Tuesday, November 04, 2014

What happens when your new show is in trouble

We’re at the time of year when networks are beginning to cancel new shows. No matter how successful you are, at one time or another you will find yourself in this position. My heart goes out to all of you showrunners currently going through this.

I don't mean to discourage anybody, and when new shows go well then life is golden.  But for people going through a struggling newcomer, or anyone who wants a look behind the curtain of how high-stakes television really works, here’s what it’s like:

Everything was so great at the start. You flew to New York for the upfronts. Lavish parties, the network president lauding your show as the next huge hit. Drinks with your stars. A total lovefest.

Then you went to work. That network that praised you to the heavens now questions every decision you make. Story notions are thrown out. Outlines are rejected. First drafts are met with voluminous notes. One of the stars you had drinks with you now have to fire because she didn’t test to the network’s liking.

Production begins and the notes increase. Network approval now extends to all casting and editing decisions.

You start falling behind. You realize you wasted several weeks of pre-production preparing an outline that ultimately got rejected. You wasted more time just waiting to hear back on stories and scripts you sent them.

But everybody on the cast and crew is still relatively happy. Everyone likes everyone else. It’s exciting. Hope burns eternal that indeed this will become the next big thing. And everyone has steady employment (at least for the moment). On-air promos have begun. Ads appear in magazines. One of your cast members goes on Conan. It’s all good.

Then the reviews come out. You focus on the good ones, but the cast focuses on the bad ones. You now have shaky actors you have to talk off the ledge.

Meanwhile, the network gets instantly nervous and decides the direction of the show is the problem. So they begin rejecting scripts that had already been approved. Now you’re really scrambling – trying to make a midcourse correction based on a consensus of executives.

The show premiers. The ratings are disappointing. You look for any positive sign. It finished in only 3rd place in Houston. The DVR numbers will surely propel you to the top 10. But those numbers are underwhelming too. The cast is understandably panicked. You spend a lot of time on the stage putting out fires. But it’s time you can ill afford because you’re practically starting from scratch on scripts. All lead time has evaporated – most of it spent futilely on scripts that are scrapped. You’re working around the clock, seven days a week. You haven’t had a day off since August. You haven’t eaten a decent meal since July. You haven’t had a good night’s sleep since June.

But it's only the first week.  Things could still turn around.  Maybe... possibly. 

Week two – the numbers are worse. They even slipped in Houston.  Still, the good news is you’re starting to have a handle on the show. Trouble is, there are six episodes in the can before these new better shows can air. IF they air.

You seek desperately for any positive. A tweet someone wrote, a compliment from your mother’s second cousin. Originally, in reviews you were hoping they’d say “brilliant” and now you’d gladly settle for “promising.”

For weeks you couldn’t wait for your show to actually begin airing. Now you dread it. Each new episode could be a lethal punch to your gut.

You are trapped in a nightmare. And it becomes clear your show has no future. But you still have to make them. You still have to write till 4 a.m. You still have to reassure the cast. You still have to recast that sales clerk because the network rejected her. A director you had signed for next month wants out because he got a chance to do a show that got decent ratings. The network insists you reshoot a scene. Your star was slated to co-host a holiday parade on your network but they just dropped her. She won’t come out of her trailer. The table reading for the next show tanks. The cast hates the new direction. You have to do a page one rewrite for an episode you know will never air.

And then – finally – the CALL (or today, maybe the text). You’ve been cancelled. How do I describe the sensation? It’s like you’re skydiving, hurtling towards the earth, and then suddenly your parachute opens. Whooooosh!  Ahhhhhhh!  You float. You’re at peace.

All script work just ends. You may have to finish filming the episode on the stage (and that’s a treat, lemme tell you as someone who has directed several “last” episodes). But basically it’s done. No more scripts in the pipeline to write. No more pipeline. Yes, you’re sad but there will be time to grieve later and second-guess decisions that led to this, but for now your sole emotion is just RELIEF. What’s your next career move? Where do you go from here? You don’t care. Not at that moment. All you know if that you no longer have to do THIS.

Fond goodbyes and hugs. You feel bad for everyone in the crew. They’ll now have to get other jobs. But they will. And so will you. But not before you sleep for a month.

Again, I feel bad for anyone going through this. We’ve all done it. Just be proud that you created a show that got on a major broadcast network. Very few people can ever say that. And your next one will be better because of the experience. You will be a much better showrunner. You’ll have a better sense of how to solve problems. And you’ll figure out what went wrong and avoid those mistakes the next time around.

For now, take a nap.


Terrence Moss said...

Most of the network executives are idiots. They need to step back and let people do what they do unless they suck at it. More importantly, they need to let people find a show before cancelling it. "Manhattan Love Story" deserved more time and a better fate.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Amazing how there is no time for course correction. You have four shows in the can and start to figure out how to fix some of the holes in the characters and storylines, but those fixes never see the light of day because you're cancelled after show four. Crazy business. Makes what Nik Wallenda does look safer and saner. The obvious problem is network interference and impatience, and network executives insecurity. Three things that aren't going away.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Seinfeld" had a story arc about this, though the focus was on the crazy actors and crazy Costanzas.
(listening to RichBro Radio at this time and it's currently in a real booger-patch of early 60s Frankie Avalon and Lou Christie. Beatles too expensive?)

ScottyB said...

Ken wrote: "And you’ll figure out what went wrong and avoid those mistakes the next time around."

Seems to me that a lot of those "mistakes" come from the suits, not because there's been a basic, glaring "mistake" in the showrunning, or the scripts -- altho that's not to say the landscape is littered with examples of those. The vast majority of network sitcoms are completely dreadful, and IMO that's because those shows are what the network WANTS, for some sick reason that defies all logic.

But still, it seems to me that you're *going* to get cancelled someday one day, so just make the best of it in the time you've been gifted, do the best job you can under the circumstances, collect your check and be glad you got the opportunity to actually be working in a cutthroat industry. And really, how many great actors and showrunners got noticed for great work they did on shitty shows and end up in shows that became great or near-great?

crackblind said...

Just curious if you have a take on the WGAE vs. ITV fight that's going on over Neil Patrick Harris' variety show. I've only seen coverage of it on the Guardian's website, nothing here in the US.

Anonymous said...

Ken Said:

"Just be proud that you created a show that got on a major broadcast network. Very few people can ever say that."

That's like telling someone after he fell off a steep cliff, "Just be proud that you were flying. You broke the bounds of earth. Very few people can ever say that."


Les said...

This brings up a question: Has a Showrunner ever filmed his or her show exactly as they wanted to do it before all the network notes and interference to demonstrate that their show was better left alone (even if shot with just crappy camera to keep the costs down?) And then just said to the network A or B? Seems like it would a Showrunner's dream.

BigTed said...

The lead actors in "A to Z" are extremely appealing. (He's best known as a troubled copywriter on "Mad Men," and she was amazing in the thankless role as the ill-fated mother on "How I Met Your Mother.) The leads on "Manhattan Love Story" are appealing too. It would be a shame if they end up bouncing around from show to show until something catches on, the way many other recognizable actors do.

Michael said...

Les, I believe Ken has done a post in the past about BIG WAVE DAVE'S in which he mentioned because it was a summer show on very tight schedule, he was able to get the network to agree not to give him and his partner any notes.

Unknown said...

There's a country song buried in your post somwehwere Ken.

Curt Alliaume said...

I liked the two episodes of A to Z that I saw. My feeling, however, is that while romantic comedies work well on the big screen, they tend to work poorly on television. Most tend to be open-ended (will they or won't they?), and audiences aren't willing to wait around for the payoff. The two shows addressed here are gone; there were a bunch of similar shows in the 1990s (Love and War, Hearts Afire, It Had to Be You, If Not For You, Duet). The only one that made it was Mad About You - partially because it picked up the story six months after the lead characters were married (e.g. what happens after happily ever after?).

Todd said...

"Too many cooks spoil the broth".

It all comes down to this.

Even if all the network execs, studio suits, development people, and actual cooks who nowadays give notes on scripts were ALL world-class storytellers, the final product from such a committee would be at best bland, and at worst what it usually is, awful.

Oh, and BTW, NONE of the people listed above are world-class storytellers, or they would be making mint telling world class stories.

Okay, maybe some of the cooks...

D. Mcewan said...

A to Z is cancelled. Now I'll never know how he alphabet turns out.

Canda said...

Agree that "A to Z" had appealing characters, but getting them together at the end of the first episode pretty much killed any anticipation, and the dating stories that followed, particularly the funeral with the bizarre and unreal family members (including the buddhist-chanting Uncle) stretched the bounds of credulity, especially when you had two people we really liked, and you let the action overwhelm them, rather than a simple, small conflict that's relatable.

Again, Ken, inexperienced show-runners, who don't know how to turn life experience into great scripts.

Norman Lear succeeded because he always had older, experienced writers around to help the younger, culturally aware, hipper writers.

Diane D. said...

My God! How does ANYONE have the courage to go into this business?

After reading this blog for several months, I feel such gratitude that creative, smart, talented people are willing to put up with this kind of torture to bring us shows like Cheers, which has brought so much enjoyment to my life. But for the love of heaven, it shouldn't be this hard!

Johnny Walker said...

Ouch. Welcome to Hollywood. Thanks for that honest and unflinching look into the world of a showrunner. Astonishing that people survive it -- God knows how you manage if they don't cancel you!

I remember Larry David talking in an interview about how he literally fell on his bed and wept when Seinfeld got renewed for a full season.

gottacook said...

You can add Love & Money to the list of very short-lived romantic comedies - the only cast member I recall from it was Brian Doyle-Murray as the father of the female lead.

As for the agonies of first getting and then keeping a series on the air: I'm reminded of what Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone: "This is the business we've chosen!"

DwWashburn said...

Meanwhile, the network gets instantly nervous and decides the direction of the show is the problem. So they begin rejecting scripts that had already been approved.

I guess it's all relative. You have network executives who think they know more than the creative team. We have politicians who think they know more than Ebola doctors and climate change scientists. Kinda puts the network executive problem in perspective.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The problem I had with A TO Z was that the supporting characters were awful - it felt like someone had lifted them right out of David Mamet's play SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO (which was made into the Hollywood movie ABOUT LAST NIGHT...), but without the cynical charm. The male friend in particular seemed like a low-rent version of the friend in REAPER (who went on to be the best friend in the short-lived MAD LOVE).

I think romantic comedy works best on TV when it isn't the main story. Will and Alicia on THE GOOD WIFE spring to mind.

Agree about MAD ABOUT YOU. And in later seasons, when they got away from showing the two of them figure out their lives together, the show wasn't nearly as good.


Metal Mickey said...

I've always been dismissive of showrunners of cancelled programmes (not usually comedies to be honest) when they leave us hanging with an unfinished story, but this piece made me realise how awful it must be for all concerned - nice work, sir.

Cristina said...

There is always a new door open for those whose shows were cancelled. It's unfortunate that network eexecutives are just looking at the ratings and don't give a show to develop. They probably don't even watch their shows. There are really shows not worth watching, like Ken said they should be thankful their show was given a chance to be broadcast in a major network.

John said...

in my native country (Sweden), the system is quite different, but not necessarily better. I was the creator/showrunner of a comedy in the early 90s, and in the middle of pre-production, the show order went from 8 episodes to 16 without any additional budget or shooting time.

We had managed to snag two amazing actors for the leads (today, the male lead is generally seen as Sweden's number one comic actor), but the doubling of the material and an inexperienced director who was intimidated by working with two fairly big names meant that everything was under-rehearsed while the tight shooting schedule meant that retakes were essentially out the window.

Those two weeks of shooting were probably the lowest point of my life; watching our undercooked scripts get misinterpreted and things going slowly - but quite surely - off the rails because very few people involved in the production even knew what we were trying to do was excruciating when only six monhs ago, I thought that I would be able to come fairly close to me rather eclectic vision.

I left the TV business shortly after that and I haven't looked back.