Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How TV shows get selected for the fall schedule

This week is the Upfronts, when the major networks are announcing their fall schedules to much hoopla and ice mountains of shrimp.  Of the hundreds of pilots that had been commissioned, only a select few have made it to the promised land. My heartiest congratulations to the winners. I’ve always maintained that for the producers of pilots, when you get the news that your show has been picked up or your show has not been picked up, the reaction is the same. “Oh shit!” Now the work really begins for the lucky ones and there’s great disappointment for the losers.

In a business model that has about a 90% failure rate, you would think the best hedge against defeat would be to air only the very best shows creatively. But the truth is, the quality of the product is only one factor and in many cases, not even the primary one.

Let’s look at some other reasons shows get series orders:

Guaranteed commitments to producers or talent. In a bidding war, Michael J. Fox got a firm 22 on-the-air last year from NBC. It didn’t take 22 episodes to see that the public had rejected that show. If Chuck Lorre has a pilot, you can almost bet it’ll get on the schedule (although you can also bet it will be one of the best pilots in contention).

Network need. Are they looking to do more or less comedy? Are they looking for a companion piece for a certain show? Which project is most capable? The subject matter of your pilot could well determine your pick up, not quality.

Format. Is your sitcom a single-camera or multi-camera? That affects compatibility. Networks tend not to put one of each in the same hour. Personally, I think it makes no difference and neither does the audience (MASH did okay behind ALL IN THE FAMILY), but I’m not calling the shots.

The zeitgeist. Networks are desperately chasing young audiences. What movies do they go see? What trends are the rage? Comic book characters and superheroes are very in this moment. Jewish westerns are not.

Same goes for talent. Last year ABC jumped at Rebel Wilson (who wasn’t even the Flavor of the Month. She was the Flavor of the Minute). The result was an utter train wreck with Wilson rewriting every writer and making a flimsy premise even worse. UP ALL NIGHT got rejiggered a few years ago to feature more of Maya Rudolph because she scored so big in BRIDESMAIDS that summer.

Network love returning stars. Was there a chance in hell, THE CRAZY ONES starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller wouldn’t get the nod last year? Good luck if there was only one opening left and you were against Robin Williams. This year CBS picked up a Matthew Perry show. It may be great. I don’t know. It certainly has A-list writers attached. But this is the fourth new Matthew Perry series I can recall, and there may be three more. Some talent get unlimited times at bat.  THE CRAZY ONES was cancelled, but if Robin wants to do another series all four networks would jump. 

Network ownership of a show gives it a huge leg up. Again, one slot open at NBC. The contenders: A show from Warner Brothers and a show from NBCP. Which do you think will probably get on?

Then there are financial considerations. NASHVILLE’s renewal this year hinged strictly on whether the state of Tennessee would give the production group a multi-million dollar tax break. And PARENTHOOD hung in the balance on whether the cast would take a pay cut. There are programs that don’t get picked up because the network and production company can’t come to an agreement over the license fee (the amount the network pays to produce each episode).

A show might get picked up if it's on the bubble because the network owns it, it's been on for a few years, and the net needs a few more episodes to send it into syndication.  So it airs even though the network knows it's not going to get good ratings anymore.  

There are personnel issues. Can they scramble and get a suitable showrunner? My partner David and I once got a call from our agent saying there was a pilot at a network and if we agreed to take over as showrunners they would pick it up. It was very flattering that they asked, but the pilot was the dog's breakfast.

And finally, there’s bartering. COMMUNITY’S return last year was tied to NBC really wanting THE BLACK LIST from the same company. Our show, ALMOST PERFECT, got a second season because CBS really wanted JAG from Paramount. Paramount owned some CBS affiliates and CBS also wanted their late night Tom Snyder show to be cleared in those markets as a condition of picking us up.

That was insane, but you know what?  I understand it. Networks use leverage to get production companies to accept fewer episodes, a smaller license fee, or a partnership arrangement. Why shouldn’t the companies take advantage of any leverage they may have?   In this case, both used their leverage.  I would have done the same thing if I were on either side of the table. 

I also understand the networks going after stars. In a landscape of failure they’re betting on past success. The truth is, television creates new stars. Jim Parsons, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey all burst upon the scene thanks to television. But new people are longshots compared to Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, Allison Janey, and Robin Williams (who were also longshots who burst upon the scene thanks to television).

When you produce pilots for networks you know all of this going in. It’s a business. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes you get shafted. But sometimes you have the golden star, or premise, or right number of cameras and benefit. It’s the world we traffic in. But as a show creator, my focus is on writing and producing the best pilot possible. There’s always that hope (or pipe dream) that if you mount a creatively superior product you’re going to get on the air regardless of all those other factors. And it happens. Sometimes. But I’d rather bet on myself than on beating the system. After all, if my show does get picked up, I’ve got to make more of them. “Oh shit!”

TOMORROW: My ranting continues.  My thoughts on how to fix television.  As if anyone cares.

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

A recent cracked.com article(http://www.cracked.com/article_21093_5-scrapped-episodes-that-almost-ruined-famous-tv-shows.html) had a small piece about Cheers having an AIDS episode that got cancelled. What do you know about that?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've been looking over the list of pickups, and what really stands out to me are:

- the number of 1960s period shows (thank you, MAD MEN)

- the number of musical shows (thank you, GLEE) including one that's *also* a fairy tale (thank you, ONCE UPON A TIME)

- the number of shows about superheroes (as you say, let's get young people! and those people who loved BUFFY!)

plus the inevitable twists on the perennials: family shows, dating 20-something shows, tortured-genius cop shows, etc.

Nothing where I went, wow, must see *that*.

wg

blinky said...

Wouldn't you have loved to have been in the room when Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad?
OK, the story is about a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal lung cancer so decides to start cooking meth with one of his former students. Eventually he destroys the lives of everyone he touches. Oh, and there are some funny parts, too.

Covarr said...

GIRL MEETS WORLD wasn't originally ordered for a full season... and then the internet hype machine started bringing in fans from well outside of the Disney Channel's usual target audience, even though the show still has a month and a half to premiere, purely on nostalgia for BOY MEETS WORLD. So the first season order got extended, and the cast and crew are now operating on the assumption that they'll be renewed.

I feel like Disney doesn't receive enough pitches. It's the only explanation for shows like DOG WITH A BLOG, which has neither quality nor star power going for it.

gottacook said...

"In a bidding war, Michael J. Fox got a firm 22 on-the-air last year from NBC."

Yes, the series began last year, but in fact the bidding war took place a full year earlier. There's a detailed August 21, 2012 story about this in the New York Times; easy to find.

rockgolf said...

There are going to be 5 different series on 3 networks based on DC comics: Arrow & Flash on CW, Constantine on NBC. Gotham on FOX and iZombie on I don't know what.
Two ABC series (Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter) based on Marvel comic on ABC, as both Marvel & ABC are owned by Disney.
I'm a big comics fan and even I think this is overkill.

404 said...

And what really stinks is that, for me at least, all three of Matthew Perry's cancelled shows were pretty good. I really liked GO ON, especially, and I think if the network had given it more of a chance it could've gone somewhere.

Rant idea: networks that cancel shows prematurely. Grrr.

Johnny Walker said...

Completely unrelated to the blogpost, but is anyone else getting this weird MySpace advert playing when they visit Ken's blog?

"This is what you want... This is what you get...

Really odd.

Mike Barer said...

On hand, I keep wishing that CBS would cancel 2 and a Half Men, on the other hand, I keep watching it. I'm really part of my own problem.

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting to hear a reason why COMMUNITY got picked up again last season. Also surprising that, given they were picking up ALMOST FAMOUS to get JAG, that they decided to meddle with the formula.

What was that all about, I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Ken, just a head's up. Mention of AfterMASH & Frazier in one quote. Very enjoyable roundtable.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/emmys-roundtable-weiner-gilligan-sorkin-702972

Pam aka sisterzip

Jim S said...

Ken,

Question. 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.

rockgolf said...

@JimS: Actually, I think it was Paley's wife who liked Gunsmoke. But it always had decent ratings.

tomservo56954 said...

Jim...the story is that GUNSMOKE was officially cancelled after 12 seasons, as the competing movies on NBC were beating it in the ratings. After the announcement and new schedule was released, CBS chairman William S. Paley reversed the decision.

Many feel the rationale behind that was Paley wanted an excuse for get GILLIGAN'S ISLAND off the network, as the show that ran at 10 on Saturday for those first 12 years was moved into the castaways' Monday night at 7:30 slot (despite the fact they had easily beaten the pop-culture sensation THE MONKEES in audience numbers).

Joe Garage said...

A day late but...Happy Birthday, Yogi!!!

Bill said...

The story I've always heard is that Mrs. William S. Paley was the motivating force behind keeping GUNSMOKE. I've heard people claim that Paley was obsessed with finding an excuse to get GILLIGAN off the air, but that seems too much like latter-day revisionism to me, rooted in GILLIGAN becoming a pop-culture phemon in reruns. I can't believe the show wouldn't have been too marginal at the time to occupy much of Paley's attention.

BigTed said...

Overkill on singing competitions has led all their ratings to drop. I predict the same thing will happen on the other reality competition shows (even if you really like "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race," could season number 20 bring anything you haven't seen already?). So I think without the crutch of relatively cheap, easy-to-make reality programming, the networks will be in a real bind. Add to that all the shows that were just canceled, and the fact that so much quality programming is going to cable, and I think networks will be forced to buy more scripted comedies and dramas in the near future -- even projects they might have passed on a year or two ago.

Chuck said...

For the record, moving GUNSMOKE to Monday night in 1967 turned out to be a good move. The show thrived there, handily winning its time slot for a number of seasons. It really isn't fair to GUNSMOKE to imply that it remained on the air throughout those years solely because the boss's wife liked it.

benson said...

@Pam, aka Sister Zip

Thanks for the link. I'm not a writer, but am fascinated with the creative process. Only wish the article were longer.

Anonymous said...

Benson,

I agree. Could have been the entire issue as far as I'm concerned.

Pam aka sisterzip

Johnny Walker said...

@Pam Thanks for sharing that! I wish they had the whole unedited video, but still fascinating.

Dan from WNY said...

Ken,

There's a lot of talk about Glee losing its focus when it moved a subset of the cast to NYC. The comparisons to AfterMASH have begun.

Harold said...

That Bhaskar's got a helluva avatar and he can get past the robot gatekeeper!

Johnny Walker said...

Wait, you think he's a spambot?

Deanna said...

The LAST Matthew Perry show, "Go On," was really good. I was mightily disappointed when NBC cancelled it after only one season. That was also the moment when I decided I wasn't ever going to watch new shows anymore only to start enjoying them and have them pulled out from under me.

rockgolf said...

What a coincidence! I was just looking for a fast courier in Faridabad!!

Lorimartian said...

"Growing Up Fisher" cancelled and "The Millers" renewed. There is no justice!

Mike Barer - I keep watching, too. At least Ashton Kutcher's acting has shown noticeable improvement since he joined the cast. I wish I could say the same for Megan Boone in "The Blacklist." Sigh.

MikeN said...

Wow. So you got a second season because of JAG, which had already been canceled by NBC? A decision that lost them fake spinoff NCIS and further fake spinoffs NCIS LA and NCIS New Orleans.

Hey, I thought tax rates don't affect behaviour and that Reagan was all wrong.

Liggie said...

This reminds me so much of the recent NFL draft. Just replace what Ken wrote with Johnny Manziel, Michael Sam, "best available player", "drafting for need" ("Why did the Seahawks draft a receiver when they needed a guard?"), and trading a player for future draft picks.

The only thing missing a three-day long event where network execs announce the new programs at a Radio City Music Hall podium, fans cheer/boo/heckle the selections, and on-set panels of TV critics analyze each pick for twenty minutes.

RG said...

@Mike Barer, perhaps if you had another half of a hand the issue would resolve itself.

RG said...

@Mike Barer, perhaps if you had another half of a hand the issue would resolve itself.

DwWashburn said...

It seems like half my posts start as "I'm not in the business, so . . " but I'm not in the business so I need to understand this.

The Crazy Ones (according to TV by the Numbers) had better ratings for the season that either Mom, 2 Broke Girls or the Middle. Now two of those three are CBS shows, so why did TCO get the ax instead of just being shifted to another night or some other fix?

Was it too expensive? Did Robin or Sarah have performance escalation clauses in their contracts similar to baseball players that just made it financially advantageous to cur the cord? Other?

Anonymous said...

I've always believed that Robin Williams is at his best (and least annoying) when he is playing the straight-laced guy whose life is coming apart at the seams. His two best movies were The Survivors (with Walter Matthau) and Best of Times (with Kurt Russell). In both of those he played a buttoned-up, suit wearing executive and any craziness was being projected onto him rather than allowing him to be "the crazy one." When the world falls apart around him and he is trying to keep it together, he is amazing. Hopefully Mr. Williams and a smart TV exec realize this and come up with a premise that is actually the opposite of what we think of when we think of him. He should be the calm one in the storm whose life is getting a bit more out of control everyday, not the ham who never shuts up.

Mike said...

The Crazy Ones' season ratings average was inflated by stronger numbers earlier in the season. By later in the season, it was getting lower ratings than all the shows you mentioned. And it has a stronger lead-in than those other shows.

JoeyH said...

The only Jewish Western I can recall, Blazing Saddles, was pretty damn good.

Daniel said...

Hi Ken,

Did you see this article on "Salon" tonight? I could not disagree with the writer more. "Frasier" was brilliant (at least the first seven seasons). "Friends" was banal.

http://www.salon.com/2014/05/13/the_tenth_anniversary_of_frasier_proves_the_limits_of_internet_nostalgia/

Pamela Jaye said...

I heard that NBC was the #1 network this year... I know I'm watching a lot of ABC. someone's said it was sports and Olympics.
One show I meant to watch premiered on FOX without my even hearing about it. Sigh.

RIP Community, Surviving Jack and Growing Up Fisher (a show that made Jenna Elfman bearable).

Johnny Walker said...

Daniel, it seems the author of the Salon article (also named Daniel) agrees with you. I don't see him claiming that Friends was better than Frasier.

Pat Reeder said...

I recently read "The War for Late Night" by Bill Carter. He recounts an interesting story from Lorne Michaels, on how he lost his innocence about the way TV really works. He'd been producing "SNL" for awhile and had a list of grievances about creative freedom, standards & practices undermining quality, feeling burned out, etc, which he took into a meeting with one of the older top executives.

The guy listened patiently, then explained the reality to him. He said that Michaels' contract required him to provide NBC with 90 minutes of programming every week that would attract a certain number of viewers and come in on budget. And that is all. It didn't say the programming had to be good. He said that when showrunners are neurotic enough to care personally and work themselves to death to create a quality show, then that was a win-win for the networks. But all they required was 90 minutes of time filler on budget that attracts a certain number of eyeballs. Michaels left the meeting wiser but thoroughly disillusioned.

Also reminds me of a line in Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's book, "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit." They said you may think studios are in the business of making movies. They're not. They're in the business of making money. And if they could find a way to make money without making movies, they would.

VP81955 said...

Susan McMartin reported this on her blog:

"After 3 life changing seasons as a writer/co-producer on Two And A Half Men, I will be saying goodbye and joining the writing team of Chuck Lorre’s new show, "Mom."

So someone's deserting the sinking "Two And A Half" ship, and joining "Mom" (a real-life mom, no less). As a fan of the latter series, that's wonderful news.

VP81955 said...

And speaking of "Mom," it made out well in the 2014-15 lineup, moving to 8:30/7:30 Mondays (an hour earlier than before)...and its lead-in while CBS airs football on Thursday night? Merely "The Big Bang Theory." (After football, "2 Broke Girls" will be the prelim.) And as for "Two And A Half Men," Susan McMartin's former series? This will be its final season.

Anonymous said...

I thought Mathew Perry did a man's work in "Go On." I'd never watched him before, and he looked like he was throwing everything he had into it. He's still got some comedy chops. Problem for me was the writing, and many of the supporting actors were abysmal, and seemed in over their heads.
Whomever casted that show should be fired twice.

Blaine said...

I agree with Daniel (above). I still enjoy watching Fraiser--yep, first 7 seasons sounds about right to me. I caught a couple of episodes of Friends the other day, and I was so surprised at how dull and almost irritatingly unfunny I found the show. I knew I didn't like the later years so I went online and discovered the two I had seen were from season 4, which was unexpected. I thought it was later. I liked Friends when it was on--didn't love it--for the first few years. It's not a show that holds up for me. But yeah, I still get a kick out of early Frasier.

I liked Big Bang Theory a lot in the first 3 and some of 4 seasons. But now, I'm pleasantly surprised when I enjoy it.

I love TV, but there's not a lot to look forward to for me. I fall back on DVDs and online eps of Enlisted for comedy or even old video tapes. Or Antenna TV--the network.

Rick said...

This might seem like a selfish question, but I know it must be on a lot of people's minds: at what point during this process do you actually get paid enough to survive? Are you homeless until your show is in its second season, or at some early point are you getting paid enough to not have to worry about money while you're worried about every single other thing going on? I can take a rejection or a failure if I have the resources to pick myself up and move on to the next one?