Monday, October 15, 2012

Another rant on the current state of TV

One of the most memorable characters from CHEERS was Al Rosen, or – as he was referred to on the cast list – “the man who said Sinatra.”   Here's why:

One word. That’s it. It got a big laugh and he was used again. Al was just one of the extras. He had a funny rumpled look, he had a funny air horn type voice so Glen & Les Charles chose him to deliver the line.

Here’s why network television isn’t as good today (well… one of the reasons).

Same situation. Same script. Same line. But today, the CHEERS producers would have to put Al Rosen on tape and four other actors on tape, send the tape to the network, and the network would decide who got the part. Some junior executive in the NBC casting or current department – probably someone a year removed from Cal State Northdridge – would make that decision over the Charles Brothers and James Burrows. Glen & Les and Jimmy have a roomful of Emmys, are proven writers, director, and showrunners, CHEERS is their singular vision, and yet, if they were making the show today they would have no say on which guest actors were on their show… even actors with one line.

This is outrageous. This is unconscionable. And today, this is the norm. It’s not one network; it’s ALL of them.

For years now networks have dictated who you can hire for your series regulars. And as the showrunner you often find yourself stuck with someone who can’t deliver and you have to spend your time and effort writing around them. I don’t know any of the particulars, know no one involved in the production, but I’m guessing that’s the story with Jamie-Lynn Sigler on GUYS WITH KIDS. Everyone else is so good and it’s like she’s in a different show. But I can just imagine the network casting session. “She’s very pretty, people know her from THE SOPRANOS, the other girl you brought us is funnier but she’s kind of mousey, and what was she on – some CW show or some ABC Family thing? Let’s go with Jamie. No, her audition wasn’t great. But you can work with her. She can grow into the part. We approve Jamie.”

And now that extends to guest star roles and even one-line parts.

That’s the kind of absurd micromanaging that goes into today’s primetime productions. And shows are getting a 2 share.

We did a pilot for Fox a few years ago and the network had to approve everyone’s wardrobe and even the set dressing. Despite all my years in the business I couldn’t be trusted to select the candlesticks on the dining room table.

So here’s a radical plan. Radical?  Hell, it's INSANE!!  What if one network decided to TRUST the creative people they commission to produce shows? What if the showrunners were allowed to hire who they want to play waiters? What if showrunners were able to hire the writers and directors they thought were the best – not who the studio had under contract or who satisfied whatever agenda the network had that season? What if it was agreed working writers knew how to break stories better than recent graduates of the University of Rochester screenwriting program? Or that Emmy winning creators were qualified to select lamps?

What’s the worst that could happen? The show might plummet to a 1.6? (I love the positive spin networks give shows now. UP ALL NIGHT went up 28% last night. That’s a .3. Back in the day a .3 was so insignificant it was considered “margin for error.” Today decisions are based on it.

But the upside. You might get better shows. Shows with a stronger, clearer voice – y’know, like they have on CABLE – that parallel universe with series that people talk about and love and win awards?

You might also get better writers coming to you first with better ideas.

Again, you’re getting 2 shares! 3 shares! Test patterns get a 1 share. What do you have to lose? Other than control – control that you’re really not entitled to anyway.

So if CHEERS was being done today, what do you think the chances are Al Rosen would have been selected to be the man who said Sinatra? “Too old. Too ugly. Talks funny. Let’s go with this kid who looks kinda like Aaron Paul.”

You KNOW that’s what would happen.

And that's one of the reasons shows used to get 30 shares and are now getting 3's.  

47 comments:

Daniel S. said...

I wonder if 30 Rock would have been an even bigger hit on a cable channel like HBO. For a show that is very smartly written, it just doesn't get the viewership it deserves. The same with Community.

Melissa said...

FX seems to be following your advice about leaving the creative desicions to the show runners and it's working for them. SOA has beaten the networks every week this season. Justified and Louie are high rated shows too. Their entire original shows lineup is great.

JT Anthony said...

I recognize your comments address larger creativity issues and choices than just hiring one-line extras for improving viewship share, but the share decline has more to do with supply and demand than anything else. To mean, there are too many mediums and choices, too much supply--diluted talent--than demand to consume it. I doubt these minor creative decisions would move the needle all that much.

Audiences have changed and moved their interests and wallets on to other entertainment options than network TV. The lose of creative control was the leading indicator of audiences moving away from TV that executives addressed by hijacking every creative decision about a show.

willieb said...

"Oh, and by the way, he can't say Sinatra. Too old. Let's go with Jay-Z."

Cory said...

I think that's why Cable has so many better shows...the smart channels just hire people and let them do good work. Look at AMC, which went from a channel with movies no other cable channel wanted to one of the best places for mature drama.

The networks are dead, long live cable.

benson said...

So, why doesn't some cable net do the same with sophisticated adult comedy? And I'm sorry, but the stuff on TVLand isn't that. Give them credit for trying, but their original fare isn't Cheers, Frasier or MASH.

But another question popped in my mind; how much different can the corporate/network structure be at a channel like TVLand when it's the same ownership as CBS?

Cap'n Bob said...

On the other hand, has anyone ever worked in any industry where the suits upstairs knew shit from Sinola?

Sharone Rosen said...

and so explains why I haven't watched most network sitcoms in years. Modern Family is the narrow beam of light in the morass that brings a little hope to the genre.

mike bell said...

If it wasn't for today's TV casting directors, all the pretty people wouldn't be able to find work. We'd have unnaturally attractive people selling oranges on a 405 onramp. Those rumpled folk have had their day.

Terry said...

Ken, I posted this comment on an earlier, non-Cheers related post because it was on my mind at the time. Since you have a new, actual Cheers-related post today, I thought I'd re-post it here as a possible Friday Question.


I recently saw the Cheers episode where the Carla attacks the obnoxious Yankees fan and it got me to thinking about the role the Red Sox played in the tone of the series. At the time of Cheers, the Red Sox hadn't won a World Series in many, many years. They had the reputation of being losers, yet Boston fans (myself included) loved them anyway, not unlike the gang at Cheers.

So my question is this: if the show had gone on the air after the 2004 Sox win, do you think it would have changed the tone at all? The gang did spend a good amount of time in those early seasons commiserating about the Sox, even if it wasn't related to the main plot of the show.

Mark said...

Is that what's happening with Louie's show? I read that more or less they pay him a fee for the show and he delivers something...no notes even. Is that true? BTW I have really grown to love the Louie CK show. It took a few episodes, and it's getting better every week, but it has that wonderful sense of being under the vision of one person. Very fulfilling.

Jason Mittell said...

The worst thing that would happen is that all of the development executives would be revealed to be useless middle managers who rarely improve a series - the smart network who opted for your plan would be smart enough to downsize its staff, and thus the pipeline up the corporate ladder. This is why no network would do it: it sacrifices the very people who would have to make such decisions.

Tim W. said...

Were you ever tempted to walk into a meeting with an executive, put your Emmy down on his desk, sit down and say something like:

"So you wanted to give me some advice on some creative issues?"

tb said...

Same with radio. Trust a DJ? Gasp!

Mac said...

That's depressing. It makes you wonder if there's a potential Rhea Perlmann out there, would she get a chance nowadays on a big network show? Or get passed over for a woman who looks like Jamie Lyn-Sigler?

Stu Shostak said...

@benson - TV Land is no better than the broadcast networks. I had a very well known, established actress on my show a few months ago. She read for a 5-LINE part on "Hot in Cleveland" back in March. A couple of days later, she got a callback to do her part again...on digital video so the network execs in New York could approve her. This want all the way to Larry Jones, the head of the network! Days went by. Finally, three hours before the table read of the script, she was called (and awaken in the wee hours of the morning) by her agent, who had just heard from the casting people that she got the part! Outrageous! And to add insult to injury, when the show aired, they cut three of her lines. Ken is 100% accurate with his piece today, and that's why most of TV sucks today.

Steve Zeoli said...

Ken, I've watched that scene a dozen times or more and I always get the feeling that none of the actors were expecting Al to say the line the second time. Maybe now is the time to ask you if Al was scripted to repeat the line, "Sinatra," or was that improvised?

Paul Duca said...

Advertisers also have a part in this...yes, they were there back in the day and happy to pay for M*A*S*H or CHEERS. But today, if they have to choose between a 3 share show which has a 30 share of the prime marketing audience--18 to 34 year olds who either identify with Jamie-Lynn Siegler or Aaron Paul, or think their lives would be better if they were like them--or an acclaimed show with double digit shares...including a 10 share of the 18-34 demographic, well you do the math.

Mike said...

Movies are the same. Tyne Daly was the female lead opposite Clint Eastwood. Think that would happen now?

Andy said...

So true. So infuriating. So depressing. You'd think their being associated with a tinker-free gem that brings back the disenchanted eyeballs would be more ego-gratifying than being associated with barely viewed more of the same junk. And it's not just older folks that lament the loss of relatable quality shows. On Deadline Hollywood, a young guy in his 20s recently noted he connects better with twenty year-old Seinfeld reruns than today's stuff.

Mac said...

The idea that young people "connect" more with other gorgeous young people is so bizarre when it comes to comedy.
I remember as a kid being enthralled with Danny De Vito and Christopher Lloyd in Taxi, because they were hilarious but also they were so unusual. If they'd been attractive young people, they might still have been funny, but no way would they have so compelling to watch.

A Non-Emus said...

Even in that picture, Jamie-Lynn Sigler looks like she was added in from a different picture.

Anonymous said...

This topic reminds me of a recent article I read about the greatness of the movie Jaws. It pointed out that all the beach scenes feature average-looking folks -- all ages, shapes and sizes. So it felt real. If they were shooting it today, everyone on the beach would be young and ripped. The guys would all have six-pack abs and the girls would have silicone breasts and wax lips.

cadavra said...

This is exactly why the great writers--Aaron Sorkin, David Kelley, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Stephen Bochco, et al--have packed their bags and moved to cable. After what NBC did to HARRY'S LAW, I hope Kelley tells them to commit a physical impossibility if they ever approach him again.

It's the same with movies, FWIW: 25-year-olds giving notes to veteran, often Oscar-winning filmmakers. I once attended an interview with Blake Edwards, and he said he retired because he got fed up with having his pictures "rewritten, reshot and recut by 200 Valley teenagers who can't spell."

benson said...

@Stu Thanks for sharing and confirming the "insanity"

@Terry Fascinating question to ponder about the "Sawx".

Anonymous said...

Grumble, grumble, grumble. Well, back in MY day, dadburnit . . . .

Anonymous said...

stiuldiA Freakin' Men. Not that this EVEN compares but I sold a series of Concept Specials (back when you could do that) to ABC. My partner and mentor was legendary television producer and director Fred de Cordova - ten years at Warners, ten at Universal, and on television he directed and produced Jack Benny and Burns and Allen among many others. It was a booking intensive series and I had the guy that booked 25 years on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. I had to get him approved.

Mark Bennett (Sitcom Room '07)

Jonathan Roth said...

Ken, I hope you check out "The Booth at the End" on Hulu. One of the best things I've seen.

KeithVancouver said...

Hear, Hear!
(.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hear,_hear)

Mark said...

Just watched the clip 5 times. I laughed out loud EVERY SINGLE TIME.

I watched Two Broke Girls and didn't laugh once. Had to turn it off it was so insulting.

Ken, what can be done to reverse the tide?

Storm said...

I tried to describe to two of my best friends (all big fans of both sci-fi and comedy; all we do together is laaaaaugh) and my husband just how truly awful "The Neighbors" is, and couldn't find words for it, so instead of coming here and reading them your review, I went to ABC OnDemand and said "Here-- take THIS shit in." By the first break, they were all quietly stunned, having never even chuckled. "Was that REALLY an actual show, or a bad skit on a bad sketch show?", "THIS is why I don't watch network TV anymore", and "Who or what is responsible for what I just witnessed, because I NEED to hurt them back" were the reactions.

Both TV and the movie industry completely confound me the last 10 years or so; it's all SO awful, and I know it doesn't usually start out that way, with everyone from the top down intending for it to suck. The anger I feel after watching it all isn't so much for me and the hours of my life I'll never get back, but all the poor people who worked their asses off on it (especially costumes and make-up: RECOGNIZE!), only to have it be crap. It must drive them insane. Doesn't anyone care?

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Jim said...

Paul Duca's got the answer for you. Sit down and make an effort to watch not the shows, but the commercials in between. Mark them in to two categories: "Hey, that looks nifty" and "strictly for the saps" If you score more of the latter, then 1) the advertisers really don't give a shit about you, and 2) you're old, dude (Does anyone under the age of forty still say dude?).

If you want your programmes paid for by advertising, then you're going to end up with TV aimed at the gormless, for the suckers, and for those who haven't yet maxxed out their credit cards.

Steve said...

So, who was the big wig Carla was talking about? I'm sure I've seen this episode a couple dozen times (as I have all Cheers episodes), but I'm sorry to say I can't remember. Anyone know?

Steve said...

Oh, wow, I just realized that this was from one of my all-time favorite episodes, Fortune and Men's Weight. A brilliant episode, with a boldly sad ending that very few sitcoms outside of Cheers (and MASH) would ever attempt. This is the one when Sam and Diane break up due, indirectly, to the fortune that Diane gets from the machine.

One thing I'd love to ask Ken to address is why this ending was never followed up -- the next show begins with Sam & Diane together as if nothing happened, which was odd given how dramatic the ending of this episode was. It didn't seem like one of a dozen times that Sam & Diane might have broken up for the night.

The ending of this episode was so mature and brilliant, only to be beaten up the actual ending of the season when Sam looks at the painting that the Christopher Lloyd character made of Diane. Sam's one-word reaction when he finally saw the painting was so unexpected and such a bold, original way to end the season (and their relationship). Probably the most remarkable moment of the entire series.

Brent Seguine said...

Ref: Al Rosen... You also can't go wrong with a guy who was Curly Howard's stand-in in the 1940s, and had bit roles in a couple Stooge comedies.

chalmers said...

The Onion's AV Club has a series called "A Very Special Episode" where they explore a show through an in-depth analysis of one episode.

I think I cheered audibly when I saw that "Fortune and Men's Weight" was the "Cheers" entry.

http://www.avclub.com/articles/cheers-fortune-and-mens-weight,64473/

Syndication Hero said...

Great post although there are a lot of reasons shows aren't getting a 30 share anymore. There are infinitely more channels now and different ways to watch tv. Over the air broadcast is a dying medium. Viewership spread across the board.

John Goins said...

It's not just a 'show business problem'. Middle Management and Executives don't rise through the ranks anymore. They get hired because they seem ambitious and 'give good interview'.

They bounce around from company to company doing nothing and leaving the regular folks holding the bag.

Brad DeMoss said...

Excellent point, but I am curious as to how long he was in the cast list as "the man who said Sinatra."

I remember being lucky enough to see the shows being filmed on a weekly basis, and I remember the first time Al was introduced by the audience warm-up guy along with the rest of the cast. I was so excited to see Al get some credit that I blurted out, "It's the man who said Sinatra!"

The following week, Al was introduced by the same warm-up guy as "the man who said Sinatra."

I couldn't possibly have been the guy who started that. Could I???

cst said...

The only new shows I've seen this season are THE LAST RESORT and VEGAS, and they share the same problem: HALF of each episode is good stuff, and the OTHER half is boring as hell.
And in BOTH cases, the BORING stuff is obviously trying to be like a recent major hit series that aired on that respective network.

Jon88 said...

You're beautiful when you're angry.

Mike Schryver said...

I'm curious as to what qualifications these executives are supposed to have. I read Bill Carter's book "Desperate Networks", and I came out of it with the impression that the execs simply went to the right schools or came from the right families. Are there actual qualifications?

VP81955 said...

Some junior executive in the NBC casting or current department – probably someone a year removed from Cal State Northdridge – would make that decision over the Charles Brothers and James Burrows.

NBC would hire a junior exec from Cal State Northridge? I thought only Ivy Leaguers and their ilk got these jobs.

Stu Shostak said:
I had a very well known, established actress on my show a few months ago. She read for a 5-LINE part on "Hot in Cleveland" back in March. A couple of days later, she got a callback to do her part again...on digital video so the network execs in New York could approve her. This want all the way to Larry Jones, the head of the network! Days went by. Finally, three hours before the table read of the script, she was called (and awaken in the wee hours of the morning) by her agent, who had just heard from the casting people that she got the part! Outrageous! And to add insult to injury, when the show aired, they cut three of her lines.


Was this Francine York?

K.P. said...

Great post, but your premise is flawed. Today's networks would never have gotten around to making the decision. The discussion would have devolved when someone wondered aloud whether Sinatra was too old a reference.

Charlene said...

Blame the ad agencies. They're the ones who found that young men 16-25 are more susceptible to manipulation than other demographic groups. Since then, network TV is only interested in coddling young men's egos and supporting their inaccurate, self-justifying stereotypes and prejudices. That's what reaches the market advertisers will pay more to reach.

So yes, Rhea Perlman could still have a career if she was fine playing hateful, inaccurate stereotypes. Carla would be played by a 32-year-old supermodel and would be neurotic and dumb.

Brent said...

ID'ing background actors for The Stoogeum archive database.

Al Rosen was Curly's stand-in during the early/mid-1940s, and had bit roles in a couple shorts at that time. There's also a bit player in Moe, Larry & Shemp's SHOT IN THE FRONTIER (1954) that's been ID'ed as another possible Al Rosen appearance. As someone who worked with Al on CHEERS, if I could forward the screen-grab image to you somehow, do you think you'd be able to refute or confirm?

(Image isn't online; no link to send you to.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting how lowly you speak of Cal State Northridge graduates...especially since James Burrows spoke at that school this past week and seemed to have had a pleasant experience.

Otherwise, I second your general perspective.