Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Being in the bubble

This is a lovely sweet spot for producing new network shows for the fall. You’re still under the radar.

It’s all good. There are billboards for your show (well, in Los Angeles and New York). And on the stage there’s real optimism and enthusiasm.

You’re in a bubble. Now it’s just about the work.

Once the show debuts things change radically. And that can be either very good or very bad.

TV reviewers have very little impact on a show’s chances for success. It’s not like Ben Brantley of the New York Times who can personally kill a Broadway production (unless it's SPIDERMAN: THE MUSICAL). But your cast reads the reviews. And so does the network. Glowing reviews can save a show. Networks have so few shows to really be proud of. They certainly will stick with a well-received show longer than one universally panned.

And good reviews result in happy sets. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Even mixed reviews will set off panic on the stage. Suddenly, the cast will question everything. Showrunners will be on the defensive. Cast members’ agents and managers will call and want to take meetings because they are “very concerned.” Scripts actors loved two weeks ago they now hate.

And what complicates this more is that the critics are usually right. The actors have good reason to be insecure in some cases.

Then there are the ratings. Everyone in the business KNOWS that you can’t tell whether a show will be a hit or flop based on the first one or two airings, but they forget that every September. There are always one or two shows that blaze out of the gate and steadily decline. Last year it was SUPER GIRL. I remember one season WHOOPI was heralded as “the year’s number one new comedy.” I don’t think it lasted the year. By contrast, some shows are slow to get off the blocks. CHEERS had terrible ratings its first (and best) season.
But with high ratings comes a little less network interference. The showrunner might know what he’s doing after all. On the other hand, if a show opens soft then EVERYTHING is second-guessed by the network and studio. The showrunner is besieged with notes. Prop furniture is changed. 

And in many cases, the cause of the good or bad ratings have nothing to do with the quality of the show. Which network, what time slot and amount of promotion are key. Known stars might open shows but not sustain them. Other more worthy shows don’t get sampled initially because they feature a cast of unknowns.

Some networks like NBC and Fox just have a bitch of a time launching comedies. Same show that bombs on NBC could have been a hit on CBS.

But the showrunner will get just as many notes.

The downside to making your show before it debuts however is that you might be going off in the wrong direction and you won’t know that until it’s too late. This is especially true with single-camera shows. It’s hard to make mid-course corrections when you’ve got eight episodes in the can. This is another reason why multi-camera shows have value. You get a preview of how the audience will receive your show. It’s not always accurate because these audiences are coming in cold and might not appreciate certain elements because they haven’t seen the previous episodes that led up to them. But you can sense if a minor character is breaking out. The audience will tell you that they like the Fonz or Alex Keaton. The showrunner must then scramble and shift emphasis, possibly even throwing out scripts. But by the time the series airs he knows he’s on the right track.

So for now enjoy being in the womb where it’s nice and warm and safe. Next month the water breaks.

11 comments:

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

For us viewers it's own difficult to decide on trying out a new show (especially comedies):
* What if it stars a favorite actor/actress and it's awful.
* What if it stars a least favorite actor/actress and we actually like the character!
* What if we like/love it but it is getting lousy ratings. We know Networks have no taste or patience, and we'll be heartbroken.
* What if the pilot is good but the rest stinks...and we keep wasting our time for weeks, hoping to get a glimpse of that good feeling again before we finally give up.
* What if the show is terrible from the beginning but the Network keeps forcing it down our throats, in that it sits in between two of our favorite shows.
* What if it is so terrible it makes us hate (GASP!) Television itself. (it's been known to happen).

Often times, I will let my spouse watch it first, get her opinion and then tag along with the second show.
But if there is one out-of-place gutter joke about vaginas, I'm out.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

People who know me know that back in the day, Apple Snapple was like my Kryptonite, and I practically had to hoard the stuff because it was so hard to find: only in Walmart and certain convenience stores. Radar had his grape nehi, Kel had his orange soda, I had my Apple Snapple. Then come 2009, Snapple decided to start using different ingredients for their products, and suddenly, it was never the same again: Apple Snapple went from tasting like biting into a fresh apple without biting into a fresh apple to tasting like apple-flavored Jolly Rancher (that horrid hard candy with the real fake fruit flavor you get at the doctor's office). The biggest slap in the face is that within the last few years, now Apple Snapple is easier to find, it's practically in every single store now - sometimes in cases; I used to dream about finding cases of the stuff!

qdpsteve said...

Joseph, I understand exactly what you mean, about both drinks and TV shows.

For me it's... salsa. Seems like every great salsa I've ever tried eventually gets ruined. La Victoria in particular used to have a fantastic one, Salsa Victoria; like spicy Anaheim chile heaven on a corn chip. Then the company 'changed the formula' and turned it into ketchup. The only place I can find quality, truly tasty salsas anymore is at actual Mexican restaurants.

Earl Boebert said...

Friday question on Tuesday. OK, Ken, what do you think:

http://www.newsweek.com/how-write-darkest-seinfeld-script-ever-490754

Unkystan said...

I'm going to be in LA for Rosh Hashannah ( from NY) and I'm taking some of my familt to see your new play Hopfully I'll finally get to meet you (well be at the final preview on Sept 30

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
Thought you might find this discussion on reddit interesting.

https://www.reddit.com/r/television/comments/4xzz0n/what_is_the_most_well_written_sitcom_of_all_time/

cheers
Dave.

Diane D. said...

In the discussion on Reddit, CHEERS and FRASIER are mentioned repeatedly as most well-written sitcoms of all time---smart people. Seinfeld is also mentioned a lot. Surprisingly, Friends is not---it's not one of my favorites, but it was so popular for so long, I was just surprised.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

FRIENDS seems to be one of those shows that you either love or hate, and it seems like those who hated it took fiendish glee in making fun of it - there's plenty of jokes on the original U.S. version of WHOSE LINE? that imply what a bad show it was, such as the time Ryan Stiles found himself in hell, where apparently you're doomed to watch nonstop FRIENDS marathons (and listening to nonstop Michael Bolton music) for all eternity.

VP81955 said...

"Friends" had so much corporate heft behind it (particularly the TimeWarner magazine cabal) that it was easy for critics to mock. And while I can't put it in the class of "Frasier"/"Seinfeld"/"Cheers," it was well-made for what it did, and in retrospect we wonder why it was so popular. In other words, it's sort of like "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "The Big Bang Theory."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Yes, and in fact, I believe because FRIENDS became such a big hit for an in-house network sitcom that was pretty much made on corporate influence that that played a big factor in why most, in not all, network programs today are owned and created by the networks themselves. I know it was a growing problem even before then - Andy Griffith made the comparison that networks were merely hosts back when he did THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, but became meddlers that "put children in offices" when he did MATLOCK - but again, it seems like FRIENDS was the definitive proof to networks that they could do their own shows themselves. Sad, really.

Andy Rose said...

Friends is owned by Warner Bros. NBC has no stake in it, although they were closely involved in the development if you believe Warren Littlefield. That was near the end of the era where you could get away with not giving your network a piece of the pie.