Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday Questions

Brace yourself for some Friday Questions.  TOMORROW:  My thoughts on Kevin Reilly vacating the presidency of Fox television. 

Ron Rettig gets us started.

What do you write on? George R. R. Martin works on an outdated DOS machine using Eighties word processor WordStar 4.0. Larry McMurty paid tribute to his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter.

Like all screenwriters, I use an L.C. Smith typewriter from 1895 with the carriage arm on the right side.

Actually, that was my grandmother’s typewriter, but it sits on my desk. I write on a Mac – either a desktop or laptop. Since my son, Matt, is an engineer at Apple Computer we’re somewhat partial to that company (although they do make a superior product).

I use Final Draft although I don’t love it. I used to use Movie Screenwriter, which I much preferred, but Final Draft has become the industry standard. There are always little annoyances and idiosyncrasies that drive me batty. I will say this though, their customer service has been lovely, except it takes 24 hours to get a response. But if there’s something in the format I want to change it’s not intuitive. You really have to know what the six steps are to follow in exact sequence to change one thing to another.  Am I alone in this?  I acknowledge I'm a village idiot when it comes to computers. 

Jim S asks:

Has a show ever stayed on the air just because someone at the network likes it? I heard a story about "Gunsmoke" getting 20 season because William Paley liked it. When he left, the show left. That could be a tall tale, but still there must be a couple of shows that got extra life because of fans who were also suits.

The GUNSMOKE saga has been long debated -- on this blog alone. But yes, shows stay on because someone on high believes in them or just likes them. CHEERS and HILL STREET BLUES are two examples of shows NBC president, Grant Tinker stuck with despite poor initial ratings. There are others I’m sure.

Someone at Fox must really love THE MINDY PROJECT because its ratings certainly don’t justify a pick up. At least with CHEERS and HILL STREET BLUES, their poor numbers were early in their runs. The thinking was that once an audience discovered them they would be hooked and in time the series would find a large audience. But MINDY has been on for two years. America has voted. So it has to be personal.  Someone in the tower must be a huge fan. 

RyderDA wonders:

A recent piece by Esquire Magazine suggests that the BIG BANG THEORY has matured and morphed over time. In your experience, do shows become more successful when they mature and change, or do they lose out when they deviate from the basic successful premise they started with?

If a show evolves based on responding to the audience then it’s usually an improvement. Also, if you give characters more dimension and depth then you are steering the series in the right direction.

It often takes a half a season or more before the writers can really find that groove. Early episodes are more experimental until writers can determine what’s working and what’s not. In time, writers learn the actors’ strength and weaknesses, they know what pitfalls to avoid. A great example is PARKS AND RECREATION. The first few episodes were not good. But eventually the show evolved into one of the best sitcoms on the air.

Shows tend to fall apart when they run out of good stories, become caricatures of themselves, or the original writers depart, replaced by inferior ones.

Character humor tends to improve a show over time; shock humor diminishes it. Why? Because you have to keep upping the ante to continue to shock people. Just saying “vagina” is no longer enough.

And finally, from mdv1959:

It seems to me that one of the main reasons most of the highly regarded shows (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc...) are on not on Network television are the FCC regulations protecting our easily corruptible minds from the evils of bad words and naked bodies. Why do you think the networks haven't pushed back to get the rules relaxed?

Major over-the-air networks are in a tough spot. They are broadcasters, in the true sense of the word. They reach a large and very diverse audience. There are many in that audience (millions) who don’t want to be exposed to that language and nudity, and they believe strongly that all family members should be able to watch without encountering such objectionable fare.

Remember, that TV stations require a license from the FCC. There are only a few precious broadcast channels and to own a license for one was a real privilege. Along with that permission to broadcast came a contractual duty to serve in the best interest of the public.  Enough complaints and the FCC could take away your license.   And it's not an idle threat.  They've done this on some occasions. 

Cable channels are not bound by that. They don’t broadcast on frequencies. Neither does Netflix or Hulu. They’re under less scrutiny and their audience is more niche. They can get away with a lot more.

And that’s a big problem for networks because they’re competing against far more adult-oriented material. Cops on cable shows swear. Cops on networks don’t. Cops in real life swear, so the network cops feel bogus. And writers would much rather gravitate to where they can write the way people really talk.

So networks are forever trying to stretch the envelope, but it’s hard. When the ridiculous Janet Jackson nipple episode happened on the Superbowl and caused a major shit storm over a partial nipple shot of maybe one second, you know the American public as a whole is not yet ready to move into more mature subject matter. Cops on CBS are still going to have to call vicious drug dealers “dirt bags.”

But network shows can now say “vagina” in order to get a cheap laugh. Boy, that’s progress.

What’s your question? Just drop it in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks.

43 comments:

Hamid said...

Friday question:

Who's your favourite Batman?

For me, it's Michael Keaton all the way.

Terrence Moss said...

I will always maintain that a network show can be great regardless as to what they can and cannot get away with. But the networks use that as an excuse to justify inferior development while cable waves it like a rainbow flag. Give me character and story and I don't give a damn whether you call someone a dirtbag or a shithead.

John said...

Paley was around for about another 15 years after Gunsmoke went off the air, but by 1974 the cast was either aging out of their roles, or in the case of Milburn Stone, wasn't even healthy enough to fully play it anymore. Everyone understood it was time to go.

Substitute 'wacky' for 'shock' and you get the same situation many sitcoms had doing the 1960s. The characters and stories would devolve down and the shows would become completely silly and unbelievable. Same thing today, only with crude sexual innuendo included to drive the show's plots. It's why the sitcoms created in the early 70s still stand out, because so many of those shows sharpened their writing and characterizations over the first few seasons and made the episodes enjoyable in repeat viewings, instead of dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator.

(And in a related Friday question -- When you and David were getting into being regular TV contributors, many of the old-time sitcom writers dating back to radio were still in action. If you worked with any of them, did they have any stories to tell on how writing comedy for networks had changed from the 1940s to the 70s or early 80s?)

Carol said...

For whatever it's worth (not much, I'm sure) I find HBO rather tedious as a general rule because I feel like they do sex/nudity/bad language more because they CAN and less because it serves the story they are telling. Obviously I'm kind of alone in that, since the shows they do are super popular, but I find it annoying.

Give me BBC where they put shows that need to be more realistic after the watershed and for the most part it works. And don't have to pander to advertising dollars quite so much.

William said...

Friday Question: How much time do you actually spend watching TV in an average week?

Stoney said...

K.L. : "When the ridiculous Janet Jackson nipple episode happened on the Superbowl and caused a major shit storm over a partial nipple shot of maybe one second, you know the American public as a whole is not yet ready to move into more mature subject matter."

Is it really the American public as a whole or is it fundamentalist and conservative based decency police? I'm all for safeguarding children from stuff that could really mess them up. But F.C.C. rules have been in place since the days when broadcast media was the only game in town. I thought the ratings system started in the mid '90s as well as technological blocking controls would give the networks more leeway. The first time I recall seeing a "TVMA" bug was when NBC aired "Schindler's List" uncut. (Spielberg insisted that.) But since then, it's very rare to see it on a broadcast outlet.

Also, you're out walking when some car is blasting music with f-bomb after f-bomb; you know that's not the radio playing. Radio still airs music with radio-edits but the kids know where to get it raw!

Andrew Ross said...

"Enough complaints and the FCC could take away your license. And it's not an idle threat. They've done this on some occasions."

Okay… can you name one time when this actually happened? I can't think of any off the top of my head but I haven't looked into it much.

Dave said...

Re Paley: I do know that The Paper Chase was able to stay on the air for an entire season due to it being a favorite of Paley's, despite getting trounced by Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Per Wiki, Gunsmoke was saved from the axe in 1967 on Paley's assistance. That move actually proved a success, as a move to a new time slot (from 10-11 Sunday night to 7:30-8:30 Monday) resulted in the show's return to the Top 10 and an additional eight seasons.

FoxWatcher said...

Ken:

The "someone at Fox" who loved The Mindy Project was Kevin Reilly, and he was fired yesterday.

Peter Rice, the Fox CEO who fired Reilly, issued a press release praising every show on Fox EXCEPT The Mindy Project.

Which might mean the Project is about to be Completed.

Michael said...

Re: a show evolving. Not just because of Ken's involvement, but I think that MASH got better when Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan came on, and then the first couple of years of David Ogden Stiers. The first few seasons certainly had great moments and plots and dealt with some serious issues, but the silliness level remained a bit too high, in my opinion. If you think about it, Mary Tyler Moore's show got better as she got to know her cohorts better in the newsroom and they wove in other characters.

Ken Levine said...

Andrew,

The FCC took TV stations away from RKO General. They took radio and TV stations away from Dr. Gene Scott. They took radio station KRLA away from Jack Kent Cooke. There are a few other examples.

Rebecca said...

Ken, are you going to do a follow-up post on Kickstarter in light of the massively successful Reading Rainbow fundraiser? I know my opinion but I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Rebecca said...

Ken, are you going to do a follow-up post on Kickstarter in light of the massively successful Reading Rainbow fundraiser? I know my opinion but I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Um, there are bad words and almost naked bodies are network TV... heck, if there's one thing that there's too much of on network TV is sex. I honestly am surprised we even still have an FCC, considering all the garbage that's on TV today. And to think, 60 years ago, the major concern was showing to married people in the same bed. My, how times have changed.

But, anyway...

Ken, since you're always sharing some insight with us regarding credits and such, I was wondering if you could enlighten us on some things that I see in credits from time to time, and I even have visual aid to help:
http://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-84434L-DkFo/U4gOEU5f_xI/AAAAAAAAA6s/h9Xq6D8gRPs/s576/credits.jpg
I've noticed frequently on M*A*S*H, when it came to Larry Gelbart & Gene Reynolds' credits (or yours and David's), one name would more towards the left of the screen, and other towards the right. And in some cases on shows and movies, I'll see two names listed next to each other, rather than atop one another; are they any WGA regulations or rules behind these, or are they just stylistic choices? And is there any significance behind using either "and" or "&"?

Toledo said...

There are other cases of FCC taking away licenses of television and radio stations:

The University of Pennsylvania’s radio station WXPN lost its license after broadcasting programs containing profanity and sexual talk.

WFXL-TV, Albany, Georgia, lost its license when its owner was convicted of laundering drug money.

WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi lost its license because of persistent program practices in opposition to civil rights that included active support for racial segregation and altering network news coverage of the civil rights movement.

Terry Keith Hammond lost his FM station license after it was brought to the FCC’s attention that he had been convicted of theft for altering checks, had operated unauthorized stations in California, Louisiana and Texas.

And in the most famous case, as Ken mentioned in his comment, RKO General lost the licenses of its 14 radio and television stations after the Commission was apprised of illegal activities of its parent, General Tire, which had maintained a slush fund for uses that included improper overseas payments and questionable campaign contributions.

chuckcd said...

Cancel Almost Human and renew The Mindy Project?
I wish Grant Tinker was currently working at FOX.

Covarr said...

If networks are trying to push the envelope for gritty or shocking, even knowing full well that cable can get away with stuff they can't, they're doing something wrong. They really ought to be playing to their strengths.

A good example of this is THE BIG BANG THEORY. It doesn't have much swearing, or any nudity... but it doesn't really need them. Sure, NBC will never be able to have the next HOUSE OF CARDS or BREAKING BAD, but that doesn't mean they can't do well with something lighter. FOX did a great job at this with HOUSE, a show that was at its very best when they were emphasizing genuine character development, not edginess or nudity.

The sad thing is, there are more directions to go, more boundaries to cross, than sex, violence, and language. Rather than just trying to beat cable at their own game, networks should be using their limitations as an opportunity to experiment, to try and be the very best at things they aren't restricted from doing.

chris said...

"Shows tend to fall apart when they run out of good stories, become caricatures of themselves, or the original writers depart, replaced by inferior ones."

Friends is a great example of this. As the series dragged on, the characters just kept doing Whatever They Were Known For, over and over.
Every joke about Monica involved her being neat, every one about Joey involved eating, etc.

Kate said...

I don't think there were that many people outraged by Janet Jackson's nipple. I think most of them had access to a tv camera and had a 24 hour news cycle to fill.

George E. said...

Friday question --

When compared to the sixties and early seventies, TV celebrities make tens to hundreds of multiples in their salaries and viewership is much lower because of the multiple choices on cable and satellite. With these realities, it would seem that advertiser rates per thousand people would be astronomical, or the majority of shows must be losing tons of money. Can a series only make money if it has a successful syndication strip or do shows actually make money on the networks? And if so, how?

Beth G said...

Friday question: Your best M*A*S*H episode, IMO, was on Me-TV yesterday, "The Most Unforgettable Characters." I can't tell you how many times I've seen it and Radar's attempts at creative writing still crack me up. "The friendly old sun showed his friendly hot face over the mountains of purple majesty..." Was that the easiest script you ever wrote, or was it actually hard to write such purple prose?

John said...

Blogger Michael said...

Re: a show evolving. Not just because of Ken's involvement, but I think that MASH got better when Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan came on, and then the first couple of years of David Ogden Stiers. The first few seasons certainly had great moments and plots and dealt with some serious issues, but the silliness level remained a bit too high, in my opinion.


It's interesting to watch Season 1 of MASH and Season 1 of McHale's Navy from a decade before to contrast where the two military ensemble shows started in their early episodes, and where they ended up by the end of the year. It's pretty representative of how 1960s sitcoms evolved in general as compared to their early 70s counterparts.

The earlier show had Gene Coon, Danny Arnold, Jerry Belson, Danny Simon and even Joseph Heller as the writers on the first dozen or so episodes, and really, in terms of silliness at the outset, it and MASH were about on the same level. But by the end of Season 1, Larry Gelbart had managed to get in "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet", the first episode of MASH that showed death affecting the main characters. In contrast, a decade earlier, by the end of Season 1, 'McHale' was dumbing down into a show focused on the Tim Conway-Joe Flynn slapstick relationship, and the later season shows can be painfully stupid to watch in re-runs.

David said...

Cops on CBS are still going to have to call vicious drug dealers “dirt bags.”

That made me flash on a classic Castle exchange about the terms used for criminal suspects. I've always enjoyed it on its face, but now I'm wondering whether it was a comment on broadcast language standards:

Castle: Good enough to be our perp?
Ryan: Why do you writers always call them perps?
Castle: Isn't that what you call them?
Ryan: Ah, we got a lot of names for 'em.
Esposito: Yeah.
Ryan: Pipehead. Piss-head. Orc. Creep.
(Castle takes out a notepad and starts jotting down.)
Esposito: Crook. Knucklehead. Chucklehead.
Ryan: Chud. Turd.
Esposito: Destro. Scum.
Ryan: Skexy. Slicko. Slick.
Esposito: Mope.
Ryan: Sleazestack.
Castle: Slow down, slow down.
Beckett: Suspects. We call them suspects.
Roy: I'm old school. I like 'dirtbag.'
Castle: Classic.

MuffinMan21571 said...

Wow, your Mindy Kaling/Project bashing never gets not old...

chalmers said...


On the AV Club website, Todd VanDerWerff started an interesting discussion about the lack of conflict in today's sitcoms.

http://www.avclub.com/article/sitcoms-are-being-strangled-lack-conflict-204453

He opens with his view of the main "Mindy Project" weakness and points out that "Friends" might have been the turning point for network sitcoms.

Previously, shows generated most of the comedy from the interaction of characters at cross-purposes forced together for some reason (like the Korean War.)

After Rachel and company, conflict humor was replaced by "hangout" appeal, where the cast is a group of funny, attractive people that we enjoy spending time with. Everyone's in it together and the humor comes from Sheldon being Sheldon rather than seeing if Mike or Archie will win this round.

I'm not sure the distinction is perfect, and I think shows like "MASH" and "Parks" have a natural tendency to move from conflict to hangout appeal.

Covarr said...

Chalmers: I see your point, and I raise you TWO AND A HALF MEN, and ARCHER. Both are chock-full of conflict-driven humor.

The Disney Channel, for all it's gotten wrong over the past seven years, has actually been fairly good about forcing characters together through setting. I may not have liked THE SUITE LIFE OF ZACK AND CODY, but I definitely have to give it credit for using conflict as a source of humor.

Mike in Seattle said...

I wish the entire industry would rise up as one and loudly proclaim WE'RE NOT GOING TO USE FINAL DRAFT ONE MORE DAY. Because it is, in fact, GARBAGE. I say that as someone who has been a software engineer for 30 years. I use Fade In and I like it. I get nothing from them for saying that, I paid for the product like everybody else. It does save files in Final Draft format and has many fewer headaches, at least for this writer. I don't know if its AD features make it worth something, but for writing FD is next to worthless.

emily said...

Ken, when will we get your read on FARGO?

Anonymous said...

Muffinman Said:

"Wow, your Mindy Kaling/Project bashing never gets not old..."

This is true, however The Mindy Project got old fast, and should have been cancelled mid-season. Because it sucks.

Anonymous said...

I got a kick out of this story from a co-showrunner on Enlisted, and his take on getting cancelled. I think I've read some of the same your blog too:

"Only in television do you get stopped before you're done. Often when you're just getting to the good part. That's what happened with Enlisted. My first big TV writing experience was six glorious seasons on a long-running hit (Everybody Loves Raymond). We stopped when we were good and ready. I thought that's how life was going to be. I was stupid."

http://www.tvguide.com/News/Enlisted-Mike-Royce-Cancellation-1082322.aspx

LouOCNY said...

The earlier show had Gene Coon, Danny Arnold, Jerry Belson, Danny Simon and even Joseph Heller as the writers on the first dozen or so episodes, and really, in terms of silliness at the outset, it and MASH were about on the same level. But by the end of Season 1, Larry Gelbart had managed to get in "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet", the first episode of MASH that showed death affecting the main characters. In contrast, a decade earlier, by the end of Season 1, 'McHale' was dumbing down into a show focused on the Tim Conway-Joe Flynn slapstick relationship, and the later season shows can be painfully stupid to watch in re-runs.

One could say the same about Hogan's Heroes - the first couple seasons - the most tolerable ones - had seasoned sitcom vets like Andy Girffith's Bullock and Allen, Laurence Marks, etc. And the directors were comedy vets like Howard Morris and...Gene Reynolds!

LouOCNY said...

Networks will also cancel shows that are doing good because of personal dislikes.

there is an interesting series of books that are in the midle of the series about the producing of each of STAR TREK's seasons, THESE ARE THE VOYAGES; and the author is claiming that while NBC loved Trek and the audience it was reaching - it was the #2 color show on NBC, right after BONANZA - they had HUGE problems with Gene Roddenberry dating back to when he created and produced his first show THE LIEUTENANT. That was one of the main reasons it exiled to the TV desert that was Friday nights in the late 60's, after the first season.

These books are HIGHLY recommended for their background look at the TV world of the 1960's.

Craig Russell said...

I remember one of those MASH anniversary shows where Larry Gelbart told the story that Paley's wife loved the show and told him to keep it on and give it a better timeslot. You might owe a good chunk of your livelyhood to one Mrs. William S., Paley, Ken!

Katherine said...

"I acknowledge I'm a village idiot when it comes to computers." No. The problems you're having are due to bad design. Only sub-standard programmers believe in operator error. Good ones anticipate what people need and provide it.

Liggie said...

I use Celtx, which is an open source screenwriting program. There are some fee-based services like cloud and project linkage, but the base program is free, and it does the job. Maybe I'll get something else if/when I sign a studio deal, but as an aspiring writer, I'm happy.

Bob Summers said...

In Brandon Tartikoff's autobiography, he debunks the whole great shows with potential bit about Hill Street Blues. According to him, NBC had research showing that households with cable would tune in to watch. This made the show more valuable.

Allan V said...

In the Cheers episode "The Ghost and Mrs. LeBec", Sam Malone barely appeared at all (just 10 seconds during the teaser) because Ted Danson was sick at the time. (The episode was terrific anyway, further proof of Cheers' greatness.) What do shows typically do when the biggest star is suddenly unavailable for the week ---- do they keep a specially-prepared script on hand for such a contingency, or do they improvise in some other way?

Sue said...

I love that you cannot say asshole but you can call someone an asswipe...a term I never heard used in real life but after hearing it on TV, it is now what some young 20-somethings say...

blinky said...

What Dick Van Dyke show did you write? Must know.

rockgolf said...

Remember that episode where Laura accidentally reveal Alan Brady is bald?

Not that one.

sophomorecritic said...

I just saw the Frasier episode where Frasier is trying to convince Amy Brenneman's mom he's Jewish, and I just have to ask "what the heck were you guys thinking?"

You insinuated that all Jews are whiny Yiddish stereotypes and it is forbidden to star in Jesus Christ Superstar if you're Jewish.

Additionally, you had several factual errors in the Bar Mitzvah episode.

I imagine you and some of the writers are Jewish, so does that excuse you from doing the research and being overly stereotypical?

tabman said...

You are either wonderfully brilliant, or the devil, or both. I just discovered your blog, and only power running out on my Ipad kept me from binge reading the whole 8 years.

Question: In Cheers, in the episode "Coach's daughter," there is a scene where Diane tries to establish that the fiance, Roy, isn't THAT bad:
Roy, your personality is very - strong.
- Amen.
But I know that's not the real you.
You know, an aggressive personality is often a mask for a very shy and sensitive soul.
I'm willing to gamble that you are such a person.
You're not wearing a bra, are you?

And Diane then says, "the man is pond scum."

In Wings, Alex makes a speech to Roy (coincidence?) about his treatment of women, and when she finishes, Roy says "You're not wearing a bra, are you?"

I loved Cheers, and enjoyed Wings, but this startled me. AT the time, I thought it was a bit of minor cheating. But perhaps it was a nod to Cheers, or an inside joke.

It's not a big deal, but what's your take on that?

One other question: I think I saw you kind of take a shot at Thomas Hadon Church, and I believe at another place said good things about him. What do you think of him (he seemed pretty good as Lowell).

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Friday question:
Enjoy your radio stories--remind me of my good old days. Did you keep a collection of long cuts for times you needed to tend to bodily functions and what were they? Someone should put out a compilation album of DJ's favorites called 'Music to Poop By'. Thanks, Keith
PS. Clapton's Cocaine was my personal favorite.