Tuesday, May 13, 2014
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 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.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM