Monday, August 10, 2015

Is there "Too much television?"

At a recent appearance at the Television Critics convention, FX CEO John Landgraf made industry headlines by declaring there was too much scripted fare on TV and in time will start to decline. He believes there is too much competition and that quality shows get lost in the glut of scripted material. He also believes “it’s impossible to maintain quality control.”

As an example he blamed the voluminous amount of programming for the failure of the FX comedy, THE COMEDIANS. He said it was “an outstanding creative achievement, we just couldn’t find substantial audience to sustain it.

Uh, no. It was not a very good show. Landgraf added: “Some of the later episodes of the first season were really great, but you (the critics) and the audience are so overwhelmed, it’s hard to go back to shows you have rejected.”

Sorry, but when an audience tunes in, is disappointed, and doesn’t return don’t blame the better shows the viewers watched instead.

America voted.  

And when he says “it’s impossible to maintain quality control” does that mean he doesn’t have a large enough staff to give notes?

Let me say a few things:

First off, I like FX. JUSTIFIED was on FX, as was THE SHIELD and SONS OF ANARCHY. THE AMERICANS, LOUIE, and ARCHER are on FX. Mr. Landgraf, I think you oversee one of the better networks.

But what’s wrong with too much competition? Especially in an age where mega conglomerates (like News Corp.) are swallowing up everything. Competition is a GOOD thing. It pushes people to make better products. And in the case of scripted television, it means more jobs for more people.

Why is there more competition? Because the audience is tired of watching reruns or movies no longer in release. Remember when FX started? They aired MASH nine times a day (I personally loved it). USA aired WINGS twenty times a day (I was fond of that too). If these networks could get away with just showing reruns and reaching their advertising goals they would. There’s original entertainment because viewers demand it. We’re sorry it’s more expensive than GOLDEN GIRLS reruns.

The other thing to consider: YOU select the shows that get on the air. I know networks make the argument they can only choose what creators bring to them (and that is a valid argument), but most networks these days have “brands.” Most networks pre-determine what content they’re looking for. Writers are creating shows based on what you tell them you want. Again, the irony here is that FX does a better job of selecting shows than most networks.

But in general, networks need to select better shows. Once upon a time, networks would air their unsold pilots in the summer. They don’t do that anymore. Why? It was embarrassing to them when people thought some of the shows they didn’t select were way better than the ones they did.

Let’s be real. Pilots are selected not just based on quality. That’s only one factor. More important factors are do the studios own them, are they highly promotable, are they fiscally attractive, are there commitments that need to be honored?

When Grant Tinker was running NBC he believed that if a show was really good, the audience will eventually find it. I think that’s even more true now. We can DVR shows, we can watch them On-Demand, and on-line. Through social media we also have the means to spread enormous word-of-mouth if a show warrants it. THE COMEDIANS would have a following if it was a better show.

Thanks to all the competition on all the networks and delivery systems we have TRANSPARENT, and Amy Schumer, and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and DOWNTON ABBEY, and LOUIE. I want to see MORE competition, especially on your network because you do it as well or better than anybody.


Peter said...

Ken, are you and David looking for a new home for the pilot that USA bought but later decided not to go ahead with any of their comedy pilots?

Bill Avena said...

The FX CEO didn't mention why "Louie" shows 2 minutes of programming before going to the phone sex commercials. That convention must have been like the Dalton Gang speaking against the 8th Commandment.

Stu West said...

There is something to what Landgraf says. My favorite show of last year was MANHATTAN (airing on WGN America), a period drama set during the creation of the atomic bomb. Better than MAD MEN -- the most recent seasons of MAD MEN, at any rate. But how many people even knew that show existed?

Lou said...

I don't work in TV, and maybe the rules of supply and demand don't apply like they do in, say, department stores or the auto industry, but does it seem like Landgraf is forgetting the principle that the customer is always right?

Carson said...

Stu, If no one knew about Manhattan (and I am one of those people), then the network is at fault Did they advertise? Did they book their stars on The Tonight Show? Letterman? Conan? Ellen? The View, The Chew, Kelly & Michael, The Today Show, GMA, Whatever CBS has in the morning, etc? Were they interviewed on TVLine and other online entertainment sites? Did they pay for advertising on different channels through cable companies? Where they on a Paley Fest Panel? Were they at Comic Con?

Marketing and PR are what gets a show not yet aired noticed. If the network was invested in the show they would have marketed it. There are great shows that got screwed because the network marketed it poorly (either with little to no fanfare or, as a show it isn't so the viewers think it's one show, but it's another - a great example is Firefly - which was aired so far out of order (the pilot was aired last - that continuity of the relationships and character development was ruined). And if the show was serialized instead of being episodic, one someone has missed an episode or two, its almost impossible to get into the show (see Lost and its ever shrinking numbers to its final run).

If the show is that good and no one's heard of it - that's the network's fault.

Oh, and Ken - I listed to the Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs Smodcast. Dude the didn't just talk about you, they ADORE you and wish you would come on the show. Please do it! I'd love to hear you talk Fraiser with Kevin Smith and the other guy whose name escapes me.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

If there's one thing there's too much of on television today, it's carbon copies of THE OFFICE.

Now, I am fully aware that once a new show becomes a big hit, then all the other networks scramble to copy it to bank on its success, that's something that dates back to the golden age of television, case in point: BEWITCHED was a huge hit for ABC, so NBC brought in Sidney Sheldon to create I DREAM OF JEANNIE for them. Once THE OFFICE became a smash hit for whatever reason (I really don't get it, I found it to be an incredibly boring show), then it's like every single-camera "sitcom" that followed afterwards turned to the mockumentary format . . . and, to be quite honest, mockumentary feels awkwardly out of place on television; it works fine for those Christopher Guest movies and what have you, but weekly TV series, it just doesn't fit well. Now, the Muppets of all franchises are doing their own version of THE OFFICE this fall, and as a lifelong Muppet Freak, that really irks me, because I feel like for the Muppets to actually lower themselves to following a trend like the rest of mainstream television compromises their integrity and what made them so unique and enjoyable to begin with; I certainly will be passing on this new show.

So, "it's impossible to maintain quality control"? Well, I guess, because there hasn't been a quality program on television in years. I'd even venture so far as to say decades: many have argued that SEINFELD was the last decently-written show television had to offer, and I think I may agree with that (that, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, wink-wink, nudge-nudge) because I've tried giving so many new shows chances in years past, only to find they all turn out to be filth and garbage. I see David Alan Grier is on a new show this fall; I love that guy, he's hilarious, but I know his new show will be just another half hour of dirty dialogue and sex humor, so I won't be watching it. I've said it millions of times before, THE BIG BANG THEORY had potential to be a good show if it really was a show about nerds, but with Chuck Lorre at the helm, it instead became a show about sex maniacs that just happen to have neurotic tendancies - even for the longest time, promotional material always plastered Penny front and center with the nerds in the background, making it seem like the show was about a hot blonde that always had bunches of losers obsessively fawn over her.

So, there's too much scripted television today? Well, let me just say this about that: for every scripted show we have, we have three reality shows about the Krapdashians.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I saw MANHATTAN. Season 2 begins in the fall sometime, delayed from this summer. I'd disagree with Carson that marketing and PR are the only - or maybe even best - ways to get your show noticed. Real viewers loving the show and making their friends watch it - word of mouth - are a much more powerful vector. So, first: make a great show. Certainly, the network should promote it, but you can't *force* the talk shows to book your stars.

I hear about shows I want to see now in four ways: 1) the TV conference on the WELL (MANHATTAN, MAD MEN); 2) here (JUSTIFIED, SUITS); 3) the annual fall review of new shows in Entertainment Weekly (THE GOOD WIFE, THE BIG BANG THEORY); 4) discussions in other online fora. In the case of Amazon shows, they have those big promotions right there on the front page.

That said, I suspect one reason the cable networks are finding it hard to get heard is that they lack the advantages of habit (everyone looks on the broadcast networks for new shows in the fall/spring or sees Netflix's own shows prominently when they log in) or necessity (everyone shops at Amazon; TV content is how they market subscriptions to their delivery service, of all things).


ScottyB said...

>>"At a recent appearance at the Television Critics convention, FX CEO John Landgraf made industry headlines by declaring there was too much scripted fare on TV and in time will start to decline."<<

So was he saying that there isn't enough "unscripted" (read inane reality-TV crap) shows on TV? Or that if all the scripted stuff really does start to decline, that we'll have even more of a diet of "reality" programming shoved down our throats? And even worse, would that give him and FX an excuse to head down the same hideous trail that has basically destroyed the Discovery and Learning channels?

Simple point, made by Ken and people here and a lot of America: If nobody's watching your network, it's because your programming/shows suck. Don't blame us for not accepting the least common denominator.

Jim S said...

My problem isn't too many shows, it's too many delivery systems. I pay for cable. Even if I didn't want to pay for even basic cable, the days of plugging in a TV set and getting the broadcast networks for free is gone.

Now Netflix has shows, Hulu has shows, Amazon has shows. I keep reading about these shows that no one I know watches and many don't even know exist.

But you're right. The Comedians is not a good show. I don't care about Josh Gad and Billy Crystal having their generational differences. I saw a couple of episodes and scratched my head. Are the skits supposed to be funny in and of themselves? Are they making fun of show biz? Networks? LA? Young Turks? Old-timer?

But then I see Louie and Louie CK's act and don't laugh. There I said it. I don't like Louie CK. Fortunately there are 989797 other channels out there for me to choose from.

404 said...

"the days of plugging in a TV set and getting the broadcast networks for free is gone."
I'm not sure how you missed it, but those antenna things still exist. They're digital now, and you have to buy one and plug it into your TV, but you can still get network programming for free. In fact, you can get more channels now than you used to with an antenna (I get about 18, and I don't have the best antenna available on the market).

Charlie F said...

This is a problem.

There are way too many single camera sitcoms rolling out the "low budget, independent film" aesthetic. Here's a novel idea... grab a tripod, cease the insufferable and clunky ad-libbing, write some jokes, and structure a couple story arcs.

Also, ditto on the stale mockumentary format. The UK Office was all I could stomach before the device became tired. Parks & Rec, US Office, Modern Family, etc... yuck.

How many more times do we need to see the reaction shot of a character, followed by them looking down the barrel?

Jay Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Walker said...

(repost) As a "Former" television viewer I can honestly say the glut of so called reality shows drove me away from network television. When networks sank to the all time low of "Honey-Swamp-Trailer-Duck-People" I gave up and have not been back. Network executives need to learn the hard lesson we in radio learned decades ago, once the audience no longer has interest in even tuning to your delivery system, you are DONE. No amount of promotion will bring them back as the audience is no longer shopping your wares and are unavailable to view your self promotion..

Ficta said...

I agree with Ken. It's strange that FX is complaining because they're very very good at picking shows. I watch a lot of FX and so I saw the ads for The Comedians and it looked stupid so I didn't watch it. If there'd been a groundswell of support for it from friends or sites I read (see Bojack Horseman, an *amazing* show) I would have given it a try, but it sounds like I saved myself some wasted time.

Mike said...

Knowing nothing about the TV industry, my understanding of Landgraf's comments is that he's describing the problems of an overall production budget that is both capped & shrinking (as with UK TV).
To first order, the population is constant and cable TV is saturated in that anyone that wants a subscription already has one. So each new cable TV broadcaster reduces the revenues to the existing broadcasters.
Earl Pomerantz has a saying of network (pre-cable) TV: "In the US, you need programmes to make money. In the UK, you need money to make programmes." If UK TV made 22-episode series, the number of different series made would reduce four-fold. And I suspect that the economics of US cable TV are similar to those of UK network TV.
For me, there are far too many channels and limited resources are being spread far too thinly.
I'll guess that non-scripted TV is sports and that sports programmes subsidise drama/comedy.

H Johnson said...

Too much scripted television? I don't think so. Maybe too much bad scripted television and then, as Jay Walker noted, certainly waaaaay to much 'reality' TV (side note: why do they call it 'reality' TV when it is obviously so fake?).

With the eight million or so shows out there to choose from, my family and I have found more than enough good television to watch. Fore sure the pile of shit is a lot higher to sift through now-a-days but the diamonds are still there. For that TV executive to say what he said, he is either tired and needs to quit or he's spouting the b.s. he gave to Billy Crystal when he cancelled his show. If he truly believed it was a good show, he could have manned up and left it on until the audience found it.

And by the way, anytime one of my superintendents say they can't maintain quality control, I can them.


michaleen said...

It's funny that Stu brought up "Manhattan," because I think it made a similar basic marketing mistake as "The Comedians." No matter how many options we have, if we're browsing on cable, most of us have a dozen or so go-to channels. For everything else, we're just scrolling through titles.

WGN America is not on the radar for many viewers. I'm not even sure how it or if it differs from the Chicago-based superstation famous for Cub games and Bozo the Clown. I can't be the only person who saw "Manhattan" on an unfamiliar channel and assumed it was the late 70s Woody Allen film with Mariel Hemingway. Even "Manhattan Project" would have been better, though sacrificing the inscrutable single-word title presently in vogue.

"The Comedians" didn't appeal to me, and I did know what it was about. But the title sounds like one of those 1 a.m. Byron Allen shows with a panel of stand-ups. Though he might not be hip, Billy Crystal does have a large amount of goodwill with the older half of the American public. Promoting him, possibly even in the show's title, would be the most effective, cost-free way of getting the most eyes to the show, at least once. But "The Comedians" came and went with millions of Crystal fans never even knowing he had a show on the air. Not everyone reads the high-level TV websites to know what's happening on 100 different channels.

But Landgraf (whom I agree is a top TV executive) and FX didn't just want to succeed, they want to do so in a very specific way, one that fit with their narrow conception of the network's "brand." Part of that was giving the show an anodyne title rather than something that referenced Crystal. They were so determined to sprint away from Crystal's old/corny reputation, that they abandoned people who might have been willing to watch him in a different type of role and a show that fit their brand.

That's their right, and maybe it's what you need to do these days. TV Land seems to be going through the same process. But if they're both great shows, I don't see why watching a corny comedy on Tuesday will dissuade me from watching a gritty crime drama on the same channel Wednesday. Clearly, Landgraf believed in "The Comedians," but him complaining that it's impossible for a show to find an audience is like a baseball manager carping that a pitcher is unhittable after benching his four best sluggers.

Jean said...

Husband and I were talking about this very thing -- no advertising of shows. We'll see something -- a blurb, a pop up ad while we're watching something else.... and be amazed to find out something we've never heard of is in it's fourth season.

And -- I'm home during the day. And thanks to my tinnitus, the tv is on all the time. There's LOTS of shows that could be on.... and yet -- everyone is doing blocks of shows. On TNT Bones and Castle. They play them in order, and even thought they might have 9 or 10 years of episodes, playing 5-7 eps a day means you lap it in a month and a half. And start again.

On USA -- it's NCIS. Four years ago I fell and screwed up my knee, and found I could watch NCIS almost 24 hours a day from four channels.... just crazy.

I don't understand this. These stations provide their own programming and could program the crap out it is, but we get the same stuff, over and over and over and over.

MikeN said...

>Sorry, but when an audience tunes in, is disappointed, and doesn’t return don’t blame the better shows the viewers watched instead.

So if they had canceled Cheers after season 1...

It just means 'America voted.'

Bill Avena said...

To Jay Walker and your crazy rant:
We peasants are seething with unrest and high cable bills.Whereas in the course of human events we get pissed...

Jon B. said...

Ken, I found Landgraf's comments to be refreshingly candid. I have no idea if his prediction will come true, but it sure seems plausible. When you think about it, how can there not be a shakeout? All of these networks and delivery systems cannot possibly continue to churn out high quality scripted shows and turn a profit, can they? Eventually(sooner rather than later, according to Landgraf), the high cost of producing those programs will deter many from continuing if the ratings/revenue don't support it.

Other than his use of THE COMEDIANS as an example, what really is there to disagree with?

chuckcd said...

I have to agree. The Comedians just wasn't very good. I love all the choices we have now. Of course, it's increasingly harder to free up space on the DVR!

michael said...

The problem is not too many TV shows, that is like saying there are too many books. The question is do we need networks anymore. Originally networks existed as middle men, the only way for content to reach the audience. Today the need for such a middle man is gone. This is why the networks are owning more and more of its content.

I like FX programs but as a cable network it is just another network like SPIKE aimed at males. I never missed a JUSTIFIED or ARCHER but never watched either on FX. Instead I bought season pass for each at iTunes.

Ken, have you and David pitched anything to Netflix or Amazon or any of the streaming services?

thirteen said...

I have to agree that The Comedians started poorly. The first good episode, the first one really worth watching, was "Billy's Birthday." It was everything that the series should have been from the start. Too bad it took them until episode 7 to find their sweet spot. By then, it was much too late.

H Johnson said...

Terrific discussion. Specifically towards Jon B's comments; Will the high costs of producing quality programming mean a stop to the good shows or could it have the effect of thinning the herd of the junk? Or is that naive because the junk is cheaper to produce and thus more profitable?

Maybe the only way affect change is for the viewers to ween themselves off the time consuming crap and only watch what matters. Perhaps this is naive as well because most viewers are morons? Most readers of this blog are of above average intellect so maybe we're preaching to the choir.

I agree with Ken's post. Maybe FX couldn't find the audience for The Comedians because most of their other shows pander to a completely different demographic. Take Billy Crystal, tat him up and stick him on a bike armed to the teeth, then it's an FX show.


Dave Creek said...

I don't get the idea of not being able to maintain quality control. If you hire the right people in the first place, that's done! If, to pick a name at random, Ken Levine is your showrunner, you don't need to hold his hand (unless you're feeling particularly affectionate).

What do these programming people do when their new season of shows is in place that doesn't involve micromanagement that most likely makes their programming worse instead of better?

One problem, though, is a glut of networks. Right now, for instance, with Letterman gone and Colbert not airing yet, and with BIG BANG in reruns, the only CBS programming I watch is SUNDAY MORNING and sometimes 60 MINUTES. And I record them and watch them later while going through the commercials/promos, so it's going to be tough for them to let me know what they're doing this fall. I know about SUPERGIRL because I'm a geek and read about it online, but other than that, I have no idea.

Off topic, why does SUNDAY MORNING re-air earlier segments in the summer? The 24 hour news channels seem to come up with new programming and plenty of local stations do weekend morning news with new material. The Murrow network, the so-called Tiffany network, can't spare a few more correspondents to come up with another ten minutes or so of programming a week?

Jon B. said...

The quality control comment has been misinterpreted.

There are 30 MLB teams now. There used to be 16, before expansion in the early 60's. With the addition of many new teams (and all of the their respective farm teams), there was a dilution of talent that took years to overcome. Some old-timers (AKA curmudgeons) still say that the talent level in MLB isn't what it once was because there are too many teams.

With the rapid expansion of scripted shows by many programmers over many different platforms, the experienced and capable talent at all levels gets stretched thin. All of that affects quality control and, in turn, quality. How could it not?

With 400 scripted shows, who can possibly keep track of it all, much less watch more than a fraction of it? Are there 400 talented showrunners?

Unknown said...

I enjoy Playing House on USA. Not sure it is a series, it is more like a meteor storm, only is on occasionally, without much warning.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Never been a Billy Crystal fan (dating back to SOAP), so never saw a minute of THE COMEDIANS.
It's frustrating at times that there is so much good television and not enough time to watch it all. I haven't seen THE AMERICANS since the first season. Never seen JUSTIFIED. I only caught up to BREAKING BAD after Season 3. Fortunately there's Netflix and On Demand, so maybe one day I'll catch up. Maybe.

Not a Friday question. Just a question. Why do I no longer have to match meats or desserts to prove I'm not a robot? Wondering how I earned that distinction.

Jake Mabe said...

The days of plugging in a TV set and getting the broadcast networks for free aren't gone for me. Granted, I did it because of a medical disability that makes it hard-to-impossible for me to tolerate light and noise, but I was thinking about it before my illness because I ended up watching 3 channels, 2 of which are broadcast networks. Granted, I know I'm in a big time minority, but I only miss TCM. Otherwise, I've got Netflix and had Amazon Prime before I got sick.

Jake Mabe said...

The days of plugging in a TV set and getting the broadcast networks for free aren't gone for me. Granted, I did it because of a medical disability that makes it hard-to-impossible for me to tolerate light and noise, but I was thinking about it before my illness because I ended up watching 3 channels, 2 of which are broadcast networks. Granted, I know I'm in a big time minority, but I only miss TCM. Otherwise, I've got Netflix and had Amazon Prime before I got sick.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Current quality scripted shows also have to compete with older quality scripted shows. That time I spent this year watching BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and THE SHIELD -- each the first time for me -- meant that I wasn't watching as much current programming.

And there are too many good books. Not even Burgess Meredith with unbroken glasses would have enough time to read them.

Pete Zucker said...

Indeed The Comedians was a disappointment. I wanted to like it, but it was just freaking annoying! Especially the character Josh Gad played. Hell!

Arney said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

How do you know that the readers of this blog are above average intelligence?

kelly childress said...

AMEN! to everything. Especially that The Comedians was an awful awful show. I love Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, but couldn't sit through an entire episode.

XJill said...

I agree with what he said. 100%