Tuesday, October 18, 2016
How to fix network television... not that anyone asked me
For every SEINFELD there are four ALRIGHT ALREADYS.
Back in the ‘90s when FRIENDS burst upon the scene, the mantra of every television network was “Get us the next FRIENDS” – an ensemble comedy featuring all twentysomethings that draws big audiences.
All of these attempts were seen for what they were and failed. Eventually the networks moved on and developed eighteen reality shows set on islands.
But here’s the thing: The networks’ timing was off (as usual). NOW is when they should be looking for the next FRIENDS.
The GOP is doing everything it can to distance itself from the horrific presidential candidate THEY selected. But it’s their fault. They got into bed with extremist groups. They knew who Donald Trump was when they chose him. The only surprise is that Billy Bush is going down with him.
Similarly, television networks decided long ago that total audience size is not important. Demographics are. Specifically, YOUNG demographics. So older viewers became irrelevant and all the nets cared about was chasing 18-34’s. Unfortunately, their target audience (we currently call them Millennials) is the one demographic that has abandoned network television. They’re streaming, they’re watching on apps, they’re binging, they’re looking for Pokeman. Many no longer even own TV’s. Again, networks only have themselves to blame. Their big sales pitch to Madison Avenue was that young people are so desirable because they embrace new things. Now it turns out that networks themselves are the “old thing.” Oops. Hoisted on their own petards.
So I repeat: NOW networks should be looking for the next FRIENDS.
Of course, they could say they tried that and it didn’t work. Uh huh. At one time they tried doing a politically-based show, it didn’t work, and for years White House-themed shows were taboo. Now there are more TV presidents than the number of actual former presidents.
The FRIENDS knock-offs didn’t work because they weren’t executed properly. They were cast with J-Crew models. They weren’t funny. They were aimed at too specific an audience.
FRIENDS is broad-based. It is well-conceived. The characters all actively WANT something. They don’t stand off to the side and just observe. They all have flaws. They’re relatable. The audience hooks into them and cares about their problems. They’re invested in the Ross-Rachel relationship.
And the characters are FUNNY. The stories are FUNNY. There are JOKES – and not just ironic quips, wry observations, pop culture references, and catch phrases. Producers today say Millennials don’t like “jokes.” Really? Who do they think is the number one audience worldwide for FRIENDS? Millennials. Not only are they laughing at jokes, they’re laughing at twenty-year-old jokes.
Which brings me to another element of FRIENDS that networks are ignoring – it’s a multi-camera show. Networks claim that’s an outdated form. How many Millennials even know the difference between single and multi-cam formats? If it’s a show they like they watch. Period. But multi-camera shows, because they’re shot in front of an audience, are held accountable. If the jokes DON’T work the writers replace them with jokes that do. And you’re seeing the dividends twenty years later.
I’m not saying networks should copy FRIENDS. Today’s twentysomethings are different. They talk differently, they have different attitudes, goals, and worldviews. I’m not the one to write it. You need young writers who have their voice and sensibility. And here’s the hard part: it’s difficult to find them – young writers who care about storytelling, strive to create characters with dimension so people care, and young writers who are not only funny, but can write funny while moving the story along. There are not many. But there has never been that many. That’s why all the imitators fail. Still, you have to find them. They are out there. You have to look harder.
And when you do find them, get out of their way. In an age of oppressive network interference, assume that these top flight young writers know more about mounting a show than you do. Remember that when FRIENDS was originally being developed, NBC wanted there to be a star among the group, not an ensemble. And they wanted an older character in the mix. Today of course, NBC takes credit for developing FRIENDS, but if the creators didn’t stand up to them and reject their suggestions it wouldn’t be the hit it is today.
Do the scouting, shoot high, and stop thinking niche. Especially since that niche is already out the door.
At this point I would normally say, “What do you have to lose?” But at this moment, in 2016, I say “It might be your last chance.”