Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Advice to the networks that they will never take

A recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (yes, I read ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, what of it?) by Lynette Rice claimed that the major networks are crying that they can’t get the best talent anymore. A-List writers, producers, directors, and actors would much prefer to take their projects to Netflix, Amazon, A&E, HBO – just about anybody other than CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox.

Especially now that these other platforms and services pay what networks are offering, top talent, who once brought networks projects first, now bring them to networks last. And this couldn’t come at a worse time for networks since their ratings continue to hemorrhage. Now more than ever, they need HITS. Instead, they’re pitching ideas that were rejected by Nick at Nite and cable channels no one can get.

This goes along with yesterday’s post about how the networks once ruled the world. But as Bob Dylan said (back when Bob Denver's GILLIGAN’S ISLAND drew an audience of 30,000,000): “For the loser now will later to win.”  Providers on channel 458 now rule. 

Can networks do anything to reverse this insidious trend? Can they once again attract the best writers and producers? Absolutely. And they can do it overnight. And it won’t cost them an extra penny. It’s not like the answer is to outbid everybody. Nope. They can even save money.

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? A way to reclaim dominance without increasing budgets. A total win/win, right?

Except for one thing: they won’t do it.

Here’s the solution in case they're interested in just hearing it: Stop interfering. Period. Simple. Stop being so ham-fisted. Stop requiring approval for every tiny step. Stop dictating casting. Stop noting writers to death.

Give creative people credit that they know what they’re doing. Take chances. Let them have some leeway. Let them hire their staffs. Build projects based on passion and vision and not research and fear.

Trust me, A-Listers will be back faster than you can say Brandon Tartikoff.

But like I said, it’s never going to happen. I'm spouting crazy talk. Spewing fairy tales.   Networks will not give up that control… even as their ratings continue to sink and their creative jewels are SUPERGIRL, WICKED CITY, and HAWAII 5-0.

And so when they cry in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY it’s a little hard to have much sympathy for them. The young talented people the networks are hoping to find don’t get into the business aspiring to write for 2 BROKE GIRLS. They want to create things that are special, that they can be proud of, and YOU could be proud of. Instead, you’ll be cursing that they went to AMAZON instead.


Bryan L said...

What's the metaphor? Like squeezing wet sand in your fist? The harder you squeeze, the more it slips away. They'll keep squeezing until they've lost everything, because they don't know any other way to do it. I don't work in entertainment, but you'd be astonished at how many businesses do the exact. same. thing.

Carol said...

I'm a fan of the show Gallivant, that aired last year, got meh ratings, and got a second series thanks to fan outcry (Apparently) It aired on Sunday, and got me ratings again. But people - many people - love the show, but the ratings don't reflect it, so ABC is going to say 'nope, people don't want a fun and creative show written by some of the cleverest people on television, and acted by some amazing actors.' Sigh.

I think maybe it's time to get rid of the antiquated ratings system that I still don't understand. I have never met anyone who had a ratings box, or whatever it is. Nowadays with the internet and everything, it has to be easier to get a more accurate sense of what people like to see. Why don't the networks do that?

All that being said, I agree that they also need to let creative people be creative, and trust that they know what they're doing.

Mike Barer said...

I think they should loosen up on language restrictions and other things that can be done on cable. Of course, that may not play well in Conservative areas.

Roseann said...

I've worked below the line as Wardrobe Supervisor on many Network TV shows in the '90's and '00's. You are absolutely right about Network interference. Many is the time we couldn't have fittings or call talent till the day before we started shooting because we didn't have the Network OK on casting. On one show that meant we has 30 fittings starting after 6pm for the next day's shooting starting at 7am. How we survived I will never know.

John in Ohio said...

One other thing that would help dramas is a shorter season, like on cable. Less filler, more story. Do you think Breaking Bad would have been better if there had been twice as many episodes per season? I think the story would have been used up sooner. Think Lost could have benefited from less need to fill? Having 12 hours of story with 24 hours to fill is not a good answer.
Some comedies would benefit from this also, and maybe some procedurals.

I also think the networks would put every Chuck Lorre show on the air they could get.
I'm going off my head, so I'm going to miss some or misremember some points, but...
Dharma and Greg - I don't think either were well known ahead of that.
2.5 Men - I thought he wrote this as a fictional version of Charlie Sheen, therefore, you would use Charlie Sheen. But Jon Cryer was floundering at the time.
BBT - of the 5 leads, only 2 had any real recognition, Kaley from the John Ritter show, and JG from Roseanne. Their recognition was limited at best.
2BG - The one had some recognition going in, but the other was a complete unknown.
M&M - limited recognition beforehand.
Mom - known stars. HOWEVER - given the circumstantial evidence laid out above, I'm going to say that he picked them because HE wanted them, not because the suits wanted them. Or that he was asked to develop a series for one of them and accepted the job because he knew he could write for them.
The evidence would say that they are hands off, and he is successful.

Terrence Moss said...

So true. Agreed.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The Nets are extremely micromanaging and controlling.
In real life you'd divorce that person or at least put a restraining order on them.

And with the jumps to Netflix, HBO, Amazon, A&E, Showtime that is what creative people are doing, now that they have options.

As I mentioned yesterday, many of these options are owned by the networks' parent companies.
You'd think they'd learn from themselves.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Last night we watched this awfully boring and unwatchable show called, "Super Store" about a Walmart type of store.

That's what the Networks have on. When it wasn't being boring, it was being insulting to the actors. I think all of them will pay good money for this job not to show up on IMDB.

I felt bad for the actors. Heck, I felt bad for the grip boy.

Bob said...

As a business guy, I would observe if the networks did not attempt to control content, then their very self-rationale disappears. They would just be another data pipe. So of course that cannot happen.

In case a network guy is reading this, I would probably watch (or at least check out) a show with an insanely pretty young woman in her underwear lying next to some dead person. (Ken where do you find these photos??)

McAlvie said...

I read something recently that even the Discovery Channel is wising up. They, along with several other providers, dumbed down their line up years ago. But now that people can stream any show they want on demand, it turns out that what they don't want is Duck Dynasty's Hoarding Sister Wives.

I guess there are a lot of people who have to have the tv on all the time, and I do realize it isn't possible for 897 channels to provide 24/7 quality viewing, so they were just throwing any old thing up under the assumption that the masses have no class anyway and would watch anything. Apparently that is only true if there is nothing else available. Now there is, and all the fun is gone from reality tv now that the "reality" part came out.

If this is true and Discovery really is going back to programs for people who have IQs about the average doorknob, I'm hoping that Arts & Entertainment will get the message and do the same. A Columbo repeat is still preferable over the garbage they've been airing for the last several years.

McAlvie said...

Carol - I was all set to love Galivant when I first aired, but it turned out to be a string of commercials interrupted ocassionally by a plotline. The number of commercials in a tv segment these days is ridiculous anyway, but the way they carved up Galivant was beyond preposterous, and that's really what drove viewers away. I saw they were bringing it back, but if it's still chopped up nobody has reason to watch. A shame, because I did think it had promise.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"Here’s the solution in case they're interested in just hearing it: Stop interfering. Period."


Stephen Marks said...

Excellent Ken, but there should be at least one guy who offers up a "hey wait a minute" defense of the Big 3 plus Fox. First NBC did try and offer its viewers a show without interference, a show full of creativity and unchecked imagination and story writing, it was called the Nightly News with Brian Williams. Really though CBS and ABC gave shitloads of money to Kelsey Grammer ("Back to You", "Hank") and lost. NBC was held hostage by the cast of "Friends" for more money, then were generous enough, along with ABC and CBS to give Mathew Perry more opportunities to succeed then Johnny Football. NBC tired to throw Jay Leno under the bus like we all wanted, but he kept coming back like Ken's trolls until they finally had to initiate a "No Jay" policy. Dave Letterman whined, bitched,complained and banged his underlings for years while cashing a huge CBS cheque. NBC threw the keys to the store to Lorne Micheals who gave us 3 great years out of a 40 year run of Saturday Night Live. FOX made animated TV funny and it was the viewers, not FOX, who declined to embrace the wonderful show "Action" and the funny "Airplane" spinoff "Police Story". Its CBS that lets me watch The Masters, with little commercial time, for free. Its FOX that lets me watch the World Series for free and CBS the NCAA basketball tournament, each sans any Kardashian. If the networks left it up to people like MacLean Stevenson we'd get "Hello, Larry" instead of MASH. And finally the networks have saved the careers of the following people, Jimmy Kimmel, guy who played Al Bundy, Graig Ferguson, James Garner, Kathy Lee and Hoda, Drew Carey, and every person who claims to know how to act or write, (cough) Bruce Vilanch who sat ontop of, beside or below Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. And RJ Wagner we really need to have a Hart to Hart, okay so ABC blew that time. Thanks for the vine Ken.

Michael said...

I think back to a skit the Smothers Brothers did where Tommy and Elaine May played network censors not wanting the word "breast" to appear. The point is, interference is as old as TV. Remember, CBS told Lucille Ball that people wouldn't buy her being married to a Cuban.

But I think also of when ABC let Steven Bochco push the envelope with NYPD Blue, and wouldn't ABC love to have the numbers it had at the end of its run? To invoke another line from Dylan's peak years, when will they ever learn?

Herschel said...

In today's world of media distribution anywhere, anytime, networks and artists alike must build a fan base. The problem with Networks (and many other media businesses) is there is no long-play strategy.

It seems that the non-networks like HBO get it. They have many shows that span many demographics and they invest in the long-play. They allow the show to build a fan base. You can't really market your fan-base into existence. Fans have to come aboard when they find the show and get hooked. I hate HBO because I have to wait for Game Of Thrones - but I WILL WAIT. Look at Netflix and the hit House of Cards - they keep people wanting to see more of the story.

Fans will wait for a good story. However, they will move on really fast if the story and characters suck.

How many of the great shows in the old media world had horrible first-second years, got moved around until the fans found them. I remember way back hearing that the X-Files was a Friday filler and it ended up being a real hit because it built a fan base.

The networks have no excuses, they just don't have imagination and the skills to manage in an evolved industry.

Gregg B said...

Friday question: What was the situation behind BJ's mustache? Was that something that Mike Farrell showed up with at the beginning of the season and everyone went "OK"? It seemed like lines about it were incorporated into the show right away. Can you explain?

Charles H. Bryan said...

To be honest: I'm not sure how my life would be different if CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX each ceased to exist tomorrow. I guess my local TV affiliates might disappear, and I do like their phone apps, but that's it.

However, that might also be the problem -- because all of those affiliates are OTA, the FCC gets to set standards. FOX, even if it wanted to, couldn't put JUSTIFIED or FARGO on its broadcast channel. Good shows CAN be done within Standards and Practices limitations, but the better ones today are happening outside of those boundaries. (Though, come to think of it, BETTER CALL SAUL could probably meet network S&P standards without much change in dialogue or plot.)

I think it's also very possible that the networks are self-limiting. I don't think they'd even look at some shows as possibilities, whereas other non-network channels are willing to take risks.

cd1515 said...

Stephen Marks wrote:
"NBC tired to throw Jay Leno under the bus like we all wanted, but he kept coming back like Ken's trolls until they finally had to initiate a "No Jay" policy. "

not true.
I wasn't a Leno fan at all but he was #1 for years. He didn't keep coming back, they kept bringing him back because he made the network a s---load of money.
whether he was good or not is debatable, and also irrelevant.

Green Luthor said...

How much do you suppose the FCC has to do with all of this? I can't speak to the quality of, say, Game of Thrones (haven't watched it yet), but would it be as popular if it were on one of the broadcast networks instead of cable, and where they'd have to cut all the actual nudity, along with a lot of the sex and violence and language? (I won't argue there aren't people who watch GoT for the story - probably the vast majority of the audience, even - but I'm also sure there are people who just want to see hot naked women; are that latter group going to watch the same exact show edited to confirm to FCC rules?) Are there show creators who deliberately avoid the networks just so they can put in more "adult" content (whether it be because they feel it helps the story, or because they want to sell to the more prurient interests?)

Glenn E said...

With all the drama involving the networks slipping ratings and quality, it’s wonderful that THE GOOD WIFE on CBS has persevered for so long and remained as good.

On a totally different matter for Beaver Cleaver historians, the GREAT BIG RADIO internet station appears to be on hiatus as of today. There is a message playing now thanking fans for their past support and citing royalty issues to be resolved.

sanford said...

In regards to John in Ohio wanting Chuck Lorre write every show While I like some of the shows he mentioned, just about every one of them has been hated by critics. That especially goes for 2 and a half men. I watched the show, watch the reruns. I have to believe that conservatives watched that show, as it couldn't have stayed on as long as it did. But I am guessing groups like Focus on the Family and other conservative groups thought it was filthy. No doubt they got away with a lot on the show. Hard to imagine that even 20 years ago you could have gotten away with that stuff. While Big Bang isn't as bad, they also get away with stuff that wouldn't have made it past the censors 20 years ago.

Stephen Marks said...

Good point CD1515

Ficta said...

If Hannibal can air on NBC, I don't think there's anything major in Standards and Practices holding the Networks back from matching anything currently on FX or AMC. HBO can go full nude, and they can't do that, but seriously, did you see Hannibal...Lordy Moses.

Mark Fearing said...

On a similar note, I've been impressed with Disney's ability to turn out massive tentpole movies franchises that actually maintain some creative spirit and obviously have the love and attention of creatively engaged filmmakers. This is a pretty amazing step when you think of how Disney often used to operate. They have attracted great talent and the results have been solid. I'm not saying that the Marvel films or even Star Wars are GREAT films, but they are better than what I would have expected. I worked at Disney just as many massive changes were being introduced and I have to say the overall results have been surprising. They seem to be giving A list people (at least) some room to make good work that doesn't seem overly 'noted' to death. Again, I'm not saying these massive films have been cutting edge or cinema masterpieces, but they are better than what I expected.

blinky said...

Here is a relevant Friday question for your speculating pleasure:

The Good Wife is maybe the best show on network TV. What would be different if it had been an HBO or Netflix production? More nudity? Racier plots? Uglier interns? Not sure any of that would make a better show. Also since it is successful, do you think the suits leave it alone or still note it to death?

Unknown said...

I wish radio talent had the same clout. :-(

Anonymous said...

@ Michael:
"When will they ever learn?" is not Dylan.
It's Pete Seeger, or actually it's an old Russian folk tune (Pete borrowed liberally in every sense of the word).
From Where Have All The flowers Gone

emily said...

I don't have anything to add, but I just finished watching "Ex Machina" on Amazon, and I wanted to prove to myself I'm not a robot.


cadavra said...

I've always said that I would love to have my own broadcast network--maybe pick up the remnants of UPN--and just do high-quality programming. I'd call up Sorkin, Kelley, Bochco, Chase, et al, and tell them all, "You can have 22 on-air. You will not be moved from your chosen time-slot and you will not be excessively pre-empted. As long as you stay within budget and don't have any boobs or F-words, you can do whatever the hell you want without interference from anyone." I would also pick up any exceptional shows the other nets cancel prematurely. I'll wager that within two years I'd be in the Top Four, even with far fewer affiliates.

BTW, to John in Ohio: Fewer episodes isn't the answer. Back in the old days, they did 39 a year--sometimes even more--and the quality level was astonishingly high. See "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," to take just one example.

Guffman said...

The problem here is the same as it is in all "creative" businesses - a clash of fundamental psychological needs. Creative people have a tangible record of their work to give them (and their fellow Creatives) satisfaction and appreciation. If the work sells, terrific, but it's not mandatory. The majority of non-Creative people can't do the work but have played the game and managed to get themselves in a position to CONTROL creative work -- that's where they get THEIR satisfaction.

Saying "yes" too often diminishes the value and need of non-Creatives -- so the answer is "no" or "fix" -- and the tolerance for risk disappears in the process. The majority of successful projects come from individuals who straddle the fence psychologically. They fully understand Creatives (or have walked a mile in their shoes) and know when to abdicate control to them. Pity there are so few of them.

YEKIMI said...

Ken, what's your take on the new royalty fees for internet "radio" stations are basically forcing them off the air? I see Great Big Radio is gone for now [but I think that might have more to do with Amazon]. I know a few more that have disappeared but others are going to try and slog through it. But it seems like the new royalty plan is giving a break to the corporate monsters that wrecked radio and who can afford the fees and screwing the little guys that can't.

John in Ohio said...

I'm not saying that I want Chuck Lorre to write everything. I am saying that if he made 50 shows, CBS would find room for 50 shows. And that he seems to have more freedom to do his shows how he wants than most other people. You would think they could see the correlation. Let Ken have Chuck's freedom. Or a dozen other guys, and let them go. See what happens. It can't be worse.
I agree that the critics hate his shows. Hell, I hate some of them. Even the ones I like I recognize how sophomoric they are. I also agree that they wouldn't have gotten on the air 20 years ago, at least in the early time slot, and that may not be a bad thing. I watch some of them, and I'm not a prude, but the line gets crossed.

I'm going to beat the dead horse. HBO or Netflix? Maybe racier. Maybe nudity, probably in the interns or one off clients who would be better looking. Even on FX, AMC, etc. - LESS EPISODES. There are always fillers. There are plot lines that are bloated or exist just to fill the space. How much better would TGW be if you could cut the bottom 40% out of the series and just keep the best?

@Mark Fearing,
Disney is certainly churning them out. I feel like I can't keep up on all the movies and TV shows and how they interact and which order should I watch, and when to interrupt the TV show with a movie and which movie. At least number them for us.
Marvel movies are popcorn flix. So are the TV shows. Nothing wrong with that. Do a good job at what you are doing - and that they do. BUT, over saturation will kill anything. Leave them wanting more and they will devour more. Leave them drowning in it and they will look for a way out.

In regards to building an audience, I don't remember where I read it, maybe here, but a show runner / creator for a Netflix/Hulu/Amazon show said that it was a different mentality. You don't have to put everything in the pilot. You just have to put enough in the first episode to get them to watch one more. One more that is going to start automatically if they do nothing. You have 3 or 4 episodes to hook them, not one. They don't have to make an effort to come back next week. They have to make an effort to pick something else to watch next. That gives you the time to hook them, so they come back tomorrow and binge another 3 hours. You can definitely go for the long haul that way.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I think nightly broadcast TV sitcoms and dramas, sadly, will go the same way as malls and newspapers in 20 years.

John in Ohio said...

Point taken. Hitchcock certainly will blow holes in most of my comments. It is also an anthology series where there isn't a story line weaving from one episode to the next. In my original post, I basically excluded comedies and cop shows also for the same reason.
They generally don't have an underlying plot, and those that do don't last as long. Mentalist was searching for Red John, for example. They only visited that plot a few times a season early on, and then it got more and more as they lost viewers.
NCIS, L&O, CSI, etc. may have some stories or villains they go back to, but overall, no real underlying plot, and they go on forever, in different cities, with different casts. Main characters come and go, and the series generally survives.

Tim W. said...

The young people in my broadcast media classes see absolutely nothing special or unique about ABC, CBS, and NBC. To them, they're just three networks among hundreds, distinguished only in that their "reach" is more extensive than that of the others. They don't understand why those three tend to get talked about more.

Different world for them, I suppose, than for those of us who grew up in a time when the "Big Three" were the only game in town.

MikeN said...

Whats needed is more interference where they actually have the censors do things.

Andy Rose said...

There's a whole lot of original production going on right now, but I wonder how long it can last. It's all driven by the belief (probably accurate) that people aren't going to tune in much longer to watch endless reruns on basic cable, and will expect more. Same for the streaming services. You've got to give them something new they haven't already seen. But is all this spending on network-quality shows producing results? It did for the early adopters, FX and AMC. But you could almost count the hit original shows of those two networks on your hands. WGN America bet big on original shows in the past year. Can you name an original show on WGN America? Or Audience Network? Have you ever even heard of Audience Network?

Netflix has had a couple of hits, and Amazon has one. On the other hand, Yahoo! effectively canned all of its original programming after one disastrous year. I hope all of this original production continues -- it's far preferable to constant reruns. But I just get the feeling we're on a speculative bubble here that could pop.

Brian said...

And when one of the "old" networks does have a show that's halfway worth watching and you try to watch it online, the experience is terrible. Poor streaming quality, freezes, and tons of commercials. I don't mind a few commercials, but during some shows there are way more commercials than their would have been on TV. Plus the same spot runs over and over. What's the point of that?. Networks need to get it together like you say Ken. And get rid of "Two Broke Girls".

John Hammes said...

Garrison Keillor, Stuart McLean, among so many others, chose the route of radio storytelling.

No wonder: these writers already have their characters (no actor/agent/contract dispute headaches), and while given broadcast regulations, still (mostly) have complete creative control over said characters and storylines.

A nice morale booster and reminder, it is still possible to create with only minimum suit interference. A nice way to make a living, too. Radio will never go away.

DrBOP said...

Not sure if you have covered this book release by Carl Reiner.....writing about a show produced without many "notes" :


Johnny Walker said...

You can't help but enjoy watching the networks that have destroyed so many shows we've loved, panic. Netflix and Amazon will have their day, of course. They'll produce flops, too. But in the meantime their batting average has proved much stronger. I LOVE Netflix, and I loved watching Transparent on Amazon, too. Great shows that you wouldn't find elsewhere. Wonderful.

MikeN said...

It didn't skew an election, because some bloggers were able to discover the truth. CBS was also planning to drop a story right before the election about the army losing weapons in Iraq except the New York Times didn't play along.

It appears Mapes is still defending the documents as authentic which would make her either a liar or a terrible journalist.

I will go with liar since in researching the story, Mapes had interviewed witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Texas Air National Guard’s personnel needs. She was told that they needed pilots at the time and that no influence would have been necessary to secure Bush’s admission.

Now she tells the guy who provided the memos that they needed documentary proof, and here comes this memo that is a copy not an original. And of course she believes the later story about receiving the memo at a rodeo from someone who told him to destroy the original.

Unknown said...

I kind of touched on this briefly in my blog too. I loved watching the comedy-adventure in the 80's growing up. Here's a link if you get the chance. I won't be offended if you delete!


Love your blog Ken. You always inspire me to keep going and never give up on writing!

marc blitstein

Kiri Blakeley said...

Amen, Ken. But I will say I was shocked to read that it was 'network folk' who pushed the casting of Ted Danson and Shelley Long because they recognized their chemistry. Was that the first time the network got anything right? Or did network folk used to be different? As much as sometimes I despise having an editor telling me what to do, often I do look at the final product and think 'Oh, yeah, he/she was right.' Networks, I'm sure, take it to the micromanagement extreme.

VP81955 said...

To John in Ohio: I don't believe "2 Broke Girls" is a Chuck Lorre series. The closest it comes is that it's filmed on a soundstage next door to "Mom," perhaps the one Lorre series that regularly gets good reviews.

TheCroatoan said...

Here is an example of a comparison of two shows I haven't even seen yet(they are about to run sometime soon in the middle of January). I am basing this based solely on the promos. First is NBC's 'Superstore' and the second is TBS' 'Angie Tribeca'. Both of them have some pedigree from The Office. Superstore claims it was made by the producers of The Office and the executive producer of Angie Tribeca is none other than Steve Carell. This is only my opinion but Superstore looks like a pile of garbage. Angie Tribeca looks like it could be funny and I will be tuning in to see if I am correct. Has any of the writers on Superstore ever had a day job? In one of the promos an employee makes a mistake and prices everything at .25c. Everyone is running around grabbing anything they can(as if that one employee can reprice everything in the store in such a little amount of time) then I guess it is the manager standing at the front door, pumping a shotgun and blasts a round into the ceiling.

Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan also said these times they are a-changing. Ken Levine apparently missed out on it

mike said...

Lost in the fog is the simple fact that gwb did indeed shirk his duty without penalty.