Monday, October 10, 2011

What's it like to be on a show in trouble

Now that the fall season is beginning to settle in and we’re starting to get a sense of the winners and losers, here’s what it’s like behind-the-scenes if you’re on one of those shows in trouble.

This is from a showrunner’s perspective on a comedy. The actors have their own hell.

Back in May everything was lollipops and roses. Announcement parties in New York.. Congratulatory emails and texts from friends and bitterly jealous colleagues. Tickets to Broadway shows… and good ones. Not CHICAGO now starring the Progressive Insurance girl.

The summer is filled with interviews and pre-production. The cast arrives in early August and there’s that blessed seven week window when you make your first batch of shows under the radar. Sure there are the network and studio notes and there’s always at least one cast member who is high maintenance as he or she tries to lock into their character, but for the most part it’s a pleasant experience.

You will know if your show is in trouble before the actors. You’ll discover that it’s harder to break stories than it should be. The flaws in the premise will become apparent. I co-wrote an episode of a new show once and it took two full days working with the producers to come up with a notion. This was for episode three. That show was dead in the water.

Once you see footage you also start to learn the weaknesses of your cast. This can be particularly alarming if the weak links were all people the network foisted upon you.

Still, everything is relatively calm.

Then the reviews come out. If they’re bad, or even mixed, get prepared to go down to the stage and talk your cast off the ledge. And watch. One bad review. Just one. And suddenly the actors stop trusting you.

Now they start questioning things. Every thing. You’re somewhat under siege.

And what will be particularly galling is that you agree with a lot of the criticism in the reviews. You only went in that direction or hired that lox because you were forced to. And yet, you can’t say that. You take the bullet. That’s part of the job. Suck it up.

Then the show premieres. And tanks. Now the actors go nuts. After all, it’s their faces up there. They consider bad ratings a personal rejection – by thirty million people. You can understand their distress. And if your show features a big-name star, you’re really in the eighth ring of Hell. You go down to the stage and do your best to reassure them. Good luck.

Now you get “the calls”. Calls from the actors wanting to come to the office to talk about their characters. Calls from the managers and agents for the actors claiming you’re not servicing their clients.  At least one cast member will cry in your office.  Hope it's an actress.

The network and studio descend upon you like locusts. If you thought you got notes before, just wait. Now it’s a constant barrage of mandatory suggestions. Everything is questioned. Hair color. Props. Fire this actor. Throw out this story arc. Forget of course that they approved every cast member and they approved every story notion, and outline, and shooting script. But it’s up to you to FIX IT!!

At this point forget about ever seeing your family. You’re working fifteen hour days, seven days a week. Scripts are thrown out. There’s a level of tension on the stage you can cut with a knife. You go down for a runthrough and the cast looks at you like you just killed their puppy. Everything is second-guessed.

The show’s ratings for week two or three are not much better. There’s a lot of rationalizing. We were hurt by the baseball playoffs. We have a bad time slot. We didn’t get enough promos. They didn’t air us in Salt Lake City. We’ll come way up after the DVR viewers are counted. We’re up .02 in women 25-34. We held 62% of our lead-in and even though that’s not great, the show that was on last year kept only 59%. We tested so well.

But in your heart you know.

So now you’re killing yourself, no one’s happy, and in all likelihood you know that the episode you’re currently working so hard on will never see the flickering light of television. All the while, the star is calling you at home, one of your best writers quits, you’ve put on ten pounds, and you come down with pneumonia. Couldn’t possibly be stress related. You don’t dare go on line because you know in chat rooms and blogs your show is just getting crushed.

Finally, you get that call from the network putting you out of your misery. You say all the right things, “Aw, shucks. We really thought we had turned the corner creatively. This is really devastating.” But you hang up the phone and cheer. A two-ton weight has been lifted off your shoulders. And just like that it’s over. You’re free. The phones stop.  It’s quiet.  Blessed quiet.

Yes, you’re disappointed, have feelings of guilt and remorse, but that’s what scotch is for. And you’ll be able to start drinking that scotch in the afternoon! Because you’re free!

And those writers who texted congratulation when your show got picked up, will text you congratulations again.

No, it's not winning an award.  But it is the next best thing.


An said...

On the anniversary of Orson Welles death, this seems an apropos response: "Every actor secretly believes every bad review they ever received." More frequently (mis)quoted as "Every actor in his heart believes everything bad that's printed about him." Not the same, though. It would be so much easier to have a show fail without actors. ;)

Mac said...

That sounds grim. To paraphrase the old adage "Success has many fathers, failure has a showrunner."

The 1969 show TURN-ON was pulled 11 minutes into its broadcast. Although it wasn't officially cancelled until later, but it only aired up to the commercial break.

The network's explanation was that they got such a lot of complaints, but it meant that the premiere party turned out to be the cancellation "party." Prefereable to dragging out the agony over several weeks, I suppose.

Jon J said...

It has got to be frustrating for a group like, say, the Parents Television Council, to condemn a program before it has even aired. In the case of The Playboy Club the censors won. It's gone even before it could gain a foothold.

Johnny Walker said...

I just imagine how it feels. The worst thing is being forced to keep going, putting all your energy into something you no longer believe in. It must be even harder when it's your job to try and convince everyone else that they SHOULD believe in it.

It's crazy that cancellation is a GOOD thing in this scenario. I wonder how many showrunners of shows that were cancelled, but were loved by fans, are secretly happy they're not under that pressure any more.

I always wonder where you learn to say the "right thing" in scenarios like this. Is it an innate understanding you develop, or does someone take you aside and tell you not to say, "Oh, thank god! I'm so glad you're cancelling us!"?

Very revealing. Thanks, Ken!

DaveMB said...

Johnny Walker -- I expect that the discipline to "say the right thing" comes from a process much like that in Bull Durham where Crash teaches Nuke the appropriate sports cliches to use when he is interviewed in the major leagues...

DanTedson said...

Plus the sooner you get them off the phone, the sooner you get to the scotch.

Anonymous said...

"And what will be particularly galling is that you agree with a lot of the criticism in the reviews."

Ken, you say that in reference to changes forced on creators by the network. How many times have you gotten criticism of your choices on a show and realized they were valid?


nairam_tdlowneorg said...

I'm 25 years old, german and i don't know what i would do, if there wouldn't be american people like you (or for instance Scott Myers who share their great experiences and wisdom with a newbie like me in this awesome blog. If you try to find any advice for sitcom writers in germany: Fuckin wasteland!

Thank you so much Ken!

I don't know if i can add a Friday Question here, but i try: I watched a lot Frasier lately and i wondered: How did this series went so well? It's really interesting, because i think Sitcoms are more popular in middle class and working class, but nevertheless the sophisticated Crane brothers, who are so sophisticated, were going on for so many seasons: is it really just their father who is always calling them snobs, that makes this series work? ;)

Sorry for my bad english, but it's not my native language.

Thanks again and i hope you will go on with this blog for a long time!

All the best!


Brian Phillips said...

To Jon J: I am sure it didn't help, but the subsequent lack of quality of the show takes the itch out of the sting from the viewer's standpoint, but that's a lot of people out of work. It's like a "Twilight Zone" episode in which a bunch of time travelers knowingly board the Lusitania.

The only show I can think of that survived such a pre-show barrage and went on to a respectable run was "Soap". I am sure there are others.

MFN said...

Love the blog and the insights, Ken. Just one thing, for the record - the Progressive Insurance Girl (aka Flo) has a stunning singing voice. I went to college with her and she's a trained coluratura soprano. Knocked my socks off as Dulcinea as a freshman. So maybe CHICAGO isn't the right vehicle for her, but you could do a whole lot worse than to see her on Broadway. (Her name is Stephanie Courtney, by the way.)

SkippyMom said...

What a nice comment MFN. We all love "Flo". And it is nice to know she is an accomplished singer too.

Anonymous said...

Along with this, here's a Friday question:

How much of the show is written before it is greenlit/starts filming? Of course you probably outline and get an idea of the character arcs for a season's worth, but do you only need the pilot or do you write at least the first few episodes?


Harkaway said...

Fascinating account.

But are things different today when a show may be pre-sold in another market so you still have to produce an agreed number of episodes.

These days in the UK we sometimes see series with episodes that never aired before due to cancellation in the US. Those episodes may also be used on a DVD, or now, streaming.

How do you maintain morale then?

DyHrdMET said...

what is the difference between a show, similar to what you had described (which gets 3 or 4 episodes aired before getting cancelled) and one that never gets past the pilot?

and would some of these failed series have been better served as movies instead of TV shows? the collective running time of 4 episodes is about the same as a standard movie, and the premise of the show doesn't have long-term sustainability but could work in the form of 90-120 minutes of action.

Mike Barer said...

Good insight, one thing that I have found with the advent of Yelp and Google Places. I work retail and it does not matter how many good reviews you get or how many great ones, you always fixate on the handful of bad ones.

HogsAteMySister said...

You're kidding, right? Once you are successful, it's ALL sunshine and roses and champagne. Right? Ken, do not kneecap my dream...

BigTed said...

I actually liked "Free Agents" a lot more than I thought I would -- the two main actors were extremely appealing as their sad-sack characters.

(And I enjoyed it more than the British version. The two episodes they've aired so far on BBC America had almost exactly the same plots, but weren't as funny -- and I say that as someone who loves the British versions of "The Office" and "Coupling.)

In any case, the American version certainly wasn't a disaster. I wonder if it could eventually have found an audience?

On the other hand, "How to Be a Gentleman" was just as off-putting as you'd expect.

Brian Berry said...

For the folks who created The Playboy Club, that must have been a wild 24 hours.

ChicagoJohn said...

What I love about your blog is your ability to write about failure even better than you write about success.

Which I have to believe is why I loved Frasier so much. At its best moments, Frasier was about a very successful man, failing and flailing.

Thank you for this unflinching account of heartache. I hope it was as cathartic for you to write as it was entertaining for us to read.

Mike B. said...

Mac -- I've done a fair amount of research on Turn On (and I've even seen it, and still need therapy). No contemporary account mentions the show being cancelled mid-episode. Just another tall tale by George Schlatter.

Anonymous said...

Someone notify "Community."

Johnny Walker said...

I'd like to see "Turn On". I presumed it was actually just ahead of its time. That said, the Wikipedia description of the sketches are HORRIBLE... Was it as bad as it sounded?

KG said...

To nairam_tdlowneorg:

I think you see it the wrong way. I loved Frasier but for me the show was never about the sophistication of the Crane Brothers.

In my opinion it was a show about the fights between Frasier and Niles or Frasier and Martin. Niles love for Daphne, Roz' sex life, Frasier's search for love, etc.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

For the record, I *liked* Free Agents. Yeah, yeah, UK original, I know. I still liked the chemistry of the US leads.


Mel Ryane said...

Love this account. The agony and the relief are palpable.

nairam_tdlowneorg said...


Yeah, i think you're right, but it's still interesting, that the main characters are obviously from another class than most of the viewers, i guess. I don't know many sitcoms with such characters. I think it's great, that it works anyhow, probably because it's just brilliantly written and at the end of the day, it's about themes we can all relate to, like love, relationships and the try to master our life.

Mike B. said...

Johnny: It's available at The Paley Center in Beverly Hills or NYC. The problem was it trying to be edgy it wasn't funny, and it just looked like a disorganized mess.