Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Questions

Hello from Saratoga Springs, NY where I’m excited to see my new play, OUR TIME at the Saratoga Art Center tonight at 8:00. Not sure if it’s sold out, but if not, come join us.

But no matter where I am in the world I always answer Friday Questions. Here are this week’s:

David Schwartz starts us off:

Why is it that some shows never get a real chance on a network? What I mean by this, is that there are times shows clearly premiere at a time when the network can't help but realize that no matter how good the show may be, it's not going to do well on the air.

For example, I worked on an Ann Jillian show called "Jennifer Slept Here" in the 1980's. It aired on the half-hour and its lead in was a show called "Mr. Smith," which featured an orangutan as the lead character. Anyway, that show premiered a few weeks before "Jennifer Slept Here," and got bad ratings. The competition during that hour were two hit shows, "The Dukes of Hazard" and "Webster" on the other networks. So they premiere the orangutan show a few weeks earlier than "Jennifer Slept Here." It does poorly. Then they premiere "Jennifer Slept Here" on the half hour after much of the audience has already decided they ain't watching "Mr. Smith."

How in the world did NBC expect "Jennifer Slept Here" to get any kind of decent ratings under those circumstances? Could anything? Why would NBC allow a show to premiere where it would be nearly impossible to make an impact and then not give it a chance in a time slot where it could actually succeed?

Yes, networks do this. If for any reason a network stops believing in a show they will bury it. Sometimes they bought shows that just fulfilled commitments and those too they’ll burn off.

The good news today is that scheduling, although important, is no longer vital for a show’s success. Good word of mouth can really help. People can record shows so those shows still might find an audience and catch on.

How and when a network launches a show is another factor. If you’re a new CBS comedy and you don’t premiere behind THE BIG BANG THEORY you’re going to have a much softer debut.

On the other hand, if a network likes a show (or OWNS a show) it will change its time slot four times, promote it heavily, throw money at it for stunt casting, whatever it has to do. NBC did that originally with WILL & GRACE.   But if the show is out of favor, there are a hundred ways a network can kill it. Poor Jennifer never had a “ghost” of a chance. (I’ll take a moment for you to groan then move on.)

Karan G. asks:

Having never been in show business, I don’t have a grasp of the industry language. (Please forgive my stumbling in my attempt to ask a question.) Often referred to as the guys “in the suits” who green-light a project at a network etc., how often do these guys come from the “creative” side of things, or are their qualifications to choose a show and it’s potential success essentially no better than an astute consumer of entertainment (i.e. essentially the rest of us)? I assume they have a background in budgets, finance and potentially marketing. What qualifications should they have in your estimation? (It may or may not be resume qualifications as much as intellect or personality traits.) I assume politics, as always, plays a role. I suppose it is akin to the record business in picking a hit record. Any thoughts?

There have been occasions where writers/directors/producers have become network executives. At one time Barbara Corday, who co-created CAGNEY & LACY was the head of comedy development at ABC. Michael Zinberg, one of TV’s best hour-long directors, became the head of comedy development for NBC for a spell.

But it’s somewhat rare because creative people would rather MAKE the shows. Network jobs are corporate jobs. It’s a different mindset, a different set of skills. I wouldn’t want one of those jobs (I probably wouldn't be very good at one of those jobs).

And often times the people in those positions are not really qualified to make creative decisions. They do come from business or legal backgrounds. It’s very easy to just say these suits are idiots, but they’re not. Most are highly educated, very bright people, excellent in other aspects of their job, just not on the creative side.

It’s like I know a lot about baseball, having broadcast it for years on the Major League level. But I couldn’t be a scout. I can’t evaluate players to such an extent that an organization could make their selections based on my recommendations. Same thing in TV.

That said, there are always exceptions. Brandon Tartikoff, Grant Tinker, Fred Silverman, and I would probably throw in Les Moonves are suits who also have creative savvy. And I’m sure there are others I’m unintentionally omitting.

From Jeff:

Ken, I'd love to hear your opinion on the old adage "ideas are a dime a dozen". I personally find it insulting. While I agree that execution is imperative, without a solid idea to begin with there is nothing to work with. I look at a lot of recent comedy pilots as an example. Either the idea completely bizarre, like a cartoon father in the real world (see: Son of Zorn) or it is same old same old (i.e. adult children move in with their aging parents, see: pretty much every new comedy the past 2 years). I would personally preach, shitty ideas are a dime a dozen, but quality ideas with a good hook are rare. Your thoughts?

Ideas ARE very important. But to me execution is MORE important. What good is a good idea if botched in the execution? Meanwhile, a so-so idea handled really well can result in a good product.

How many shows have there been about people in a bar? Hand that premise to the Charles Brothers and you have CHEERS.

But good ideas are hard to come by, and when I back into one I am always thrilled.

And finally, two quick FQ's from Richard:

What character was your favorite to write?

What character did you write that most closely compares to you?

My favorite character was Lawrence Bourne III – Tom Hanks in VOLUNTEERS. He was smart, arrogant, cowardice, deceitful, condescending, and charming as hell. He was comedy gold. Drop him in any situation and there was fun to be had.

I wish the closest character to me was Hawkeye or Sam Malone, but in all honesty it was probably Marshall on BIG WAVE DAVE’S, although Adam Arkin played me way better than I could play me.

What’s your Friday Question?


Andrew said...

CAGNEY & LACY was a comedy?! Now I get it! I'll have to rewatch.

Trent said...

My favorite character was Lawrence Bourne III – Tom Hanks in VOLUNTEERS. He was smart, arrogant, cowardice, deceitful, condescending, and charming as hell. He was comedy gold.

He was very much like the kind of character Bob Hope usually portrayed in his movies.

Unknown said...

Remembering the season of Mr. Smith/Jennifer Slept Here:

What I recall of the pre-season publicity push that NBC put on that year was that they were convinced that Mr. Smith was going to be the breakout smash of the season.
You couldn't turn on your kitchen tap without getting a Smith promo (OK, not that bad, but close).
One stunt I recall was a phone-in promo, where you called a 1-900 number to get a message from "Mr. Smith" (the voice of producer/writer Ed. Weinberger); this apparently drew a lot of telephone traffic (and this was long before texting), enough that NBC had to change messages a couple of times.
Publicity stunts like this have a long (and rarely remembered) history of backfiring.
In the case of Mr.Smith, it could be said that the audience got bored with it before it even got on the air.
And Jennifer Slept Here?
Collateral damage; if NBC had promoted Ann Jillian ahead of the orangutan, they might have gotten a different result (or not; who knows?).

Ed. Weinberger (mentioned above) has collaborated with Ed Asner on a new (and surprisingly unheralded) book called The Grouchy Historian, which attempts to explain the United States Constitution so clearly that even I can understand it.
I found it in a Barnes & Noble here in Chicago earlier this week; I had no idea it was even forthcoming.
Well, now all of you know about it, so my work is done ...

VP81955 said...

IIRC, Dwayne Hickman ("Dobie Gillis") later was a CBS comedy executive for a number of years, although I'm not certain what sort of influence he wielded.

BTW, I'm sure Ken's been to Grand Central Market downtown at least once. Today marks its 100th birthday, and there are plenty of centennial festivities, including free rides on nearby Angels Flight.

Jeff said...

Roger Ebert used to say something like, "A movie isn't about what it's about. It's about how it's about it." (I'm sure he phrased it better.) Even the most hackneyed idea can be executed in such a way that you want to see it.

I remember realizing as a kid that some of my favorite shows were the ones that were able to drop whatever central premise or gimmick got them on the air, and just tell another story with those characters.

Thomas Mossman said...

I first heard of JENNIFER SLEPT HERE after reading the book What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Moments in Television History. The show itself wasn't singled out so much as that it was part of NBC's Fall 1983 lineup, of which every single new show (including the notorious MANIMAL,"helped" by David Letterman's mocking of it) failed to last longer than a single season.

Cowboy Surfer said...

AMC buried the final season of Halt and Catch Fire to Saturday nights. Nice having the DVR these days.

For me Halt was a borderline prestige show so I saved them for Sunday nights. The creators did a pretty good job wrapping up the show and stuck the landing.

It's OK Ken, we all wanted to be Hawkeye or Malone, oh wait and BJ McKay...

Anonymous said...

I recall Jennifer Slept Here....and liked it too..sad that it didn't last long...and I actually recall the theme song...does that make me weird?

Unknown said...

Somewhere at this moment, someone who worked on Manimal is complaining that they never gave that show a fair shake... it's lead-in was the sitcom about the boy who fell in love with a ghost, for petesakes!

Frank Beans said...

I'm just glad that anyone else remembers JENNIFER SLEPT HERE. I haven't thought about that show much in over 30 years, but I did watch it as a kid, and thought it was very smart and funny (such as my critical faculties were). I had friends who would imagine scenarios where we would talk about inhabiting other people's bodies, and what we would make them do.

So, sometimes good but obscure TV shows aren't wasted on bright 8-year-olds. But then there was MANIMAL...

Mr. Teach said...

Hmm..who came first, Lawrence or Jason Bourne! Are they related? How about a brother comedy with the two of them? Just spit-balling here...

YEKIMI said...

Well since my earlier Friday question got partially answered in this week's Friday questions, I'll ask this one instead. Are there any long cancelled shows that you think would actually work today? In other words, if a show that bombed in the 70/80/90s was brought forward to today, do you think it would work nowadays? I sort of ask this because there are shows on some of those decade channels [Antenna TV, Cozi, etc.] that I enjoy now but would have never watched them back when I was in my teens or early 20s.

mike said...

Hello, Ken,
I quite enjoy the blog and even comment once in a while, being sure to leave my name as I stand by my opinions. As a fan of the National Pastime and a voracious reader and book collector I loved 'It's Gone, No, Wait a Minute' and I wonder if I sent it along to you (with a postpaid return envelope, of course) would you kindly sign it for me? Also, why is your daughter Diana in the book and Annie now?

MikeN said...

Friday Question, are networks making a mistake in only putting last 5 shows in On Demand?
I think they are losing potential new viewers for serial shows by not having them from the beginning. What is the source of this 5 episode limit?

Mitchell Hundred said...

I've heard the saying "You can make a good movie out of anything" from one or two movie critics (by which I presume they mean any concept, not any performance or any material). Do you believe that this same maxim can be applied to TV, and if not, why not?

Hank Gillette said...

Cowardice is not an adjective. Just saying.

Hank Gillette said...

IIRC, Dwayne Hickman ("Dobie Gillis") later was a CBS comedy executive for a number of years, although I'm not certain what sort of influence he wielded.

In his autobiography, Hickman said that he was given oversight of several shows and that his job was to read the scripts and make suggestions. He said that he would indicate to the writers (or showrunner) that the script for a comedy was not funny enough or that a drama script was not dramatic enough.

So, basically, he got paid to tell the creative team on shows to “Be more funny!” or “Be more dramatic!”.

Andy Rose said...

Mr. Belvedere was a show that top ABC execs reportedly were embarrassed by and did little to help succeed. I read that one of the producers stopped by ABC headquarters once and discovered that there was a promotional poster in the hallways for every single primetime show -- even the brand-new ones -- EXCEPT Mr. Belvedere. But the show managed to stick around for six seasons. That was due in part to the fact that, when other shows were cancelled, it proved to be very easy to drop in some Mr. Belvedere reruns until they could decide on a permanent replacement.

Diane D. said...

So you're Marshall on BIG WAVE DAVE'S? I would have thought you were the male version of Nancy Travis on ALMOST PERFECT!
I never remember seeing, on any other show, a scenario even similar to the one on BIG WAVE DAVE'S; it was hilarious and fascinating. I wondered how you came up with those priceless characters---now I know where one came from! I hope some day I will get to see all the episodes of that show.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I've mentioned before that the TV version of "The Paper Chase"--perhaps the most acclaimed series of the 1978-79 season--quickly succumbed after CBS scheduled it opposite "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley."

Fortunately, Showtime picked up "Paper Chase" several years later, and the series enjoyed a few more seasons.

Edward said...

@MikeN...Most likely to not have the syndication/streaming value of the shows diminished if every episode was available all the time for free.

CRL said...

Fans of this blog might remember an earlier appearance by Jennifer Slept Here star John P. Navin.

Johnny Walker said...

Did my last comment not come through (or was it too contentious?). Blogger is behaving strangely on my phone and not allowing me to login.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

The TV version of "The Paper Chase"--perhaps the most acclaimed series of the 1978-79 season--met a quick death after CBS scheduled it opposite "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley."

Fortunately, Showtime picked up "Paper Chase" several years later and breathed new life into it for a few more seasons.

Al Leos said...

Andy Rose, you've got a great memory! Bob Uecker himself in a TV Guide interview mentioned the same thing, that ABC execs were embarassed by the show and that Uecker himself didn't know when it would be scheduled.

Carl H. said...

Fans of this blog might remember an earlier appearance by Jennifer Slept Here star John P. Navin.

Are you referring to his appearance in the first episode of CHEERS, as the underage youth who tries, unsuccessfully, to get a beer out of Sam?

AJ Ford said...

Wish I saw this yesterday. I am in SS for a conference and would have loved to go. Unfortunately, I head home today.
Best of luck!

Johnny Walker said...

I think the best "executive" story I've heard might remain Dan Harmon's. It's still a classic and really appears to give a window into what you might face as a writer. His comments on executives in general start at 45 mins in, and the story itself at 47:

As for the originality vs execution debate, I'm firmly in the execution camp. Having spent some years in the the startup world, my barometer for how clueless an entrepreneur might be is to simply ask: "What your great business idea?" If they say, "Oh! I can't tell you! You might steal it!", I know they are absolutely and utterly doomed.

I guess it might be different with writers discussing script ideas, but I'm guessing not. It's all about execution, not the surprise -- no amount of originality guarantees success. I bet writers discuss their ideas openly and freely, not least to gauge reactions to them.

After all, if you suspect that your competition could easily beat you if they had the same idea as you, then you're in a very weak position. If Charlie Kaufman told you he was writing a script about people finding a portal into John Malkovich's brain, and you decided to steal it, do you think that your version would be a patch on his? There's only one Charlie Kaufman. His voice is what what makes him what he is.

Your skill and talent are what you have to offer, not something you could scribble on a napkin. You should be striving to be the best at what you do, not hope to luck out on a good idea.

Liggie said...

I understand this is on the insistence of Netflix. It would lower the bingability of shows there if more of the current season were up on network on demand.

Liggie said...

I remember seeing "Jennifer Slept Here" and thinking Ann Jillian was far better than the material. There was a good joke one episode where Jennifer's former lover visited the house. John P. Navin's teenaged character asked something like, how close were you? Said Jennifer, "If our life together was a movie, you wouldn't be allowed to see it."

I also remember thinking Navin looked a lot like thd young John Cusack back then.

Cameron K. said...

My Friday question: It might be something you prefer not to delve into, but I’d be interested in your insight into what it is about Hollywood that allowed Harvey W. to ply his trade for so long.

I imagine some agent getting a call and Harvey saying, “I like that actress you recommended. I’m looking at her photos right now. How about you send her over to my hotel room for an audition.” You’d think any sane agent would say, “Hey Harv, it’s not 1950. I’m not sending my client to your hotel room. Let’s have the audition on set, shall we?” Now let’s assume every agent in Hollywood is as thick as a brick and thinks sending an actress to a producer’s home for a one-on-one audition is kosher. These women must have been coming back from their meetings with horror stories, their agents clue in, and they start warning actresses not to be alone in a room with Harvey. You’d think H.W.’s reputation would have been put through the meat grinder and his business would have been decimated 20 years before any of this hit the press.

What the Harvey W. story tells me is that Hollywood has hundreds if not thousands of people who were complicit in propping up his reputation and covering up his lechery. Agents must have been knowingly sending in their clients to get molested and raped for the sake of everyone’s career. For decades. And I don’t buy this “He was a powerful man” narrative. Harvey had to go through people to access the women he harassed, and they must have known. Most other industries weed these people out silently before they can commit their worst crimes. Why didn’t Hollywood?

Johnny Walker said...

@Cameron It's not uncommon for meetings/interviews to take place in hotel rooms during festivals. Maybe that's what it was? I can't imagine it happened in Los Angeles, or anywhere he had an office? Not sure though.

lauramcc said...

Hi Ken,

Saw your play in Saratoga Friday. Sorry I didn't get a chance to say hello after. I've been reading for years and really enjoy your blog. Also, have to say, you're taller in person!

littlejohn said...

Friday Question:


I was in the middle of sending a similar question as Karen G, with a slight twist. Assuming the "suits" earned their positions, here is what I don't understand. Usually that side of the business is focused on making money, so here I what I don't understand . Rather than trying to nit pick every single thing, why wouldn't the suits hire the best talent they can, support them, and get out of the way ?

For example, if I were the head of a studio, I would look at someone like you & David, who have been involved with some of the most successful shows in television history. How are you two not badgered non stop by suits trying to get you to work for them ? Analyzing it from a money perspective, would you rather place your money bet on a known, successful creative team, or some unknown ? The constant churning for "new" doesn't seem to recognize that talent associated with Mash, Cheers, Frazier, et al might be able to come up with another "new" idea that would work ??