The Big Four On The Floor: How to Revitalize Network Television
Fewer events in entertainment deliver a stronger, more consistent gut punch to modern television fans than the network upfronts. Each May, the Big Four gather in a swank Manhattan venue (while the CW rents a room at Trenton's finest Motel 6) to enthusiastically reveal a suite of shiny new shows they just know will lead to high ratings, increased ad dollars, and more pop culture mindshare. A year later they're back on stage peddling their same stale wares in the hopes that this batch of babies proves a little less hideous than the ones they birthed 12 months before.
Like long-suffering Cleveland Browns supporters, each year we the TV fan fool ourselves into thinking things will be different. And each year it ends with us throwing Beast Ice cans at the screen, baffled as to how any organization with these resources could possibly be so incompetent. It's not merely the disappointment that's so maddening, but the inventive manner in which it's executed. Fantastic ideas sabotaged by slapdick writing. Quality shows aborted before they have a chance to blossom. Lucy isn't content to simply yank the football away; she must then set it on fire and rifle it into a barn full of sleeping children.
Today's networks are coolly efficient factories of sadness, reliably excreting bland, disinteresting offerings with little discernable appeal to anyone who demands the slightest morsel of intelligence or originality in their programming. Medical procedural. Legal procedural. Police procedural. Rinse, repeat, stab me in my eyes via my asshole. Pretty soon some coked-out exec is going to quit screwing around and just combine them all into one mutant superseries: "Next on CBS, can Lieutenant Bryce Lacrosse, M.D. save the life of a lawyer he shot in the line of duty? Find out on an all-new episode of 'Coptor,' followed by the season premiere of 'Survivor: Chlamydia.'"
The most infuriating part is that these repeated actions aren't successful. As cable and premium channels continue to gobble up the awards, bandwidth and viewers, the networks double down on dookie. Oh, serials account for every Best Drama Emmy since 2000? Order more procedurals, now! It's like drafting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan 10 years in a row knowing full well what you're going to get each time.
The causes are rather obvious. Far more interesting are the solutions. If motivated, networks could restore their reputation among younger, cultured, spend-happy TV viewers in two or three years. Some of the solutions are rather obvious, others more complex and risky. None are easy or cheap. But with cable networks siphoning off more and more viewers from the network tank every year, the choice is either adapt or die.
1. Take Calculated Risks
Television, like the NFL, is a copycat league. Find a formula that works, bend it over the Xerox, and go to town. Eventually these inbred spawn reproduce to the point where they overwhelm the landscape like a virus, transforming primetime network television into a Superfund site of procedurals and reality shows.
The proliferation of cable networks proves there's a huge demand for alternatives. "Mad Men," "Justified," "Game of Thrones," and "Breaking Bad" all set personal ratings records with their most recent seasons. At last glance, none of those shows were procedurals in the cop/doctor/lawyer triumvirate (call "Justified" a cop show and I'll take all four of your kidneys). Outside of "Thrones," there's absolutely no reason the rest of those series couldn't live on broadcast television. All it takes is an executive willing to carve out a new identity.
There's a difference between a risk and a calculated risk. "The Neighbors," ABC's galactically derided fall sitcom about an American family living in a community populated with aliens ("IS IT A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT MY TOWN?!" Sheriff Joe Arpaio screamed while bulldozing a taco stand), is the worst kind of gamble imaginable, the equivalent of raping a tiger cub in front of its mother while wearing a meat suit. Not only does it appear to be a terrible sitcom, but the negative buzz dilutes whatever comedy brand identity ABC has managed to cultivate through the successes of "Modern Family," "Happy Endings," and "Suburgatory."
That said, the Alphabet also boasts the best example of intelligent risk taking to emerge from the upfronts. "Last Resort," a Crimson Tide-meets-"Lost" hybrid from "The Shield" showrunner Shawn Ryan, is easily the ballsiest new broadcast drama of the fall. It casts the always fascinating Andre Braugher as a rouge nuclear sub captain who creates a sovereign island nation after disobeying questionable orders to unleash nuclear armageddon on Pakistan. Yeah, OK, I'm all in on that. This is the exact type of show that will pull in fans of the aforementioned cable standouts. At the very least they'll check out the premiere (which is on a Thursday at 8 pm for some reason). Unfortunately, that's only half the battle.
2. Cultivate a stable of smart, talented writers
Rejuvenation depends on more than concepts. Take a trio of cautionary tales from last season - "Smash," "The River" and "Terra Nova." All three boasted unique ideas, but the results ranged from disappointing to flat-out embarrassing. The heavily hyped "Smash" premiere rode its "Voice" lead-in to a 3.8 rating in the first half hour, but viewers soured on the saccharine show almost immediately and it lost over a million viewers by its 11 pm conclusion. Its finale limped in with a 1.9 rating, receiving a second-season order only by virtue of airing on last-place NBC. No better was "The River," an eight-episode jungle horror drama from Oren Peli designed to capitalize on the cockroachian found-footage craze. Unfortunately, while the characters found both the footage and Bruce Greenwood, no one managed to locate a writer with storytelling ability beyond that of an alcoholic sea turtle. It will not be missed.
And then there's "Terra Nova," a Lucifer-affirming fiasco that managed to do the impossible: make me hate dinosaurs. To this day I giggle maniacally when filling up my gas tank, high on the knowledge that the liquefied organs of some triceratops will power my car for the next week. Fuck you; I hope the asteroid landed on your back. Only a network could turn a massively budgeted show about future humans coexisting with dinosaurs into an insipid Lifetime wannabe that pleased zero of the four quadrants. Naturally, the TV industry drew all the wrong lessons from "Terra Nova's" cancellation, claiming it was too ambitious to ever succeed. Blow me. Its premiere was the most popular new drama of the 2011 season. People wanted to watch. Its writers just made it mentally and physically taxing to do so.
Networks need strong creative hands on the tiller to ensure cutting-edge concepts translate into a coherent series. By my count there are just two elite drama showrunners left on a broadcast payroll - Ryan, and Jason Katims. The rest have fled to more respectable pastures. Matthew Weiner, Graham Yost, Frank Darabont, Aaron Sorkin, Armando Iannucci, Vince Gilligan, Lena Dunham, Adam Reed, Terence Winter - there's no reason these visionaries couldn't be on the front lines of a broadcast resurgence. Well, maybe not Armando "Croissant Dildo" Iannucci. Finances? Please. Networks got coin like Scrooge McDuck. For all the hay made about "Game of Thrones'" budget (around $6.5 million per episode), the average network drama costs about $3 million. And that's for 20-24 episodes. Besides, networks still secure higher ad rates than their cable counterparts. Money is not the problem. Convincing talents of this caliber that their vision will not be compromised is. The only way to do that is to foster an environment where creativity and risk-taking is the norm. Lay that foundation and the talent will come.
(It's worth stressing that revolutionary ideas aren't a prerequisite for success. The ground-breaking hook behind the best drama on broadcast TV, "Parenthood," is "Hey, check out this loving ordinary family." Strong writing still pays more dividends than avant-garde ideas).
3. Embrace Shorter Series
How networks haven't yet boarded this train is beyond me. Probably because it makes too much sense. The adoption of 10- to 13-episode seasons is one of the biggest reasons behind the recent success of cable dramas. On the creative side it allows for focused storytelling, brisk plots and higher caliber actors (less of a time commitment on their end). And execs should love it because shorter series are cheaper to produce and allow them to take more risks on less traditional ideas, thus improving their odds of finding a winner. Strike oil in this format and there's suddenly three or four seasons worth of content instead of two. Think the "Revenge" showrunners wouldn't have snatched that lifeline had it been extended? After it became a hit, ABC ordered Mike Kelley to fashion nine more scripts to fill out a 22-episode season. Not coincidentally, "Revenge" turned into a full-blown soap during the latter half of its run, piling up so many absurd twists the whole show nearly swallowed its own tail.
You don't make pulled pork by throwing a slab of meat into a scalding pot and twisting the stove burner to the max. It has to simmer on low for hours and hours until it transforms into a delicious meal. Give producers the time to develop, tweak, revise and nurture their ideas. It'll pay off. And while we're on the subject of shorter series...
4. Bring Back the Event Miniseries
The highest-rated cable telecast of all time is "Hatfields and McCoys." Think about that for a second. A half-assed three-part miniseries starring Stephen Baldwin's arch enemy and Private Hudson as the patriarchs of two feuding families attracted over 40 million total viewers to the History Channel. Again, there's no reason this couldn't have aired on broadcast television. Networks pioneered the miniseries in the late 70s and embraced wholeheartedly for more than two decades. Why abandon it? The Big Four should dedicate $100 million at the beginning of the year for two event miniseries, then let their marketing departments completely off the chain. Hype the ever-living shit out of these things and deliver a product that actually backs it up. There's no way that doesn't get the Internet buzzing and eyes on sets.
Want some ideas? There's never been a great Revolutionary War epic. Make one. Use David McCullough's "1776" as a guide. Also, option "Manhunt" by James L. Swanson. If you can't find a way to turn Lincoln's assassination and subsequent search for the killers into riveting six-hour television, you're beyond help. Shit, make Booth a vampire if you have to. ABC, you know you'll never be able to quit Stephen King adaptations. He's recently written two legit novels in "Under The Dome" and "11/22/63." Develop them both. Thought-provoking sci-fi will always have an audience. Use the full $100 million to bring the first book of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy to life. If it works there are two more waiting in the wings.
Network television should never be threatened with the prospect of becoming immaterial. Yet here they sit, poised on the precipice of irrelevance. CBS can cling to antiquated ratings models all it likes to justify its suite of procedurals and mildly racist laugh-track comedies, but if and when the metrics ever change the Eye almost certainly moves to the rear of the broadcast centipede. This isn't just NBC's problem. The Big Four should all be trying to improve. Partly because it makes solid long-term business sense, but mostly because networks are treasured institutions that should set the bar everyone else has to clear. They're responsible for such American classics as "Cheers," "Homicide," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M.A.S.H," "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Taxi," "The West Wing," "Lost" and dozens more. They deserve better than to fizzle out under an avalanche of reality show drivel and third-tier scripted series. Yes, they caused it. But they can also dig themselves out. Be bold. Separate from the pack. Experiment. See what happens. Bowie will never be MJ. The sooner that's clear, the faster they can discover the next LeBron.
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