Tuesday, October 18, 2016

How to fix network television... not that anyone asked me

As the old saying sort of goes: Imitation is the sincerest form of Network Television. The minute one comes up with a hit show, the rest scramble to develop copy-cats. Watch for seventeen kid talent shows next year – all hosted by Steve Harvey.

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.

For probably ten years there were TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA PLACE on every network schedule. NBC, home of FRIENDS, even did an American version of COUPLING, eliminating everything that made the British version an absolute classic. NBC even spun off Joey from FRIENDS.  They couldn't even capture the magic of FRIENDS with a cast member from FRIENDS.

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 in a desperate attempt to bring them back, networks are developing sitcoms that they think Millennials like. This year that means edgy, ironic, single camera knockoffs of shows on streaming services. But none of the shows they're copying are legitimate HITS. It’s like if you’re a bottling company and want to get a big chunk of soda drinkers you don't introduce to the marketplace a knock-off version of Cel-Ray tonic.

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.”


Bill Jones said...

"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."

Okay, I'll bite. "They" means like 35% of the GOP, which is the plurality that got Trump nominated. The other 65% despised him from the start, disagreed with him vehemently, and knew he'd be a terrible candidate (as he has proven to be).

The national GOP/RNC did everything they could to stop this train wreck from happening, but they refused to break/bend the nominating rules to ensure a more electable candidate. The DNC didn't face this problem with their upstart candidate (Bernie) because they allow superdelegates--party insiders and elites--to play an enormous role in choosing their nominee. The RNC/GOP does not; they go purely by the votes of the people.

That's an interesting inversion of the "power to the people" notion typically attributed to Dems, but apparently it can be a good thing not to give all the power to the people. Sometimes the people--or, specificially, a plurality of the people--nominate very bad candidates who can't garner anywhere close to a majority of the general population, much less of the party.

roadgeek said...

The political comments about Donald Trump and the GOP are getting tiresome. It might surprise you, Mr. Levine, but there are many conservatives, such as myself, who are fans of your work and enjoy your talent and your stories about the entertainment industry. Yet, every time you take a shot at Trump, or his voters, or the GOP, you run the risk of alienating more of your readers and fans and those who watch the television shows you script. I speak for many Americans when I say that we need safe places where we can come and not be subjected to politics and political opinion. I had thought this was one of those places. (We thought the NFL was as well, but I digress...) I'm not surprised at your political ideology, but I respect you and I choose to show some tolerance for your viewpoint. How about, in the spirit of fairness, you do the same for the Trump supporters who read this blog?

Justin Russo said...

Ken, this is easily one of the most insightful posts you've written.

I am 30 years old (with a mind of a 99 grandmother, considering my shrine to Lauren Bacall). I grew up with the original airing of FRIENDS with my sister, the two of us waiting for Thursday to come each week. I remember if I missed an episode it was the end of the world. I had a party for the finale. Today, I stream FRIENDS almost daily for both the nostalgia and because these characters have been a part of me for two decades. My friends and I still quote the show and decide which of us is which character (I am totally a Monica--mixed with some Sophia Petrillo). My partner is several years younger than me (a true Millennial where I suppose I am Gen Y) and we bond over binge watching.

The point here, though, is that FRIENDS was the EXCEPTION to the rule, not the rule itself. That is more reason why your points are so valid. When I went to orientation for college, one of the professors spoke about statistics and how this generation relates more to their grandparents' lives than their parents. I personally attest to that as my grandfather and I share a love for Lana Turner and Glenn Miller. It also explains why "I Love Lucy" is still pitch-perfect 65 years later. We crave nostalgia. We craze ease. I sometimes miss not having a computer. Adam Sternbergh wrote such a great piece in New York magazine this spring explaining just why FRIENDS is so big (http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/20-somethings-streaming-friends-c-v-r.html). It makes perfect sense. That tone needs to be hit again. There are some wonderful modern shows that understand youth mentality (Insecure on HBO is pretty spot on) and yes, we LOVE humor--I rewatch "30 Rock" almost daily as well, because it pandered to intellectual comedy and was silly on the surface.

To end my rant, I just solidly agree with you. However, I don't think networks have the ability to create a mega-hit anymore. I just got rid of my cable after years reluctance. I don't need NBC because, sadly (and I was raised in an NBC home) all my favorite NBC shows are streaming.

ChipO said...

"How many Millennials even know the difference between single and multi-cam formats?"

Friday Question please:
What is the difference between single and multi-cam formats, and why does it matter?

Respectfully observe that those in an industry substantially overestimate outsiders' understanding of their industry. (My next capital project will be delivered IPD rather than design-bid-build ... of course you know of what I type.)

Nick Alexander said...

I'd share this post with my tribe, but you threw in the (soon-to-be-dated) condescending-to-50%-of-your-readership political reference in there. Shame. It's a good post, minus that.

B.A. said...

The networks really painted themselves into a corner and they're going to throw all resources to convince us that the corner is the place to be, with more prime time reality/game shows. With campaign ugliness and commercialized rage, this should be our Naked Lunch revelation, but it'll go on for years until the industry is extinct. Also I'm jealous because I can't afford the booby channels on cable.

David P said...

Friday Question: With Harry Shearer suing for $125M after Spinal Tap netted him $98 and $81 for soundtrack and ancillary revenues(split four ways), do you have any Hollywood accounting stories? (Article at: http://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/universal-caught-lawsuit-spinal-tap-star-sues-vivendi-125m/)

And how does it work when your work is re-purposed? For example, I once saw a Cheers slot machine, that would play video clips for certain winning combinations. How would you as a writer be compensated for that use?

Chuck Cavender said...

Big Bang Theory owes a lot to Friends, but it's 10 years old already.

MikeN said...

There WAS a star cast. People forget how much they sold Courtney Cox.

As much as I make fun of Robot Joe Scarborough, I got a test today where I had to trace the outline of a plane.

Paul Dushkind said...

Advertising agencies are ageist. They want to be young and hip. They don't seem to understand that baby boomers, not millennials, have the most discretionary income. (You know you're getting older when you remember when "baby boomer" meant the same thing as "teeny-bopper.")

This raises the question: What should TV networks be doing to reach *older* audiences. Maybe the answer is still shows with young, beautiful people; I don't know.

MikeN said...

ChipO, try searching this blog for the answer. I am also a bit confused, but I think it is mainly that there is a studio audience. Not sure why you can't have single cam with a studio audience, but I guess once you have the studio, you have room for more cameras.

Scott O. said...

To be honest, I never liked Friends.

But all is not lost. I don't like Trump either.

Richard said...

Absolutely agree with roadgeek. I very much like getting your industry insights but your political left-wing opinions are getting old.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Each party's "control" of its respective presidential nominating process was a fact in the 19th Century and most of the 20th Century. By 1976 most delegates in both parties were popularly selected in state-run primaries. For me, this is a matter of history.

Within the last few weeks NPR quoted/interviewed some poly-sci professors who referred to the same non-existent "control", which mystified me as a casual observer who (by accident of recent birth) has only directly known of popular primaries and caucuses.

(that made me wish NPR had done the same thing as BBC and posed questions citing the same historical overview I noted above)

So, I'd say you (Ken) only got your comment partly right; it seems plain that the GOP "got in bed" with certain loosely-organized and extreme groups, but the notion that the GOP (referring to the Party Establishment) "chose" Trump misses the mark, since the control that implies has been non-existent for decades.

On the broader question about whether your occasional political comment is "appropriate" I say go for it any time the muse moves you.

Johnny Hy said...

Too piggyback on roadgeek's point, thanks to the RNC, who make the studio notes writers look like Albert Einstein, Trump only received 1 in 3 GOP voters but won the nomination due to the RNC's insane process they put together so please don't paint with such a broad brush as to his support. He is an immoral con man but the person he is running against is an immoral and incompetent thief. We don't mind the digs at Trump because quite frankly he deserves it but please do not try to take the moral high ground when your candidate is as bad if not worse. I worked at UBS and saw first hand how she used her position as Secretary to enrich her and Bill personally as well as their foundation at the expense of the American people. And that would probably not even be in the top 5 things she has done in direct violation of her duty as a public servant. I love the blog and your work and am very happy for the success of your latest play.

BTW, was going to ask you anyway what your favorite laugh out loud (not necessarily the best) episodes of some of the comedy classics were i.e. mine are

Cheers when Sam's brother comes to visit
Friends the guys win the apartment from the girls and Phoebe gets pregnant
MASH - Five O'Clock Charlie
Seinfeld - The contest
Dick Van Dyke Show - when Rob thinks they brought the wrong baby home from the hospital
Happy Days - when Richie goes on a bachelor party in the first season
Frasier - The Matchmaker
Andy Griffith Show - Ernest T. Bass tries to join the Army
Modern Family - Cam produces the musical with Manny and Luke and the F drops at the end
Taxi - Latka's Driving Test
WKRP in Cincinnati - The Turkey Drop
Mary Tyler Moore - Chuckles the Clown
Big Bang Theory Sheldon wins an award and they get him drunk to help with stagefright

MikeN said...

Roadgeek, surely you can handle a little attack on Trump. At least this was somewhat relevant, not like his Palin fixation many years after she was gone.

As for who selected Trump, I think people are being too easy saying he only got 1/3 of the votes. By the end he was winning majorities when it was a head to head matchup with Ted Cruz, with John Kasich along for the ride.

Anonymous said...

Never liked Friends. Saw it as a hacky Seinfeld knock-off with younger characters. Don't like Trump or Clinton. Luv the Dodgers, so I've still got that going for me.

BluePedal said...

Look at all the retro channels on cable now. That should tell you that old fogies are the last hope for TV.

"I'll call you back later as soon as Mama's Family ends."

"Did you see today's Emergency! episode? Randolph Mantooth got a woman's toe unstuck from bathtub faucet."

"How come no one noticed that Muldoon was Ugly John?"

These retro channels are also pasty white too.

The new season of Mystery Science Theater can't get here fast enough for me.

John Nixon said...

I tried to like Friends...lots of people loved it...but it just didn't do it for me. I mean, whenever I tried watching it it went something like--scene fades in, door opens, person says "where's Joey?...oh THERE he is, over there on the couch"...Joey waves and then there'd be hilarious audience laughter. All the attempts at jokes sounded like that to me.

benson said...

I posted about this once before; the number of cameras does not matter if its not on the page. It's all about having a great script and great actor, crew, etc.

I've kind of come around to amending that opinion a little regarding number of cameras. I used to use the example of the Andy Griffith Show and the Dick Van Dyke Show. AGS was single camera, and DVD was multi. Both classics. However, if you watch the AGS pilot from the Danny Thomas show, it's has a different feel to it. It's multicam and it plays differently. Now I know Andy Griffith consciously toned down the bumpkin-ness of Andy Taylor after season 1, but still, as a multi cam, AGS would've lost a vital sense of intimacy.

I also know i'm in the vast minority, but I liked Happy Days much, much more as a single cam with out the hyenas in the audience. Same goes for the original Odd Couple series with Randall and Klugman. Yes there were great episodes in seasons 2-5, but as a body of work, I liked season 1 best.

Dhruv said...

I don’t agree that you need young writers to create new sitcoms.

You are old, I and many other readers are young, and still you are able to engage with us, day after day.
It’s only content that anyone dishes out, which is important.

As far as targeting millennials is concerned; it’s just fools in suits believing youth to be the messiahs and are running behind them forgetting an entire spectrum of audience.

I believe American entertainment like its economy has stagnated.

The penetration of entertainment and TV in USA is 99%, I think. So that much exposure means the entire market has been exposed to all genres for the past 6 or so decades.
People are bored.

America is a single-homogeneous-society.

Everything is covered - from teenager growing up, college, friends hanging out, married life, family, workplace, vampire, sports heroes, special agents always saving President and the world, American President, Veep, their dogs and cats …….everything is covered.

Nothing is left. So…….people have moved onto other forms of entertainment.

Once in a while a new brilliant story with a new dimension comes along like Breaking Bad. Now there’s a hit.

Look at India though.

Many movies from Tamil movie industry (not those North Indian Hindi morons - Bollywood) is delightful. Because India has so many languages, so many classes of society and culture - they mine stories from them and keep people still interested (though the penetration of Hollywood and world cinema has impacted them too).

Ex: A recent movie was made where an unconventional story was told like – the story of two people whose job it is to cry at funerals of rich people. You know rich people are averse in showing their sorrow, so they hire these professionals to give the funeral some gravitas. These two kids from lower class of society meet at a funeral, fall in love and then story goes on with minute details about how funerals are conducted across various cultures in India being told hilariously along with the budding romance….

Can that type of story come from USA where everyone’s work-culture-habits are almost similar hence the movies and sitcoms too are all similarly uni-dimensional?

Karl said...


I read your blog daily, but rarely comment. Did want to chime in on the complaints about the political opinions you offer. Do I always agree with those opinions? Sometimes I do, but sometimes I don't. Do I want you to stop offering them or to tone them down? No, I don't. They are a part of what make this blog such an accurate reflection of who you are, and I think I would enjoy it less if I started to feel like you were censoring yourself. Not saying things you wanted to say because you were afraid some readers might be offended or might disagree.

Myles said...

Can't speak on his other comments about Trump but nothing he said here isn't fact and hasn't already been said in harsher words by people in his own party. We know longer live in world where people in entertainment hide their views and feelings. To be fair some of us don't have the privilege of being quiet. Plus he's a comedy writer so sharing his POV via jokes is literally what he does for a living. Sometimes those jokes will not work for EVERYONE. Just like 200 people out of 20,000 walked out of Amy Schumer's concert after her Trump jokes. Tis life. "Shake it off." Bigger fish to fry. ☺

Myles said...

Does Scott Baio have a blog? Lol. Jk.

Ben K. said...

I disliked the stories on "Friends" -- the characters all seemed more like collections of tics and neuroses than real people, and they treated each other terribly (especially the supposedly meant-for-each-other Ross and Rachel, who spent years alternately breaking up with each other and then ruining each other's healthier relationships). But I liked the show, for the sole reason that the jokes were funny. The writing was incredibly sharp, and the actors sold them brilliantly. That's what lifted it from an okay show to a great comedy.

And I think that was the main difference between "Friends" and the wannabes, which didn't necessarily have worse set-ups or bad acting. They simply didn't have the laughs.

Colin Blint said...

Ken should say what he wants about Trump, especially after the joke he told to some of his donors, and even they didn't like it. They should have spoken up so people would know who they were dealing with.

"Two old Jews are passing by a church," already they were getting uneasy.
"Sign offers $100 to people who convert. So one says he will go in and they will split the money."
"Goes in, converts, and becomes a Catholic. Comes out, and his friend says 'look at you. So do you have my share?' 'You Jews, always about the money.'"

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

ChipO asked about Multi vs Single Camera formats
I'm not in the biz either so I think I can give you a lay version of Multi/Single cam sitcoms.

Multi Cams, are those shows that use many cameras at the same time. Often they have the feeling of a play, generally have just a few consistent sets, and a Studio Audience.
examples: CHEERS, FRASIER, Everybody Loves Raymond, All in the Family.
MOM, Big Bang Theory.

Single Cams, feel like a film sometimes, more out door sets and often has lots of different views.
examples: M*A*S*H, The Office, Arrested Development, Gilligans Island
The Middle, Modern Family, New Girl.

There are some sitcoms that incorporate both like How I met your mother.

A good contrast in styles is HAPPY DAYS.
Seasons 1-2 were filmed. Single Cam.

Seasons 3- were in front of a studio audience.

VP81955 said...

Never understood the appeal of "Friends," considering it way overrated. I'd rather have another "Frasier" or "Seinfeld," thank you.

Andrew said...

Strange. I was watching the very last episode of Cheers. I'm turning my teen daughter on to the show. And I was shocked to hear Rebecca say this (when she's marrying a plumber): "I shoot for Donald Trump and I end up with Ed Norton."

What a strange world we live in.

Anonymous said...

My 24 year old daughter has just discovered Friends. Gave me a whole new appreciation of the show. Janice B.

MikeN said...

People knew who Ed Norton was back then?

MikeN said...

OK, Cheers has officially become dated because of that Ed Norton comment. It was a reference to a Honeymooners character. I wonder if the actor was named after him.

Diane D. said...

Let me just add something about single/multi cam shows from another person not in the business. I have had it explained a couple of times, but I have never heard anything that I think would make a nickle's worth of difference to me EXCEPT, an audience. I love hearing an audience laugh in a sitcom. It gives the feeling of a shared experience, like a play.
Obviously with multi cam you can't have remote locations or lots of sets, but that matters not at all to me.

It's my understanding that single camera is considered more artistically sophisticated, and I don't know why except it is torture for the actors, who have to shoot scenes over and over and over. With mulicam they can shoot several angles at once. The only things that matter to me are the writing, casting, acting, a beautiful set and beautiful lighting. There is much more to it than that however, and I bow to the artists' superior taste---I just don't get it myself. It's funny though, those same artists worship sitcoms from the 60's and 70's, which I have trouble watching, no matter how funny, without getting nauseated because of the brightly lit stages that are completely without nuance.
Sorry this is so long.

MikeN said...

Andrew, Check this out:


Unknown said...

Copy that!

Tyler said...

I don't understand the complaints about Mr. Levine's political opinions. This is *his* blog. The very purpose of its existence is for him to say what he wants, and to talk about what he wants to talk about.

Andy Rose said...

Multi-cam is basically an aesthetic holdover from the days of live TV. Notice there is no real multi-cam version of a movie, since they started out in the single-cam format. But with both multi-cam television and single-cam cinema, you get the full communal audience experience. That doesn't exist in contemporary single-cam TV.

While single-cam allows for greater intimacy, the irony is that the added realism also takes away a bit of the connection between the audience and performer. When you're watching live theater, you can't help but be constantly aware of the fact that the characters aren't real people... there are human actors playing roles in front of you. Some of that translates over to the similar staging of multi-cam TV. The unrealistic sets, the self-conscious pausing for laughter. You're not 100% immersed in Sam Malone; it's Ted Danson playing Sam Malone. So if you, for instance, personally like Jennifer Aniston, you not only connect to Rachel Greene as a character, but also Aniston as a performer. That doesn't happen so much in contemporary single-cam. I never actively think, "Boy, Patty Heaton is just killing it as Frankie on this episode." When I watch The Middle, it's a more passive experience. I think that may account for why many people seemed to conflate Heaton with her fussy character on Everybody Loves Raymond (multi-cam), but people don't seem to do that with her similar character on The Middle.

(By the way, I don't think this analysis really applies to older single-cam shows. TAGS, Leave it to Beaver, Car 54, and so on carried on the multi-cam aesthetic even though they were single-cam shows. Shooting in that format allowed them 360-degree camera blocking and location shoots, but the sets were still simple and they had laugh tracks.)

VP81955 said...

Anna Faris, whose experience with sitcoms was minimal before "Mom" (although she guested on a few of the later "Friends" episodes), has said she's come to love the multi-cam format and the interaction with an audience.

Andrew said...

MikeN, thanks for the link to the Dilbert cartoon (from 1990?! God I'm old.) It's even weirder considering how much Scott Adams has been writing about Trump the past few months.

If you had told me in the 1990's that I might one day vote for Hillary Clinton for president, I would have told you that you were 100% insane. Absolutely no way. How dare you even suggest such a thing, you SOB? And now... well I guess times change.

Diane D. said...

That was a lovely discussion of multi/single-cam television, Andy Rose, and very helpful to those who are not insiders in this business. ChipO's point is important---almost no one outside the business has any idea what the difference is between multi or single-cam shows.

Jonathan Ernst said...

@roadgeek - Are you seriously a Trump supporter asking for a safe space? Is this irony lost on you?