Television is a Business You Know: Why the Firing of Dan Harmon is Wrong
This doesn't happen with novels. That's what my initial thought was on Dan Harmon's unceremonious sacking from running "Community," only days after the series managed to win an almost completely unexpected fourth season. There have of course been a lot of pixels spilled on the topic already. Dustin posted Pajiba's initial reaction to Harmon's extended letter detailing the events, the letter which I can't read without thinking of Homer saying "not the way I quit" when it's suggested he might be able to beg for his old job back. And Dustin also wrote over on Warming Glow (he gets around) about Ken Levine's explanation for the firing from a showrunner's point of view.
The backlash has already washed up on shore too, with the response articles rolling their eyes that fans shouldn't get too worked up over it. After all, they did get their fourth season against the odds. Dan Harmon really was a pain in the ass. And somewhere in those responses, there's usually an allusion to ratings, or the lack thereof in the case of "Community." And then there's that inevitable defense of the network: that this is a business.
That's the point that pisses me off. I know that it's a business, I know that the actors, crew, and disposable executives all need their paychecks, and that cameras and sets are not free. I get that if a show doesn't turn a profit, it's not going to stay on the air. I get that a network only has so much money to invest and they naturally prefer to back the projects with higher margins. But there's a difference between artists who forge a business out of their art and businesses that happens to sell art. The former make artistic decisions tempered by business reality, the latter make business decisions tempered by artistic concerns.
Tell an author he'll never be published again, and he'll still sit up nights writing the next novel, even if no one ever reads it. Most novels never break even if you count the hours of time spent writing them, even the successful ones that sell thousands of copies. Musicians are the same way as novelists. So long as an author or musician breathes, they'll still be working on another release. In television, there is a requisite dependence on a company, and once you can't make a living at it, you don't get to make the art anymore. I cannot imagine being an artist in such a medium, in which your ability to make your art is dependent on your ability to be part of the machine. Every artistic impulse rebels against that notion.
But there's also another grating issue with this situation. The true bile is bubbling up not because NBC gave a short order, and I don't think it would have even if the show had just been canceled outright, but because they took away Dan Harmon's creation. Call me old-fashioned or naïve, but I think that when someone creates something, it's theirs, and that it can never be taken away, sold, or otherwise transferred. I understand fully that this doesn't jive with the way property rights actually work, but I see that as a substantial problem. Legal property rights aside, no one else has the moral right to run "Community" without Harmon's assent, just like as far as I'm concerned it is impossible for Paul McCartney to not own a quarter of the Beatles catalog, regardless of how many diamond studded gloves Michael Jackson was willing to pay for it.
Consider this as a thought experiment. Consider Stephen King being kicked off of writing The Dark Tower half way through the series because sales weren't up to par, and that whole cocaine addiction was making him difficult to work with. The publisher brings in James Frey to write the last three books. You're cool with that right? Because, hey what are you going to do? It's a business, you know.
Then maybe it shouldn't be a business at all.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.