Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What I miss

Nowadays TV shows are “dropped” (as the expression goes). All of a sudden 13 episodes of your series appears on Netflix. What you don’t get is “opening night.”

There are still opening nights on broadcast networks. But even then, the episodes are immediately available on other platforms, and depending on the network, time slot, and promotion – you may draw a ridiculously small audience.

Ah, but “back in the day” (which always struck me a stupid expression), audiences flocked to see new shows because their only means of TV entertainment was live TV.

And for me getting a show on the air was not just a feat, it was magical.

Think about it…

David Isaacs and I dream up an idea. We toss it around, see if it has legs, see if it’s something we’d like to be doing for five years, etc. If we decide to commit to it we then pitch it to the only three buyers there are out there.

One buys it. Hooray!

We dream up characters, we stockpile future stories, we write a pilot. Now this idea of ours is on paper. There’s a cover with the studio logo. It’s a “thing.”

After who-knows-how-many drafts the network gives us the go-ahead to make it. We now cast the show and assemble a crew. The idea in our head has sprouted a giant soundstage, complete with sets. Forty guys named Dave are running around hanging lights and painting flats. Now it’s really a “thing.

The pilot gets made, we fly back to New York, miraculously get it on the schedule, and then really go to work. For the next five months we put together the writing staff, and completely immerse ourselves in the show. Scripts are written, episodes are filmed and edited.

And finally, on a night sometime in September, the show is slated to premier. We have an opening night party. And that’s when the excitement builds. Multiple TV monitors are set up (usually in a restaurant) and the countdown begins. Being on the West Coast the show is delayed three hours and already I’m getting calls from friends and family who watched it back east.

Now it’s 2 minutes to air. People start gathering around the TV’s. They turn the sound up. Commercials air. Getting close now. And then station ID. That’s when it really hits me. Holy shit! I’m on CBS.

Then the show begins, usually to huge applause from those of us who work on it. And for the first time there are our sets and actors exposed to the world. By now I’ve watched countless roughcuts. But now the entire country is seeing it. And since this is before all the other viewing options, that probably means 20,000,000 people. That kernel of an idea is now a national TV show.

I would hope that in some form or fashion producers of today’s debuting shows get that thrill. Many shows today are shown in relative obscurity. And yet those involved work just as hard and put in just as much time and effort as we did.

When people say “Why do a show on CBS when you can do it on Starz?” – THAT’S why. And it’s only a matter of time before broadcast networks go the way of the dinosaur but it was sure fun while it lasted.


Terrence Moss said...

People talk a lot about broadcast television going away, but I don't see that happening any more than it did with radio.

Besides, I'm already over streaming. I'm im the minorority (in many ways), but I still prefer my old TV shows to those of today -- and over the air.

Mike McCann said...

We actually lose something in today's world of unlimited video (and audio) choice. The urge to build consensus is minimized.

It's awfully hard to build momentum when you're no longer competing against two other networks (and maybe a local indy station airing a ballgame). I suspect that sports analogy fits the situation -- you were battling two other foes to win more eyeballs. Like a game, there was strategy, execution and avoidance of errors.

Most of us love to compete. We want to finish "first." Doing it when there aren't just two or four opponents changes the entire playing field.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

You still get opening night. Jane Fonda talks in one of her interviews about her shock when the first season of GRACE AND FRANKIE dropped - she and Tomlin did a load of interviews in NYC and then she got back on the plane to LA. By the time she turned on her phone at the end of the flight, not only were there fans who had watched the whole thing but there were detailed discussions and reviews going on. From the sounds of it, it's as close to live theater as you can get on a it-used-to-be-small screen.

*And* you get time to write the episodes before filming starts, so hopefully fewer late nights...


James said...

You dream up an idea. You get the studio bosses to greenlight it. You take it to a network and they buy it. You make a pilot. It sells. You get a 13 week commit and everyone figures they'll pick up the back 13 while you're still shooting Episode 3. You clear off shelf space for your Emmys.

It's 1972. It's NBC. You find out you're scheduled opposite ALL IN THE FAMILY. Most people who saw your show had two televisions side-by-side, or they watched it on reel-to-reel videotape at the TV station.

A lot of good shows died because there were only 3 networks, and the networks had a habit of scheduled good shows against each other to try and knock each other off, and the show that got bad ratings suddenly got the stench of death around it, and got moved to Saturday nights at 10, because even though it was a good show, it's a zombie now and just filling time until next year's wonderful new show is ready to be squashed.

Sorry, I have no nostalgia for the old days of network programming.

Frank Beans said...

"The pilot gets made, we fly back to New York..."

Really? You would trust your life with a pilot that inexperienced?

Roseann said...

I, too, did wardrobe on a TV show that premiered in September with the rest of the new TV shows. Except we were still shooting on the streets of NYC. This was before DVD/tape recording machines. So.... for the first episode we were on the corner of 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and someone hooked up a tv. We waited... and a car commercial or two were first up (I thought that was good to have cars sold on our show-(male demographic is what we were looking for). The the show started... and we were on a high that's for sure. We were lucky it wasn't raining or too cold to stand there and watch the show..... And then it's gone.... Not like today.

Janet Ybarra said...

But I understand Ken's point, and I miss the old rhythm of fall premieres when you were coming out of the summer rerun doldrums---maybe even anticipating the climax to some big season cliffhangers.

Season cliffhangers? What are those anymore?

Johnny Hy said...

Not to mention the excitement we had as viewers seeing the promos in the Summer and then the TV Special they did showcasing all the fall shows on that network.

Ken, a question concerning the end of The Big Bang Theory. It seems from reading in between the lines that everybody except Jim Parsons was on board for another year after this one at least and he torpedoed it by calling it quits after this year. While I'm sure none of the actors or producers will probably have to line up for food stamps, his decision will cost Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki probably around $25m each and the supporting players I would think about $5m each. I can't imagine the set would be a fun happy go lucky place for a little while. What are your thoughts? Also, if I remember correctly, Ted Danson was ready to move on which brought about the end of Cheers. What was the rest of the cast's feelings and was there any initial resentment or disappointment to him? Thanks

VincentS said...

I know it doesn't have the same excitement and cache, but I imagine nowadays producers, writers, actors, etc. of a new show that premiers on these new outlets get texted by friends at various random times congratulating them.

Diane D. said...

Sometimes, Mr. Levine, you write a blogpost that is magical. Most people live their entire lives without experiencing a moment like that.

James said...

I was mistaken. I do miss the cheesy old promos for the new fall schedule.

Janet Ybarra said...

But even with many more networks and streaming providers, good shows are still dying...and for essentially the same reasons: they don't deliver the eyeballs and/or advertising revenue required to turn a profit. It's still a money making enterprise, so in that sense nothing had essentially changed.

Tom Galloway said...

From a viewer perspective, I miss the old Fall Premiere issue(s) of TV Guide. Particularly when growing up pre-Internet in a small town, far from any other real source of information about just what was going to be on that season.

But then the kid in me is still pining for the Sears Wish Book.

Disappointed Viewer said...

I think the broadcast future will more pluralistic. Networks AND streaming AND download AND alternate cable channels. No one method will win, because there's no inherent advantage of one over the other.

If the over-the-air networks want to get a bigger audience to watch what they have, they have to greenlight and make programs people want to watch. REALLY want to watch, like programs that are so good and so memorable that people will stop everything else to watch.

Instead of the just-like-everybody-else drek they put on the air now. Network execs shouldn't be surprised that the audience for "no good" is pretty low.

If they really wanted to gain an audience, they'd do things like having excellent, memorable content available ONLY over-the-air before being available anywhere else.

In these days of CYA through committee decision, I doubt this will happen.

Rich Shealer said...

My favorite show right now is Better Call Saul. If it was dropped on Hulu or Netflix I would binge it. But I'm so glad I can't. I get to savor it and think about it each week. I listen to the Insider Podcast and the It's Saul Good, Man! podcast each week to get those nuances I may have missed.

Some of the comments drive me mad because it moves too slow for some. They are used to binge watching, instant gratification is often a waste.

Kaleberg said...

The networks started moving away from the season thing back in the 1990s. We used to say that the internet was invented so you go online and find out when the next episode of your favorite show was going to be broadcast.

When production was expensive, it made sense to release episodes one at a time. In the 19th century, novels were often first published as series in magazines. Books by Dickens, Verne, Dumas and countless unremembered others were released as serials. The PR opportunities were immense. Verne's 'Around the World in 80 Days' had cruise lines and railroad competing for placement.

I like having video released the way books are released. If a show sounds interesting, I'll buy the DVD set or a season pass. I have only so much time to watch television, so I may as well read the reviews and choose something I'll probably like. There's still a sense of excitement. I eagerly await new releases from my favorite authors and television producers. Maybe it was more fun to dribble things out a few chapters at a time , but once the networks gave up on the idea of same-time, same-channel it was annoying from the consumer's point of view.