Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kevin Spacey's take on the future of television

Worth a listen. It's about 5 minutes. He makes some great points about how television is changing and what it should do to accommodate viewers.

The only problem I see is that to greenlight a thirteen-episode series without any kind of pilot is a huge gamble.  And just as most pilots fail, so will most series.  Except, you put a series on the air, it dies quickly, you halt production after four episodes.  You cut your losses.  You can't do that with a Netflix type series.

So after being burned big time a few times, Netflix and other providers who follow this concept might become super conservative in what they buy.  Big stars and big names will have to be attached.  Adaptations of blockbuster novels.   We've seen this with studio motion pictures.

That said, I totally agree with him on one thing -- the model of television is changing -- whether the networks like it or not.   New delivery systems, new ways of accessing content -- they're not just theories anymore.  They're HERE.  And there are more to follow.

The good news is that whatever these models are, they are going to need CONTENT.  Whether people watch on movie screens of telephone screens they want to watch stories.   That means more opportunities for writers.  Who knows what form they'll take?    But it's an exciting time.  I wish someone had let me go right to series and make all thirteen episodes without having to get everything approved including the set dressing and without having to subject my show to focus groups and dialing testing.  And for good measure I wasn't at the mercy of a time slot.  I also wish I could get Kevin Spacey to star in it.


Johnny Walker said...

The Kevin Spacey speech that's going around -- (you can watch the full 45 minute version here). I think he makes some excellent points about what content is, how consumers want it, how the industry needs to keep up, and how long-term quality is more important (and more lucrative) than immediate short-term success. I completely agree with all of that.

The only thing that niggles me is his attitude that making quality programming is so easy: Just find talented people and let them work. That's it. He paints a picture where executives and lawyers and numbers and focus groups are destroying culture, and while there's got to be some truth to that, I can't help but wonder why Spacey's production company, Trigger Street, been behind so many turkeys?

I know Rotten Tomatoes isn't the absolute arbiter of good taste, but it's a reasonable gauge. Here's Trigger Street's filmography, with their RT score:

21 - 36%
SHRINK - 29%
SAFE - 57%

That's a lot of very poorly received movies.

Maybe it's taken this long to learn all he has, and now their output is going to drastically improve, but it's hard to see a man with such a shaky track record act like he has all the answers.

Am I missing something?

Unknown said...

Conversations like this are why I've created my own ad-supported digital content startup.

The interesting thing about showing content through the internet is that major networks like CBS no longer have the constraint of 24 hour days. They can now take chances on new, web-only shows. Lower production costs and lower delivery costs could mean a new wave of content is coming our way.

Just think, if a network isn't constrained by 24 hour programming, how many more writers will find work.

sanford said...

Johnny Walker, I suspect you can find a lot of similar stats for other film companies. You can also find a lot of movies with rotten scores that made a ton of money. You can find movies with good ratings and reviews that don't make much at all. TV is similar. No one watched the first season of Cheers. Luckily they ran it during the summer and a lot of people watched. I believe Seinfeld was in a similar position. Like a lot of life it is all a crapshoot.

Dana King said...

As a fiction author, book publishers might want to take a listen to what Spacey has to say.

There is something else implied here: HOUSE OF CARDS, many British TV shows, as well as a lot of America's better cable shows, have what I think of as limited run seasons. Here, shows like JUSTIFIED, LONGMIRE, THE WIRE, and DEADWOOD use 12-13 week seasons, with story arcs that may last all year. This kind of thing lends itself to binge watching (The Beloved Spouse and I have been known to watch as many as six episodes of DEADWOOD or THE WIRE at a sitting) and closer audience identification. I suspect is also a hell of a lot easier to come up with 12 good shows than with 22.

True, then the networks need more shows, if each will run only a dozen weeks. What I'd be curious to see is, if each show didn;t hve to make so many episodes, could they find more, better shows?

ScottyB said...

Like Ken -- and other voices, sometimes in the wilderness -- have said, content is what makes a series endure. Not the "next best thing". Not the hit-and-run gimmick. Sure, the time slot you've been shuffled to on traditional network TV helps (or hurts), but in the end, shows with good, smart writing are the ones that endure. Case in point: 'Cheers' when it endured the cellar, and 'Becker' tho it got shuffled around more than a deck of cards, if I recall right.

Other case in point: 'Arrested Development' as a Netflix series has been -- at least within context of viewer expectations based on what they already experienced about the series -- a bit of a flop and network timeslots and Nielsens had nothing to do with it.

Kevin Spacey can get a bit weird and deep at times, but he always seems to have a good point.

ScotytB said...

Johnny Walker said:

"The only thing that niggles me is his attitude that making quality programming is so easy: Just find talented people and let them work. That's it. He paints a picture where executives and lawyers and numbers and focus groups are destroying culture ..."

Funny -- hasn't Ken Levine been making pretty much that same case since this blog began? Or did I miss something important along the way?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Netflix isn't a network, it's an internet video rental service.

Should kids be watching AVATAR and GAME OF THRONES?

But as for Spacey's speech, I think what really needs to happen is that networks need to establish trust again that producers and showrunners can deliver, and give them the freedom to do their shows their own way, rather than take all the creative control themselves and tell the producers what their show is about and who their characters are and such.

Tim W. said...

I think one big difference between networks creating shows and a company like Netflix doing it is that if a show bombs on a network, it's very difficult to recoup their losses, because just airing the show could cost money if it's replacing something more profitable.

On Netflix, there isn't such a need for the show to be immediately successful. People can rent it whenever they like, and Netflix can recoup the costs over a longer period of time. On the networks, once a show is aired, it's done. That was the only chance to make money from it.

Damien Galeone said...

I was in love with The West Wing, and one major reason was the characters. Aaron Sorkin seemed to have the perfect balance between opening up the characters and allowing their quirks, demons, and personalities to be drawn out over time for the viewer.

One of the reasons I think that his last series, The Newsroom, is garbage (pronounce it in French and it doesn't sound too mean) is because he seems to have gone against this MO and just tried to cram all of the characters' biographies down the viewers' throats in the beginning.

I am sure it's more complex than Sorkin losing trust in his audience, but it sure felt like that being on the viewer side. Can you imagine if Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure had fit in at Cicely the second episode? Or if Charles Winchester had become bosom buddies with Hawkeye and BJ immediately? Right. They would have made for damn boring shows.

I agree with what Spacey is saying - at least in this aspect - which is that the programs should be allowed to develop at their own speed. Maybe the producers should trust their audience a little more? Is that reasonable?(not a rhetorical question)

YEKIMI said...

@ Tim W: On the networks, once a show is aired, it's done. That was the only chance to make money from it.

Really? They never repeat a show? They don't show ads during show repeats? If the show was made by their network studio [or affiliate] I guess they just give it away for free when it goes into syndication. Same goes for the DVDs and digital platforms they use after the show has aired.

Tim W. said...

@YEKIMI I was speaking about shows that are not successful. If a show doesn't catch on, it doesn't have another way to make money because they almost never repeat shows that aren't successful. They will definitely repeat successful shows, but those made many, already.

William Kinoshita said...

To your point at the start...don't the networks make 100's of pilots that never see the light of day? I'd think each "new" pilot is expensive. Wouldn't the cost be similar to making 5-13 episodes of a show and giving it a full run on Netflix before it gets canceled? Sometimes a show doesn't hit it's stride or audience until the 3rd or 4th episode. And if the creators knew they had time to let a show breath, wouldn't the chance of a well selected show have better odds? I'd think its hard to cram a great show or idea into a pilot. I'm guessing a lot of great shows have been passed on because the pilot didn't pop but given time the show would work?

William Kinoshita said...

Clearly I didn't watch the video first because I made similar points. I'll disagree on this, I think on original content, Netflix should stagger the shows. Maybe 3 per week. Binging in great. I do it and love it. But I watched "Orange" in one weekend and loved it. Talked about it for a few days and that's it. There was no water cooler talk or audience buildup. Now I have to wait a year for more.

Also, by spreading the shows out just a little, it will help keep subscribers longer. I know some people who just get HBO for the time Game of Thrones is on. That's 3 months. If they could watch it in a week (or day) they might only get HBO for that month. Besides, some shows need that week. Look at the week following the Red Wedding episode. Is all anyone could talk about and the show was in its 3rd season. The series "dump" is a tricky situation.

Lorimartian said...

Yes, the three or four major networks need to explore other avenues of delivering alternative content and cease to rely so heavily on focus group results for network fare, but isn't their argument re broadcasting over the air that they are subject to censorship rules that cable is not? Consequently, they are prevented from going in the direction of a "Deadwood" and "Dexter" (extreme violence, language) or a "Weeds" and "Breaking Bad" (dealing drugs for a living). "Mad Men" could have been on a network unless the time period in which it is set and incessant smoking would be bones of contention. (I don't know its history. If it was pitched and rejected because of the time period and/or subject matter, that was certainly very short sighted on the network's part.)

Censorship and sponsorship play a big role in what the networks are able to broadcast. Sponsors need to be risk-takers, too. In any event, there is no end of programming for viewers who find extreme violence and foul language entertaining elsewhere.

Johnny Walker said...

I think you have to have actually watched the full 45 minute speech to understand what I'm referring to. *Obviously* I think creative people should be allowed to work without having to justify why, every single step of the way.

I'm just suspicious of Spacey talking like he's figured it all out, when he's struggled just as much as the people he's criticizing.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny Walker: as against that, Spacey has a pretty good record running the Old Vic.

What I wish is that some enterprising network would put out DVDs of the failed pilots. It would be a great schoolroom for writers.


Damien Galeone said...

Mr Levine, prolific comedy writer William Froug said that "If you can write hard comedy, you'll need a skiploader to haul your millions away, and soft comedy and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee."

I was wondering if for your Friday question - no idea, I'm new here, but thought I'd fling around the lingo because what the hell, right? - you might answer what the difference is between 'soft' and 'hard' comedy?

Mike Schryver said...

Re: Broadcast censorship

I don't know - I recently saw an episode of CRIMINAL MINDS for the first time, and I've never seen anything so lascivious, leering and vile on broadcast. They certainly don't seem to have any problem showing provocative content, short of visual sex and language. I don't watch the other crime procedurals, so I don't know if they're all like that.

YEKIMI said...

@TimW Sorry, I misunderstood your post. But there is more opportunity nowadays for a network to recoup there money on a failed show. Whereas in the old days they were S.O.L. if a show bombed, if they cancel a show today, they often post un-aired episodes on their websites, Hulu, etc. And as we all know,you gotta watch ads that you can't zip by on some websites. [And if you pay for premium access to skip commercials, they're STILL getting some money from you.

Hamid said...

I'm waiting for Lee Daniels' take on the future of television, produced by and starring Oprah with a special appearance by Mariah Carey in poverty make-up as a character from a working class background.