Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Network TV, the hungry giants

The best article I ever read about the inner workings of TV production was Minimum Headroom by Benjamin J. Stein, and I read it in the February 1988 issue of Playboy magazine. Yes, you read that right—we do sometimes read it for the articles. Not that I was a Playboy subscriber, but a fellow screenwriter matter-of-factly handed me the article and said, "Read this."

20 years later and all the machinations laid down in Stein's article are still painfully true because the main principles haven't changed: the more people have at risk, the more gunshy they get. TV delivers a weekly product which must deliver on its promise as many as 24 times a year... and some kinds of revenue streams dry up quickly if you lose your audience because you try something nobody has ever done before.

Stein's premise centered around the principle of self-censorship: top network execs want something fresh and original, so they order their assistants to go forth and find a new series, something more like Monty Python or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their assistants may indeed find hundreds of fresh and original scripts, but hesitate recommending the really original stuff for fear the new series is so original that it can't find an audience. Who recommended this steamy turdpile???, a network exec might scream after the show spectacularly flops. And so ends the new career of a rising network exec, punished for following orders to find something fresh and original. Thus, top network execs are only recommended the safer choices, similar remakes of The Cosby Show and Golden Girls. Hesitant to be remembered for backing a series that killed the network, even the top network exec reneges on his promise to provide "fresh and original" programming. The cycle continues.

This is why programming quality on ad-based network TV has taken a nose dive, and subscription-based cable TV has thrived: network TV dies without its advertising so weekly ratings become disproportionately important while cable execs can experiment with more ease of mind.

Consider the immensely clever Firefly, a Joss Whedon creation which could have successfully found a larger following... if only FOX hadn't cancelled it after 13 episodes. Or Tim Minear's (a Firefly co-creator!) more recent series Drive, cancelled after only 4 episodes, again by FOX. By contrast, a series like HBO's Six Feet Under and Deadwood can take risks and not worry about losing too many viewers because truly original programming is what HBO subscribers are expecting. But for network TV, too much is riding on the line... if a series on network TV doesn't look like it's going to find an audience immediately, it gets the axe. Network TV is a hungry giant wandering around for a big meal: a house salad—which is sufficient for many—isn't going to satisfy his mammoth appetite.

This can only end badly. Most of these giants will starve and die off, but some of them will have to learn to live with smaller appetites. This will most likely have a ripple effect for everyone else in the industry—lower salaries for network execs and series creators will spur an exodus to cable networks like TNT and Lifetime, a paucity of network programming will foster more creative advertising and/or more original programming. But who knows how it will finally play out?

Here's a great article that explains why this summer's best TV isn't on the main network channels:

Rick Kushman: Best dramas not on broadcast networks
By Rick Kushman - Bee Columnist
Last Updated 6:49 am PDT Monday, August 20, 2007

This has been some summer for TV dramas.

If you've been watching the broadcast networks, that makes no sense to you. TV's big dogs are twiddling around with game shows and talent contests. But out on cable, and just basic cable, there's some good television going on.

Here's a partial list of the new stuff: "Saving Grace" on TNT; "Damages" on FX; "Mad Men" on AMC; "Burn Notice" on USA; "Army Wives" and "State of Mind" on Lifetime; and "Kill Point" on Spike TV.

And here are some of the stars involved: Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Kim Delaney, Lili Taylor and John Leguizamo.

That doesn't include the continuing cable series airing this summer like TNT's "The Closer" and FX's "Rescue Me." That's about as much excitement as you'll find in the networks' new fall seasons, and the success rate is already way higher. All of the new cable shows are drawing solid ratings or good reviews, and most have been renewed.

And notice what some of these networks are. Lifetime, home of women-in-peril movies and sap. Spike, ground zero for testosterone-fueled anything. Their new shows have the old Lifetime and Spike DNA, but they're still better than anything either network has done in a while.

So, what's going on here?

It all starts with two facts about summer. First, fewer people watch TV when the weather is good and the days are longer. Plus, the networks can't afford to make new scripted dramas and comedies all year long, so summer -- when TV use is down -- seems a good time to bail and go with cheaper game and reality shows.

Cable networks, on the other hand, can live with lower ratings. They spend less on their original shows -- usually that means fewer big-money stars and faster production schedules -- and they air a lot of repeat programming. (They also get revenue from the cable systems, such as Comcast, that carry them, but the class on TV financing is for another day.)

In any case, TNT, USA and the others can survive with smaller audiences. If 3 million or 4 million people watch a basic-cable show, that's a good payday. If 4 million viewers watch "Shaq's Big Challenge," which was about the number for ABC's good-hearted reality series this summer, it's a disaster.

And because the broadcast nets don't air many original dramas in the summer, that lets the cable folks launch their new shows with much less competition.

The last piece of the picture is that the bar has been raised on cable, by shows such as "The Closer" and FX's "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck," by pay-cable channels HBO and Showtime, and by all of the competition out in the culture for viewer attention and entertainment dollars.

"Cable has kind of changed the landscape," Hunter, star of "Saving Grace," told TV critics last month. "It happens to be made for less money. And so risks can be greater because less cash is at risk. And it's not in competition with the networks. So every single thing about it adds up for the people who were wanting to take some chances."

Specifically, that means, say, AMC doesn't have to try to make a show with a broad- enough appeal to draw 10 million-plus viewers. And often, broad appeal means rounding off some of the sharper edges and themes of a series.

Instead, AMC is a smaller cable network that just needs to give people a new reason to tune in, and it's doing that with "Mad Men," a smart, moody period drama about Madison Avenue in 1960.

(The show is averaging a bit more than 1 million viewers, which is still a big increase over anything AMC has aired recently.)

Matt Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," wrote for HBO's "The Sopranos" and told TV critics he believes his show has benefited from the HBO-like patience and creative freedom AMC showed Weiner when he was developing the new series.

"These people, they really like this thing," Weiner said. "They want to do a show based on quality, and when you hear them say the word 'quality,' they're not saying it in that fake way... They really mean it."

Stars such as Hunter, "State of Mind's" Taylor and "Damages' " Close all told critics separately during the TV Critics Association press tour in July that the writing on some cable shows is actually better than anything they're offered in the feature world, and as Close said, it's always a good career move to "go where the writing is."

And because the cable networks are trying to be original and challenging -- to offer something different from the often-safer network fare -- a lot of the new cable dramas feature anti-heroes like Close's and Hunter's characters. And they feature women leads who are over 40 years old or, in Close's case, 60.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big one is that many of the cable shows are just trying to break old molds. Taylor said that television and movies used to work off of basic formulas, which made for simple, unrealistic women characters.

But the demand for better TV forced writers to break out, and female characters became "less two-dimensional and more complicated."

Less two-dimensional and more complicated pretty much describes the entire crop of new cable shows.

Successful is another description, and that's got the broad-cast networks thinking they can't give away their summer audiences much longer.

ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson told TV critics that maybe the networks have to revamp their annual plans: "We'd like to get some original scripted (shows), both drama and comedy, on next summer."

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