put it online and get the twitter/facebook crowd reaction. That's what I'd do, if I ran a studio! : )

DonBoy said...

The Sepinwall/Fineberg podcast addressed this question recently. Assuming you're talking about picked-up pilots, the answers are "because then fewer people will watch the actual premiere, which is their one chance to make a real ratings splash" and "If it sucks, why the hell would you warn people in advance?" (And for non-picked-up pilots, the answers are "they may not even have the rights" and "if people love it, you just look like an idiot for not picking it up".

IBG said...

Ken--

Having suffered through a few dial tests, I totally agree with you on the inanity of testing and the conclusions they draw. People who don't know what's funny, or how to make things funny have to rely on statistics, and that's pathetic. However, I think putting the product they develop online for a reaction will just bring out the haters, since I would imagine most of those people are way too hip (either in reality or in their imaginations) for that product. I think the solution is changing the development process to allow for broader creativity so that the Louis CKs of the world can do what they do. Unfortunately, as you well know, the network goal is to create Crap, New Crap, and New and Improved Crap Now with 50% more Crap... All so they can sell more crap. Hope you're doing well and enjoying b'ball. Ian

michael said...

Were you aware of what Fox did in 2009 with 15 Gigs?

http://www.wired.com/underwire/2009/12/15-gigs-online-pilots/

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Testing is useless, but I suspect it's more representative of audience reaction than online testing would be. At the very least, "the internet" as networks know it is a very small place, mostly Twitter and a few other areas. That tends to wildly overstate the popularity of some shows and understate the popularity of others. (NCIS arguably has a larger and more fanatical online cult than Fringe, but the cult of Fringe is concentrated more in the parts of the internet that network executives know about.) So they'd promote the online testing in those places, and wind up mostly getting responses from a group where Community, Parks & Recreation and Archer are the biggest hits. Nothing wrong with that aesthetically, but in terms of predictive value it's a big problem.

Ken Levine said...

Addressing a couple of comments...

If the network is afraid of exposing a show they know is bad or even suspect is bad then they shouldn't air it in the first place.

And like I said, this is a one-time experiment. It may fail horribly. But that would tell the networks something too. Internet testing is merely an additional option, another source of input. But you'll never know until you try it.

Please Leave Name said...

Man, I haven't watched a Network show in-- Jesus, I just realized I haven't watch a network show in three years. Have I missed anything? Somehow I don't think so.

Anyway.

I've watched a boatload of pilots for this season and almost without exception I started to say to myself, "Seen that. Oh, that's ________ with sex jokes. That's the dumbest fucking show yet."

It's a lousy year for Tv.

Chris said...

Here's one for friday: I remember you saying extras aren't allowed to talk or else they would have to be credited as actors, how does that work when an extra or two have to laugh and it's obvious it's their laugh are those actors?

Andy Andy said...

A-men, put a few on the net and let the public express opinions. Do the networks have anything left to lose by doing more testing? I've been looking at the short previews that are posted on-line for each new (comedy) show on the big 3 - are they still the big 3 networks? And the only one I saw that I will attempt to watch when it premiers is Whitney. It was the only one that made me laugh at all, and I imagine, they've posted the best of Whitney's lines already. Tim Allen - nothing. Hank Azaria - horribly disappointing. I realize these are short previews, but if they want anyone to watch the whole show, why wouldn't they post something that is good?

cshel said...

Whatever they're doing to come up with these pilots, they need to do the opposite of that.

And, oh my god, who thought that new Paul Reiser show was worthy. Those people should be strapped down and forced to watch it over and over with their eyes pinned open, like A Clockwork Orange.

I always imagined in the future everything would be vetted by the internet. But I'm not sure that would be the better way. I think we would risk losing the chance to see a few really good shows as well. It reminds me of the film Idiocracy, where movies were made by public consensus, and people sat in theatres just watching an ass farting, and laughed hysterically.

Megalion said...

Here to point out that the pilot episode of Glee was aired at the end of the traditional season as a "sneak preview" for Fall.

I was one of many who watched it and loved it and spent the summer eagerly awaiting Fall to see the rest. Living in Hollywood at the time didn't help much when all the billboards & banners went up.

It might have been part of what helped it become such a big hit. I always felt that it did besides filling a need for something that was "different" then everything else *currently* airing.

I think there's been a couple of other times that the premiere episode was shown ahead of time too but I can't recall which ones exactly. I suspect though that it probably wasn't as long as the Glee one.

cadavra said...

A simpler solution would be to just screen these pilots to test audiences made up entirely of people over 40...you know, the ones who actually watch TV and have made hits out of fogey shows like NCIS, BLUE BLOODS, THE CLOSER, HOT IN CLEVELAND, et al., and have no interest in watching hot 20-somethings who don't have actual jobs (or a working knowledge of the English language) because they're too busy schtupping. They'd save themselves a hell of a lot of money.

Charles H. Bryan said...

What? There's schtupping?

I like the idea -- if it was promoted relatively well, they might reach a fairly broad audience, which is kind of what the networks are shooting for anyway. It's also much like word of mouth promotion.

Dude of The House said...

That's a great idea & they could probably track the length of viewership via a few control points. That being said, every year I normally test every new sitcom personally with my Tivo. Very few make the cut for a second episode. If there is an actor or producer I like, I'll give it a second chance. But some, like Running Wilde last year, are just unwatchable.

Perhaps if testing and ratings weren't so important, the genius shows like Arrested Development could survive, while dreck like that Jim Belushi show wouldn't last for 8 years.

BigTed said...

I've seen most of the failed shows you mentioned, and they actually had a lot going for them.

"Love Bites" -- an ambitious anthology show with good actors that just wasn't very interesting, but could have been.

"Outsourced" -- an occasionally funny sitcom, with some very funny performers. Even the off-putting premise wouldn't have been so bad if they had treated Indian culture with the tiniest bit of respect.

"Running Wilde" -- Half as funny as "Arrested Development," which still isn't bad.

"Better With You" -- yet another relationship sitcom about attractive young adults, all it needed was better writing.

If the producers had just put some more effort into these shows (better stories, less cliched situations, better jokes) they could have been as good as most TV comedies. So why didn't they?

TMoss said...

The problem with broadcast TV (and TNT after their cancellation of "Men of a Certain Age") is that a creative business has become more business than creative.

Rich said...

I don't want to be an apologist for the networks, especially with my current annoyance over the cancellation of Men of a Certain Age by a network that killed it by airing it six episodes at a time, but in all fairness to the networks, they have put many interesting and expensive shows on over the years only to have no one watch them in favor or junk. So why is it shocking that they would seek to create junk? Can't really blame them for trying to put shows on people will watch.

-bee said...

To be honest, I don't think ratings and advertising revenue are the networks' first priority anymore - the trouble they would have to go to to get 'honest' numbers probably isn't worth it to them.

Koolaid Drinker said...

Not directly the same, but I'm reminded of something in Family Guy, with the "audience chooses what happens next scene" button. Of course, in FG, the more logical choice was never chosen, the idiotic one was. Multiply that with the internet audience.

Eventually, if you could even get a reaction from the total U.S. population that is cognizant, that isn't b.s.ing you, it still would demand someone at the studio would go through and interpret the data, and there already is alot of free space to project tastes or inclinations from the studios.

I think a "dead pilots" museum on the internet would be fascinating. Same with alot of early sitcoms.

I don't believe all those people like yourself with a knowledge based on experience, would not be able to find a coherent way to evaluate new pilots and make decisions accordingly.

But how would any of this change the final decision-making at the corporate level anyway? Who want tests, hit certain demographics precisely for adverts, bankable stars and so forth, have relatives who need jobs, owe favors, yes-men, people who have their own scripts/actresses in mind, etc..

I think a broke system is a broke system. Go watch the reality shows, "American Pickers" is more fascinating than any of the sitcoms I've seen for a while.

Gitano said...

I'm also skeptical that they would get a broad enough cross-section of people watching it by putting it on the internet. While it arguably would be broader than the few dozen that they pile into a room somewhere, it is true that the internet is becoming more and more fragmented, especially when it comes to television criticism, and so finding a group that is similar enough to a real TV audience may be difficult.

However, I do think that shows which are good could be promoted more through the internet before airing. Two years ago before Modern Family premiered I was one of a few hundred people picked randomly from some television comment board to be sent the pilot ahead of time to preview. It turned out to be a smart move on their behalf because I had had no intention of watching the show before that and nearly didn't even watch the preview. But 10 minutes in I was hooked and went to set the season pass on my DVR. However, that only worked because Modern Family was excellent.

Johnny Walker said...

This is a great idea. If they opened up all the pilots to the public and then found (hopefully) at least a couple with a hugely positive reaction, they could bill the first "proper" episode as the season opener, and get all those viewers there.

Word of mouth could spread so much that those shows might even open bigger than any previous traditional pilot episodes.

I think eventually a similar system will happen -- somewhere.

Jim S said...

Ken,

How did Grant Tinker pick shows. It seems that he took NBC from last to first in about 10 minutes, supporting shows that were excellent, but no popular right off the bat, shows such as Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and picked winners that changed the course of TV. Sitcoms were considered dead when Cosby hit the air.

Was it he had faith in his judgement? Or did he know how test better?

jbryant said...

Internet testing of pilots probably wouldn't work because the poor schlubs charged with reading all the comments would blow their brains out by the end of the first day.