Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Coming this Fall

As a former showrunner of new shows, one of my constant battles was with the network promotion department. The network never aired enough promos of our show to suit me. I’m sure all showrunners say this (except maybe the WHITNEY guys two years ago – I’m surprised NBC isn’t still promoting it even after canceling it).

And when networks do run your promo, in which show do they air it in? Getting a pop on THE VOICE is way better than SAVE ME. Every new comedy on ABC wants exposure on MODERN FAMILY, not MALIBU COUNTRY. And of course promoting your show on Saturday night is like someone making announcements in an empty theater.

Also, do you get a :30 second promo or :10? Do you get your own promo or are you just lumped in with the rest of that night’s lineup? (although the Sunday night promo ABC did last year was smashing!)

Now at least there are promos and trailers of all the new shows on network websites. So if there’s a particular show you’re curious about you don’t have to wait for ABC to run a promo in HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS. But the big “get” is the new viewer, the one unaware of your show. And still the best exposure is over the air (at least for now).  

One of the reasons why networks soo overpay to carry NFL football is that (a) the games attract viewers who don’t normally watch your network, and (b) viewers are watching a live sporting event so they can’t fast forward through the commercials.  They’ll actually see your promo.

Getting your new show noticed is even harder today because there is such a glut of them. So many networks, so many shows, so many staggered premiers. In the old days (when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Joan Rivers had her original face) we waited all summer with great anticipation for the new TV season. We lived for the promos. In late summer the networks (only three of them back then and fire was still a new concept) would stage special preview shows where they screened clips of all their new series. These specials generally were the highest rated shows of the week. NBC called their premier period NBC WEEK and sent out souvenir booklets. I wrote away for one every year. The day it arrived was always a big day (and yes, I had no life). I would guess that more people sent away for that booklet in 1965 than actually watch NBC today.

Exactly what the network chooses to show in the promo is another bone of contention. They tend to give away plot surprises and feature jokes that make no sense out of context. Yes, they got big laughs but you have to know who the characters are and what the set up was. Promo people often see that a certain joke got the biggest laugh and use it. How many times have you seen a promo and gone “Huh? What the fuck was that?”

Sadly, the trend in hyping sitcoms today is to showcase the most crass jokes they can find. On my shows I tend to be very sparing on low road jokes. Every so often one will feel appropriate to the scene or situation and I’ll let it go, but I always cringe when I see it on the air and always kick myself for not cutting it. I like to be proud of my work and I’m not proud of those easy laughs. And then when the network zeroes in on those jokes I really feel mortified. (Somehow I imagine producers of certain shows don't share my guilt over going with a cheap vagina joke.)
Pilots are incredibly hard to do well. You have to establish the premise, introduce the characters, tell a story, set the tone, and be funny – all in 22 minutes. Now imagine trying to accomplish all that when you only have :30 seconds. This is one of the big reasons why networks like to stack their new shows with established stars. You may not know what the show is about but Michael J. Fox is in it.

God forbid you don’t have an established name at the forefront of your series. Although the breakout hit shows generally feature new discoveries, networks prefer the safety of Will Arnett and Brad Garrett. So the star-driven shows will get more promos and hype. You may have a better show without stars but you’ll have a tougher go of things.

To a certain extent, the tail has always wagged the dog. How easily a show can be promoted is a major consideration for getting picked up. But hey, it’s like that in features too. I pitched a comedy screenplay once and the executive asked, “what are five great trailer moments?” Nothing about the story or characters – just trailer moments. What will the one-sheet (poster) look like? I guess the only difference is, in television the question is now: “What are two great trailer moments?”

Good luck to all the showrunners. You’re eight kittens fighting over the same sock. But it’s amazing how fast you go from “I’m just thrilled to be on the schedule!” to “I’m really getting screwed!”

20 comments:

Scooter Schechtman said...

I don't know the professional term for it, but there's always some kind of promo banner going on at the bottom of the screen, with distracting little animations and such. Come to think of it "Eight Kittens Fighting Over a Sock" might have been one.

RS Gray said...

It's shocking to me that networks still promote shows like it's still 1965. Well, I guess not shocking since networks are stupid, but surprising and frustrating. The world now is about interactivity and networks should take advantage of it rather than tipping a token hat at social media. Post all the treatments you get in October, see what the audience gravitates to rather than what your demographic "experts" says they will. Pick the five best of those. Run a reality show where the audience casts the pilots. Run a reality show where the audience picks the pilots. Create some buzz. Put the pilot on YouTube a month before the season starts. Give the audience a vested interest in which shows succeed. Send out perks - you voted for the show that got the greenlight? You get a show t-shirt, a signed script and cats photo. One out of every hundred thousand who votes gets a walkon. It's the second decade of the twenty-first century. Why are we still marketing shows like we're marketing to Edna Kravitz with her three channels and a TV guide?

404 said...

RS, a "cats" photo would be especially great if it were a show about eight kittens fighting over a sock! :-)

Which, come to think of it, would probably be a better show than 3/4 of what's out there. Definitely cuter. And with more character development.

I like your point, though, about the archaic way the networks still pick and promote shows. I thought Amazon did it right, with people watching and voting. Too bad none of the shows were really amazing enough to stand out, but they're trying something new and going in the right direction.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I would watch "Eight Kittens Fighting Over a Sock". It would be an excellent lead-in to a broadcast of a presidential primary debate.

Bamboo Harvester said...

RS... Keep in mind that the small percentage of people who can be bothered to leave a comment on youtube contains a large percentage of hate-filled bullying morons.

RG said...

Friday Question: A big issue in Hollywood is that older comedy writers have trouble finding new, relevant sitcom work. A person who may have worked on Cheers (or even Friends now that we are in 2013) obviously is talented, can write jokes, etc. but can't get hired for a hit sitcom today. I wonder if you think it is just age bias or is there something to the talent waning. In baseball, it would be like a hitter no longer able to catch up to a fastball. In music, it would be Paul McCartney who seemed to lose a tremendous amount of talent once the year turned to 1970 and all of his talent after say 1981 (say, say, say???). On the other hand, in painting there are masters, such as Picasso, who created new and important works into his 80's. But does a comedy writer have a certain shelf-life in pop culture. Not that they lose their "funny" but that their jokes become dated, or they are not up on trends so they can not create a joke about social networking, for example. In the end, the question is: Is this bias somewhat justified or are these observances in other fields not applicable to comedy writing?

Dave Williams said...

RG's question about ageism is a source of constant fascination for me as an old fart but that question in conjunction with the gold-standard quote,"eight kittens fighting over a sock", is metaphorical kismet.

Kittens are cute and playful, older cats are aloof. Kittens will adapt, old cats will take a nap.

Networks want kittens.

Terry said...

Twenty-two minutes in a sitcom? I'm not sure that's true today. Big Bang Theory runs between 18 and 20 minutes. I'm sure they will keep shortening episodes.

Cap'n Bob said...

My favorite part of promos, on those rare occasions I watch them, is the phrase "new hit comedy." Not one episode has aired yet it's a hit. How stupid do they think we are?

Oliver said...

Somewhat surprisingly, NBC aired just as many Up All Night promos as Whitney promos. The difference is that the Whitney promos were far more obnoxious. The Up All Night promos were better than the actual show.

@RJ
Friends writers have no problem getting work. For example, the creator of Go On (Scott Silveri), showrunner of 30 Rock (Robert Carlock), the creators of Work It (Reich and Cohen) and showrunner of Whitney S2 (Wil Calhoon) are all Friends veterans.

Mac said...

Those eight kittens? Are any of them called "vagina?" You know? For laughs? 'Cause we could refer to that in the promo...

Anonymous said...

Ken, I wish I could force the creators of Two Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men to write just one episode of their show that doesn't take the low road. I'm not coming from a prudish point-of-view here; it's just about craft and writing something funny without taking the lazy, cheap way. I realize the times we live in and what appeals to the masses, but just because you CAN do a thing doesn't always mean you should. - Jeff Clem I am doing this anonymously - sort of - because of an apparent glitch that won't let me post this in any other manner)

Skitch said...

I happened upon this old promo on YouTube the other day:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sliOW4rTUkY

Can you imagine the networks running something like this today?

Brian O. said...

I'd pay to see Ken bitchslap Michael Patrick King in a writer's room.

BigTed said...

I'm surprised no one follows the example of "Saturday Night Live" promos, and just have the funniest or best-known stars do a quick skit or make a few jokes about the show. "SNL" does it out of necessity, since they don't have any scenes to show and the host changes each week. But if the actors are fun and the promo is written well, that would be a better way to get viewers excited about tuning in, at least once.

Mike said...

Since Ken won't take the low road, I'll have to oblige:
In other news, in ascribing his cancer to oral sex, Michael Douglas has performed a great service to men the world over. He's written them a doctor's note.

James said...

As someone who watches live sporting events (like the Indy 500) and normally doesn't watch the network, and sees promos during the sporting event--you're right, I wouldn't normally see the promo. On the other hand, it's always a reminder of why I'm not watching any shows on the network to begin with.

Mitchell McLean said...

Ken,

Have you ever considered adapting your Sitcom Room into a reality/competition series along the lines of The Voice or Master Chef? I'd watch, even if I wasn't already stalking you-- er-- following your blog. :-)

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Funny you and a poster here mention 1965, because the 1965 NBC package still is the most sought after because it was fully illustrated by Jack Davis. Indeed, no one does that anymore. The only ewuivalent I know nie are the movie posters done for every ne Dr. Who episode this season - which got spread on Facebook very nicely.

Anonymous said...

I don't need to see the 'new' shows for fall. Shows are obnoxious with plenty of yelling and anger accompanied by resolution with added obnoxiousness. What a bore! And, what happened to the memorable theme song? "Friends" Hawaii 50 (the original) hell, I could hum the theme from Bonanza and 77 Sunset Strip! If the show sucks at least you can hum the theme song!
Today's entertainment (?) forces me toward documentaries! Which is good! (Okay Big Bang Theory has a memorable theme song.)