Thursday, October 15, 2009

What to watch? MAD MEN or ICE ROAD TRUCKERS?

Here are some Friday questions and answers. Leave yours in the comment section.

Let’s start with Patrick:

With dialogue that deals with the involvement of lawyers, is there often a decision to just try something else in order to avoid a hassle? On The Office tonight there were two lines that seemed odd. At one point Dwight said something like, "... I search engined her." Obviously he meant Googled. Seemed like a specific choice to not use the term. Then later their was an entire segment based on a youtube video, and a character actually said, "I saw it on youtube." Any ideas on why one monstrous, topical, copywrite protected term was used and the other wasn't?

Yes, it makes no sense but that’s what we deal with on a daily basis. It depends on the network and the reference and the day and the phase of the moon. When I was consulting on the show IT’S ALL RELATIVE a few seasons back, ABC had a policy where any mention of brand names was forbidden. I don’t know if it’s like that over there now. But since comedy is specific it made things incredibly hard.

I remember once we had a character come back from a 7-11 in the middle of the night. But he couldn’t say “7-11”. Well, who says, “I just came back from an all-night convenience store”? We wrestled with this for a half hour. I don’t even remember what we finally landed on but I did make the observation that here were seven highly-trained comedy writers wasting valuable time looking for synonyms for 7-11.

I will say that on CBS we didn’t have that problem and when we were doing CHEERS, NBC let us mention specific brand names of liquor. Customers didn’t have to order “Jack Dandies” or “Granny Goose” vodka.

From David:

My question dates back to the beginning of season 4 of Cheers - after Diane leaves Frasier at the alter at the end of season 3 --- what was the thought process in keeping the Frasier character around past the first ep of season 4 when he comes back to say Diane left him? He certainly was expendable at that point. Glad you kept him, but wondering what led to that.

Kelsey really scored with the audience and the producers saw the potential of making him a series regular. Having a tightly-wound psychiatrist hang out in a bar exposed daily to the woman who jilted him seemed very funny, and a real test of his sanity – a test he rarely passed. By the way, doesn't he look a little like Jack Torrance from THE SHINING in this picture?

amyp3 asks:

Do you think mockumentaries AND flashbacks are a lazy way of storytelling? (I can remember taking a screenwriting class years ago and being told "Don't do flashbacks.")

It depends on the project. Would SPINAL TAP be anywhere near as good if that story weren’t told as a mockumentary? And would LOST be as rich if we didn’t see flashbacks that really illuminated the characters?

But certainly these devices can lead to shortcuts. Characters in mockumentaries just tell the interviewer what they’re feeling instead of us seeing it in behavior. And flashbacks are an easy way around exposition.

Lazier still are the devices of narration or popular songs. Why expend a lot of energy trying to craft an artful way of conveying a character’s attitude through behavior when you can just say in voice-over what they’re thinking? This is one of my pet peeves, as you’ll recall in my review of Woody Allen’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA.

And why use dialogue and acting to create a mood when you can just show the character and play an old song that conveys the message the director wants to convey? Nora Ephron is a big fan of this. So is Nancy Meyers. I’m not sure either could make a movie without Louis Armstrong.

And finally, from Richard Y:

I'll chime in on a Friday Question regarding the Nielsen television ratings. I have read (or heard) that they claim to have a 50,000 household list (also heard that it is only 5,000). Regardless of the number it is what advertising rates are established by and if a TV program fails or succeeds.

With that low of a number generating what the rest of the country watches long term why can't they tap into the two largest cable providers, Cox and Comcast, for example to generate the figures? They would be able to see not only what is being viewed 'live' but what is also being recorded (Tivo, DVR) and does not make any difference when it is watched.

Wouldn't this be a more accurate figure for the networks and advertisers to go by? No privacy issues as only the program information is gathered not where you live although they could also include geographical areas. Just a thought.

First of all, there is a privacy issue. Because if they can collect data from cable boxes they can determine exactly where they came from. This was actually an issue with Tivo. They were able to monitor just which shows were being taped and from where. Not sure if it’s still like that.

Not every house is hooked up to cable. Or satellite. And if the method of measurement is different depending upon how you receive television then you’re still not getting an accurate account of just who is watching.

There is some formula for registering data recorded on DVR’s but I’m not sure how that works. I do know it saved DOLLHOUSE.

All of this used to be less of an issue when there were only three networks. Even with a larger margin for error you basically knew that ALL IN THE FAMILY beat the living crap out of GETTING TOGETHER. But now everything is so fractionalized. It doesn’t take too many Joe Six Packs with Nielson boxes to kill PUSHING DAISIES or make ICE ROAD TRUCKERS a hit.

I find it interesting that since radio has abandoned diaries for people meters (little pager devices that accurately record whatever radio is within earshot) station rankings in most markets have been completely upended. Turns out the oldies format that just two years ago was considered dead and obsolete is now leading in most major markets.

So you wonder, does MAD MEN really get beat by ICE ROAD TRUCKERS?

All the Neilson and other rating services can tell us with 100% accuracy is that no one is watching Jay Leno.


Bethina said...

In response to the first question and Dwight's "I search engined her". . . That sounds like something Dwight would totally say. . .I would assume that was intentional and didn't have anything to do with avoiding "google".

Alice said...

I remember Kelsey saying a line like this:
"Paging Dr. Daniels, Dr. Jack Daniel's"

And I still crack up, but for the life of me I cannot seem to remember where was it from. Cheers, maybe? They were getting someone drunk.

If anyone can help me out and fill in what I've forgotten I'd be super grateful.

Richard Marcej said...

Not sure why anyone could say that flashbacks were lazy writing. If I'm not mistaken, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" built many episodes around entire flashbacks and lazy isn't a word I'd use to describe the writers of that show.

I think a word like great would suffice.

David said...


My life is complete - you answered my Friday question. Seriously, though - thanks for doing this blog. I look forward to reading it every day.


Anonymous said...

Bethina, and since Youtube is owned by Google I wouldn't think there would be a conflict.

Anonymous said...

Alice, I search engined it and it's apparently from the Woody's wedding episode of Cheers.

(Apologies for the double post.)

Jason said...

This one's to Patrick:

The difference is that, in the second case, YouTube was being used in its proper form (as a site you can visit) while Google would have been used as a *verb*. Trademark holders hate that, because it weakens their hold on the mark. It's the difference between "xerox this document" and "copy this document on a Xerox."

olucy said...

Tracking DVR usage might give everyone a more accurate picture of how many people are actually watching, but it's not a number the advertisers may particularly be interested in, since it's hard to imagine that anyone watching something on Tivo is actually watching the commercials. And that's what advertisers care about.

Kate said...

I was curious who came up with Niles' immortal pantomime from the beginning of 'Three Valentines' and how his breakdown was figured out? It's still the funniest scene of physical comedy I've ever seen on TV.

doggans said...

Yeah, the "search engined" thing sounded a lot more like a typical Dwight-ism than a copyright issue.

Anonymous said...

I'm really tired of the mockumentary. It worked for "Spinal Tap." A majority of people I know think it works for "The Office." I hate that show. But I find it annoying when a sitcom has all these absurd interviews with people in the show. I love "Modern Family," but I'm annoyed by the documentary scenes. Who is making this stupid documentary? Why are they making it? "Arrested Development" used this technique very well. But we heard from the narrator, and it was shot like a documentary. They didn't just stop the action and interview the actors. We now have at least three of these types of shows on the air. And there's nothing revealed in the interviews that couldn't be revealed in a more humorous way through dialogue.

Mike from Canada said...

I have a question that has annoyed me (albeit on a small scale) since Frasier began. What on earth do the blues have to do with tossed salad and scrambled eggs?


emily said...

For that matter, what do scrambled eggs have to do with tossed salad?

spreng said...

Nielsen tracks both tape and DVR recording of shows. They also can tell when the shows are subsequently viewed (and by whom within the family, for demographic purposes). If a show is viewed within 24 hours of airing, it is counted in the current tracking numbers. Otherwise, it is listed separately in the numbers supplied to the networks. I worked at Nielsen and helped develop the software to do all this.

Equitable P. Harmon said...

On the Google/YouTube issue: Might the difference lie in the fact that there is a generally understood generic term for the sort of thing Google is (though it is awkward in this context), but not YouTube? In other words, maybe the writers got away with saying "YouTube" because no one could think of a substitute phrase?

Anonymous said...

"So you wonder, does MAD MEN really get beat by ICE ROAD TRUCKERS?"

Why would anyone be surprised at MAD MEN getting beat by anything in the ratings?


Paul Toohey said...

Bethina is correct, I doubt they were avoiding using the word google. Dwight is so out of touch that he would say something like "I search engined her"

Hope said...

Question: What do you think is the best way for a young writer (under 25) to get into TV writing? Is being a PA or WA really the way to go? What about an MFA? Or is it all just B.S. and luck and who you know?

This is obviously a question with substantial self-interest involved, but I do think a lot of people are interested in the process...

FormerNeilsenHH said...

I was told by Neilsen that the formula for DVR recordings is something like: if you watch the recording within 24 hours it counts fully. If you watch it more than 24 hours later but less was either a week or 10 days, I forget, then it's weighted to half and if you watch it even later than they're not tracking that you watched it anymore, but they do track if programs are dvred and not watched as well.

Chazz said...

Google should be glad of the free advert considering that Google is now Bing. As Bill Maher said wryly, "And you know how I know about Bing? I googled it."

I've seen the ads for Ice Road Truckers. I can't bring myself to tune in, but I must admit a splinter of curiosity. I mean, Jesus! How much can there be to say on the subject of Ice Road Truckers? Couldn't one half hour show on Discovery suffice?

Anonymous said...

Nielsen selects its sample very carefully, to attempt to replicate the viewing public at large. During the sweeps periods, their PeopleMeter sample is augmented by over 1.6 million paper diaries filled out by new sample members.

It's not a perfect system, but my guess is that if every house in the U.S. was wired, the ratings wouldn't be substantially different.

And as other commenters have noted, Nielsen includes DVR usage if it's within 24 hours of the initial airing. They also produce a statistic called "live +3," which tells regular viewing plus DVR usage up to 3 days after initial airing.

Advertisers don't care if you watched it later than that, and don't want to pay for it.

Emily Blake said...

Richard, the writers for the Dick Van Dyke Show knew what they were doing. Most new writers see it done successfully and think they can do it as well because often writing a flashback is easier than revealing character backstory through good writing.

If you ever have an opportunity to read a screenplay by a first-time writer, trust me, you'll see why flashbacks can be lazy writing.

Rob said...

Two quick things (lurve the blog):
1. I think Dwight using "search engined" was totally on purpose because he's the type of self important guy who would never sully himself to using a corporate name as a verb. Plus I think we all know he would be a Bing user. It was a funny little character beat.

2. Tivo (I've had one for years) still collects user information but it is easy to opt-out of. The data is aggregated according to the Tivo privacy policy so they don't tell "who" was watching in specific, just what a user in a certain zip code was watching. I don't opt-out because I actually want to support what I watch, even if DVR usage is only a small part of the overall puzzle.

amyp3 said...

Bing is an MS rival to Google, isn't it? And I have the impression that NBC has a product placement deal with Bing. Perhaps that's why they couldn't specify Google (but didn't want to use Bing either).

On another topic - since I first posted the question about mockumentaries/ flashbacks, Parks and Rec has continued to grow on me to the point that the talking-to-the- camera stuff doesn't bug me as much, and I can see how it makes for funny asides.

Ditto on the use of flashbacks for serious or comedic effect- sometimes it's OK, sometimes it's a tiresome cliche. My MMV - depends on whether my overall love of a show overrides the use of what can be a tired device.

Kirk said...

I think there's a difference between doing a an entire episode in flashback, as was often done DICK VAV DYKE, and inserting a flashback in an episode that otherwise takes place in the present. It's the latter that's lazy writing.

Robert said...

I was a Nielson home for two years and I think I was part of the perceived ratings decline for TV in general since I almost never watched TV during that period.

Every few months for the first year someone from their main office would call me and ask if I had watched anything on my TV and to ask me to turn my TV on for a few minutes. I guess just to make sure I hadn't thrown it out, since they were getting so little data out of me.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I think you just guaranteed the next show you get on the air will be low rated. It's 'Nielsen' not 'Nielson' or 'Neilson'. :-)

Patrick said...

Thanks for the answer to what just seemed like a curious moment on THE OFFICE. And since you answered mine first, that must mean that I'm special, or better ... at something. Anyway, I'm still not so sure that it was a Dwight-ism. It just seemed like such an odd moment, even for Dwight. And I wasn't so sure about the end result of that particular character beat. But I see the material on that show slipping under the tide of the Trite Sea these days (and I'm a huge fan of the past few seasons, I think the use of the mockumentary style is fairly brilliantly used in the all around character development and is totally justified on that show because office life is all about talking behind your co-worker's back), so... Either way though, I'm glad I asked, Ken. The answer you gave was filled with insight that went beyond the instance that I referred to (I had to search engine "referred", I never know how to spell that word -- spelling isn't something that I'm special at). Your answer just makes more sense. It just seemed like the staff was struggling with some lines in that episode. And you made it very clear that they probably were. The 7-11 anecdote is hillarious. Thanks again.

Watch out for the Fightin' Phills, they're no fluke. Just sayin' ...

Patrick said...

Let's just state, out loud, for all who care to hear, that I'm not very special at editing in general. Excuse my oddly structured paragraphs, and the over use of the word "use" . Thanks ...

Max Clarke said...

Ken, I heard Woody Harrelson on KQED's show, Forum, he was discussing his latest movie drama, The Messenger.

Whenever I've seen Woody in a movie, it's hard to believe this is the same guy who played Woody on Cheers.

Which Cheers actor was the most unlike the character they played on Cheers?

Alice said...

I really miss Frasier. And Niles.

Amy said...

Thanks, Kate, for asking a great question. I still smile when I think of that scene.

I was watching Glee (I know, I know-but that sweet-faced boy is darling and I love the songs) and was surprised by a notable exchange:

Cheerleader: "The minority students don't feel like they're being heard"

Sue (Jane Lynch): Aaahhh, chink in the armour, huh?

How'd that get in?

scottmc said...

A question:

How much thought goes into a character's name? (Some feel that in 'The Odd Couple' Neil Simon already had his Act 3 joke in mind when he came up with the name 'Felix Unger'.) Sometimes a show can be on for years before a joke, or episode, about a character's name is used-was the joke always there?

Darshan said...

I realized probably should have posted my question here, hope you get to see it:

How do writers generally feel about show creators who barely do any writing? Any animosity or resentment, after all the creators are generally the one who gets the attention, awards and pockets the bulk of the syndication cash.

Take a look at Seth MacFarlane- he created or co-created 3 shows but has only 6! writing credits attached to his name (3 of those were the pilot episodes). Matt Groening is the same. I'm sure they are involved with rewriting but it seems odd.

Also are you a fan of Arrested Development and do you think a film will finally eventuate?

Sam Stickland said...

Google's lawyers actively pursue people from using their name as a verb. If a Trademark enters regular usage as a noun or verb it cases to be a full Trademark (e.g. hoovering).

So saying "I googled her" won't get past legal, but "I watched it on youtube" will.

Patrick said...

Thank you, sam google. That answer sounded definitive. And thank you again, Ken, for your answer. I'm surprised they left the line in. it just came off as weird to me. I think they must have struggled with it in the room. But like several others said, maybe they thought that Dwight's off the wall, detachment would make it work.

Bob Summers said...

If memory serves, weren't some AfterMASH scenes filmed and used strictly in/specifically for promos? I can understand why, but I would like to have that answered by an insider.

Also, if you know, did the pilot WALTER ever air on the west coast? There seems to be some question about this, due to political convention coverage that year.

Isuzu Trucks said...

That is an awesome picture, shame it wasn't a video.