Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My latest rant

Even though I know I'm just howling at the moon...

Most network notes come out of fear. Networks are deathly afraid viewers are going to tune out if they're not captivated every second. Go four lines without a joke and networks believe half your audience will bail. Take a minute in your storytelling to breathe and have two characters just relate to each other and networks are certain it’s the same as the Great East Coast Blackout.

One thing the networks have always believed is that you must explain every moment and every little thing that is going on. And then, to be certain, explain it again. Today, more than ever, that is their mantra (because today, more than ever, they’re gripped with fear).

If a viewer is confused he will tune out, is their reasoning. But there is a difference between confusion and just asking the audience to work a little to figure out what is going on. If viewers are lost because they don’t know why a character is so upset or where a scene is taking place then I’m the first one to say that has to be addressed.

But does a character have to tell us he’s sad? Can’t we tell by his behavior? Does Jack Bauer have to remind Chloe six times that if she doesn’t get him the coordinates the Grand Canyon will blow up?

The bottom line is networks think we’re so stupid that we need to be spoon-fed every detail. It’s more than mildly insulting.

As a writer I always assume the audience is intelligent. I feel that if they have to work a little to follow the action they will be more engaged, more invested. They’ll also appreciate that I’m treating them with respect. That I give them a little credit. I’m saying they can read books without the benefits of pictures. They can figure out how to turn on a blender. They can see a guy in a surgical gown and surmise he’s a doctor.

It’s time for networks to trust writers again. It’s time to realize that someone who has been writing and producing comedy for years knows more about how to make a sitcom than a former business major at C.W. Post. And it’s time to stop running scared.

Comedy needs to be daring, subversive, challenging. Networks need to be safe, non-offensive, appealing to the lowest common denominator. No wonder new sitcoms are premiering with a 1.0 share. No wonder shows can’t build an audience even after three years on the air. The audience is not so dumb after all.

39 comments:

Gary Benz said...

Ken, this is the age-old dispute between networks and writers that really hasn't changed much over the years. Things always seem worse now than before but you could go back 10, 20 or 30 years and writers still feel the same ways. I think what has changed is viewer's attention spans. They don't typically sit and watch and absorb. They tend to sit with a smartphone in their hands checking twitter feeds and facebook. As distracted viewers, they tend to need to be spoonfed a bit more. As for the state of sitcoms today, they aren't debuting to a 1.0 share because they're appealing to the lowest common denominator. They are debuting to a 1.0 share because they aren't funny.

Sue Dunham said...

Well, to be fair, much of their audience DOES watch reality TV, so they know the their demographic.

luciuspaisley said...

I don't know why, but I recently sat through 'The Longest Week'.

They didn't let the characters explain anything they were feeling or thinking, no, they had a fucking NARRATOR do it.

There was this bullshit piece somewhere near the beginning or middle or some fucking place in the movie where the characters go and see a play then discuss it, but what they were really doing was discussing the movie the audience is (I guess) watching. The conclusion concerning the play was "it's satire", like this was a reasonable fucking excuse.

Ignore that second paragraph, the movie just really bugged me and I needed to get that out.

Mark said...

Friday Question:I agree with you 100%. I was wondering if you have any insight as to where that mentality comes from on the part of Network execs.?

MikeK.Pa. said...

First factor in that no one knows how to create hits. The network suits would be the first to admit it, if they weren't so insecure. Second factor in the pressure the networks get from their corporate parent to produce revenue to the bottom line each quarter. Third factor in the short attention span of the American audience as the result of, first MTV, then the introduction of hundreds of cable TV channels and finally the distraction of numerous digital gadgets all beginning with letter "i."

The TV viewing audience is so fragmented today. Saturday night I was in bliss flipping from baseball playoffs to college football to NHL. That was after watching episodes of Key & Peele (a new-found favorite after reading their EW guested-edited issue) On Demand for a good part of the day. I have to remind myself, it's Friday, watch the new comedy on NBC (I know I could watch it On Demand, but that would cut into my Key & Peele time and I have three seasons to capture up on).

As a result of your blog, I have forced myself to watch many of the new comedies, real-time when possible, as well as discover some existing comedies I have neglected to watch. I still say many need time and nurturing to find their voice, whether they eventually do or not. Given the insecurities and the pressures of said network execs mentioned at the top, that - sadly - just ain't going to happen. Easier to wish for world peace or a Cubs World Series championship.

Richard J. Marcej said...

If any of the networks asked me about my viewing habits and why I barely watch any shows on network TV, is confidence.

None of the networks, be they CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, etc.. have, through their own actions recently, shown that they have no confidence in their work. I'd started watching many a dramatic series on the networks, began getting involved in their story lines, vested in the characters to only find out-------
the show's been canceled.

I'm not talking about 13 episodes, like they used to give 40, 50 years ago. No. Two, maybe three episodes then boom. They've pulled the plug.

So since then I give NO new network shows a shot, even if the premise sounds interesting or right up my alley. I've been burned too many times by the nets. Why should I commit time to their work if they won't?

RockGolf said...

One of the worst offenders of SASP (Short-Attention Span Programming) is any FOX reality series, particularly Hell's Kitchen. They force in a commercial break at a supposed point of suspense - which team wins a competition, who's the second nominee for elimination, is the John Dory undercooked? - but when they come back, they recap the entire events leading to the break, then add the additional 3-second resolution.

Hell's Kitchen is the champ in faking climaxes.

Eric J said...

I do not accept the argument that the audience is the problem. The audience is the target. It isn't that the audience has a short attention span. It's that people are, and always have been, easy to distract. So the problem isn't that they are distracted by iPhones. The problem is that they are NOT being distracted by compelling television. If television wants viewers, then distract them from their smartphones. If you can't do that, you are less interesting than their dumbass twitter friends, and YOU are the problem.

Hamid said...

One thing the networks have always believed is that you must explain every moment and every little thing that is going on.

Movie studios too, which is why almost every trailer now basically tells you the entire plot of a film. Not the premise, not the general vibe of the story, but the actual entire progression of dramatic beats. The single greatest example of this is the trailer for the Beyonce Fatal Attraction knock-off Obsessed. I haven't seen this film. I don't need to. The trailer literally reveals everything, including even the climax and how one of the lead characters dies!

On a separate subject, I'd be interested to know what you think of Season 4 of Homeland, Ken. It just started in the UK on Sunday. I enjoyed the first episode and it's a relief not to have Brody's whiny daughter anymore. But I swear, if Carrie ends up having an affair with another terrorist during this season, I'll be done with the show. We had three seasons of her angst and obsession over Brody - including colluding in his assassination of the Vice-President!! - and I'm dreading a repeat.

Belle said...

I agree with Richard in regards to the network not committing. It then becomes a situation where, instead of following a new series from beginning with the risk of cancellation, I feel better off waiting until at least the first season has finished, and then watching that retrospectively in time to join in with the second season live.

Luckily I don't have to feel guilty about this, because I live in Australia, and I'm not sure our viewer ratings really count towards the survival of the show. Not to mention we don't get all that many shows in the scheme of things.

At the moment, the only show I tune into religiously is the daily MASH repeat.

Scooter Schechtman said...

@ MikeK.Pa: Don't worry about missing Key & Peele. It's one of those shows they run in massive blocks to surround "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report". K & P, South Park, Tosh.0, they're all just like packing peanuts to the network that pioneered starting shows at skewed times to cash in on commercial revenue. And now I must go and yell at that insolent cloud I see.

JT Anthony said...

What's an example of a show or movie that leaves (or left) too much unexplained? Which shows force the audience to think too hard just to understand the general storyline, let alone nuanced subplots or morals of the story?

Tom said...

Being a foreigner, I recently had one of my rare attempts at watching US network television while in a hotel in New York. My observation was not that the networks didn't trust me to follow a plot but that they didn't trust me to watch any programming at all. This was all around 20:00, not the middle of the night or anything like that, but 20 minutes of channel searching resulted in maybe 18 minutes of advertisements.

If new programmes are failing it's no doubt at least because it isn't worth switching the box on at all unless you already know exactly what you intend to watch.

James Van Hise said...

I don't think there will ever be a show on again like the original Mission Impossible series. The opening explained the mission and then for the rest of the hour you had to pay attention to figure out how they were doing it and what was going on. When the show was revived in the 1990s the plots were simple and they made sure you always knew what was happening, especially if you didn't tune in until halfway through. If you tuned in the 1960s Mission Impossible halfway through you'd just be bewildered, but it would be your own fault for not watching from the beginning.

Mike Barer said...

Grey's Anatomy, watched that for the first time in years a couple of weeks ago and felt so insulted that I tuned out for good. That show has got to go.

Pamela Jaye said...

Maybe I need a mindless sitcom. Between Once Upon A Time, Scandal, HTGAWM, and SHIELD my brain is fried. Drama writers sure don't have to explain everything.

pumpkinhead said...

Great post! Though I'm not really sure what howling at the moon has to do with anything.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Time to resurrect the format of George Schlatter's "Laugh-In" from the '60's. For those who aren't familiar with it: 5-15 second free-standing bits 'n skits, perfect for today's short-attention-span culture: no story, no character development, no risks for the network suits.

Mike said...

Your constant complaint of too much executive interference on network TV. The cause of your problem: there's too much money in network TV. Fortunes to be made from advertising, overseas sales & syndication leading to fortunes spent on production & salaries leading to massive corporate risk leading to massive corporate interference. (Similar for films where blockbusters are seen as the best way to make money.) There's also the problem that everyone has watched TV, so everyone is an expert on TV. Nuclear fusion, not so much.
Are some fifties comedies considered classics because there was less money in TV back then?
So cable offers the panacea of no interference, originality is king. Yet you don't seem to rate cable comedies any better. Too edgy, too niche?
You could try for the BBC, American writers do. Write your own 6-part series, free of interference, every word your own. The only drawback being the shoestring budget, zero development time, and being paid in BBC cafeteria luncheon vouchers.

vicernie said...

this article in Slate today comments on why Frasier is so good; it treats the audience intelligently. http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2014/10/14/why_do_people_love_the_tv_sitcom_frasier.html

chrisM said...

I can work crosswords during many US dramas and not miss a thing but if I glance away for a second during a British drama I may miss a non-verbal moment that may be vital to the plot.

Anonymous said...

It would seem the networks have identified their audience quite well. How else could Big Bang Theory or Two Broke Girls or (you fill in the blank) survive?

Dan in WNY said...

Not so of this week's "The Good Wife". The fact that Demond Bishop was screwing Alicia over by starting a PAC required some context & interpretation.

Cap'n Bob said...

As long as Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashian sluts remain on the air you'll never convince me that the TV audience isn't a horde of morons.

Ellen said...

With all the brave, smart, challenging shows on cable that are the beating the shit out of the networks, you'd think the suits might actually take notice give quality a shot.

Igor said...

So Ken, you're saying network execs think TV audiences need the same spoon-feeding as readers of spec scripts from newbies - the only difference being that with spec scripts, newbies have to make the spoon-feeding seem to not be spoon-feeding, while with TV shows, blatant spoon-feeding is fine and dandy.

Igor said...

IOW, network execs thing TV audiences are as slow-witted as they are.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

If they could trim down the amount of commercials a bit maybe people wouldn't be so panicky that audiences can't remember what happened before the break. I'm out of touch with US broadcast TV a lot of the year, and when I get back I'm always amazed. Even in the 1970s I used to read during the commercials, but it's gotten ridiculous.

wg

iconoclast59 said...

Let's face it: many Americans have been so dumbed down by what passes for "entertainment" these days, an inferior educational system, and anti-intellectual propaganda; they really do need to be spoon-fed. Being a thoughtful, intelligent, considerate person in American society is increasingly an exercise in despair.

I deal with spoon-feeding in my job all the time. I work for an organization that administers tests. The tests include an instruction booklet. We've reformatted the booklet countless times: played around with typeface and font size; changed the layout to make it more readable; added graphic elements to highlight important text; reorganized the contents to put the most critical information on page 1; etc. And no matter what we do, there's always some dumbass who fails the test because he/she didn't read the instructions. Does the dumbass say, "Oops, my bad -- I guess I should've paid more attention"? Oh, hell no! It's always, always, always our fault. "Well, YOU should have done THIS..." Arrrrgh.

Tom alluded to it above, but the glut of commercials doesn't help. Many people who watch a show in real time channel-surf during the commercials, and they sometimes come back to the original show a couple of minutes late. Or, perhaps they were watching another show, and decided to switch to this one. So, the writers are told to pad the script with redundancy so that nobody in the viewing audience is confused or in the dark.

iconoclast59 said...

OT for Ken and anyone else who might be interested:

The San Francisco Chronicle has a nice interview with Garry Marshall. He's directing a play called "Billy and Ray," about the making of the movie "Double Indemnity." Here's the link: http://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Garry-Marshall-knight-of-light-goes-dark-with-5821920.php

Ken, in the interview, Garry says, "You know, Neil Simon, who is one of my idols, always said, 'My words fit in every actors' mouth.' I am from another school," he said. "I understand that, and I admire that, but I find that sometimes to get the best of certain people, you’ve got to tailor it a little bit."

Do you agree with Garry, or with Neil?

Johnny Walker said...

Well said, Ken. MAD MEN and THE WIRE (and probably some other shows that I haven't seen yet) show you don't need to insult your audience by spoon-feeding them everything. Rather than be turned off, many audience members actually appreciate having to keep their brains active while they watch. They like being challenged. They enjoy not knowing what's going to happen and being rewarded for their attention.

So annoying that your pilot didn't go... Grrr!

Snoskred said...

JT Anthony said...
"What's an example of a show or movie that leaves (or left) too much unexplained?"

I just watched The Talking Dead yesterday and discovered that Gareth was the son of Terminus Mary, and that the guy being cut up on the table was Gareth's brother.

The show did not tell me that, Scott Gimple did, on The Talking Dead. I'm sure maybe if I go back and re-watch it, there may be clues that might appear for me and tell me this, but these clues would have been displayed in the midst of Our Loved Gang being captured and shoved into a train car, in order to become food at some later point.. So my mind might have been a little too busy screaming at Our Loved Gang to notice these things. :)

Jabroniville said...

I wonder how many of these network execs are panicking at the success of shows from HBO, Showtime and others- the lower amounts of editorial interference and assorted bullshit seems to be helping the writers tremendously.

It makes the big networks look stupid for both failing to equal the MAD MENs of the world creatively, and for failing financially. It basically proves that the network executives are the useless, incompetent part of the equation. That can't make them feel good.

cadavra said...

Let's not forget that the nets are always chasing The Demo, those easily-distracted kids with the momentary attention spans. Perhaps if they made more of an effort to woo the older viewers who love to pay attention (let's call them the HARRY'S LAW crowd) this all would not be necessary...although they'd probably still interfere and louse everything up anyway, because they just can't help themselves.

Jonathan said...

Billy Wilder is supposed to have passed down this advice from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. You'd hope that at least the executives at Paramount would know who Lubitsch is since the lot has a building named after him.

Pizzagod said...

I agree-and the nice thing is that there is so much drek on the tube that it's really easy to just limit my viewing and then walk away. Thank you networks!

As far as Jack Bauer goes, I think Dave Barry nailed it- http://www.miamiherald.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/dave-barry/article1935934.html

Anonymous said...

The reality shows introduced the idea of repeating everything - literally saying the whole point twice in a row, first in scene, then in the confession chair. And if there is a commercial break, returning to again state the obvious. The amount of actual info that is stated for plot or otherwise "reality" needs, is half the program, the rest is simply restating it again, literally, verbally, etc.

MikeN said...

Hamid, the trailer for The Godfather reveals the entire plot too.

gregq said...

A possible (political) explanation:

What you are seeing is not just confined to network executives and shows. Look that the Ebola situation. What is the Administration's overriding objective? Is it to keep the American people fully informed? No. Is it to give us useful information so we can understand what's going on? No.

The Administration and the MSM do not trust the American people to act rationally, so they spoon-feed us bullshit to "keep us from panicking."

The (self-professed / self-appointed) "elites" do not trust the rest of us, and so they constantly treat us the way you describe. And, all too often, because we're not actually as stupid as they are, let alone as stupid as they think we are, it backfires. As you're seeing right now.