Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Proposal To Save Scripted TV! (Warning: Rant Alert)

Forgive me for letting off steam, but I’m pissed. I’m working on developing a TV series with a company, and it is a grand, fun, fulfilling, and educational experience. I’m really having a great time. Yes, you hear the “but” coming a mile away, don’t you?

But--the mindset that rules how TV series operate is crazy making. First, let me make clear, my middle name is not Pollyanna. I have been trying to produce film and TV content for a long time and have been around the block, swum with the sharks, danced with the devil, and shoveled my own share of s@#it to get projects down the road to development. TV exists to sell soap; it is not an instrument of entertainment, it is a sales tool. TV shows are aired by networks to create a reason for people to watch commercials, not because they are pursuing high-art. This is not true for the Internet (yet), but it is the nature of TV. In short, I have no illusions. I really do get it.

But--with that said, why can’t we just let a TV show have it’s natural life span? Why do we have to drag out a series for nine seasons because economically it makes “sense”? My beef with this comes up now because I’m currently beating my head against this wall with my colleagues
. I’m telling them that the show we're trying to put up is a one season killer-diller, any more than that and it will be diluted. They insist it has to “have legs” past one season, otherwise there will be no incentive for the suits and executives to do the show. They simply won’t spend the money if they can’t get it back eight billion fold; meaning the show has to have a multi-season potential.

But--what if it doesn’t? What if it’s just a perfect one-season show? Why can’t it just live its lifespan naturally and die with dignity? Why does it have to go on life support with cranked up subplots, dumb-ass new characters, and forced plot lines? Whatever happened to a dignified death? Well, the answer, of course, is what I’ve just been describing. The damn show is making money! And, actors, directors, writers, etc., are making residuals! The gripe here isn't about making money, residuals, or sheckles. We all want to make more money. The problem is not in what is being made, the problem is in what is not being made! The present industry mindset to "push" a show into extinction vs. limiting a show's life, consciously, to allow room for putting up new and even better shows is the problem. I may be a bonehead for suggesting this, but aren’t we all just drinking the network/advertiser Kool Aid? Isn’t there an alternative? Like a good lawyer, I never ask a question for which I don't know the answer--YES, there is!

But--It will take guts, courage (the two aren’t the same), business savvy, and creative moxie. The solution is to let a show end naturally. Don’t push it, don’t extend it, and don’t put it on life support. If you limit shows to 13 or 26 weeks max, then two things can occur: first, viewers have a truly satisfying experience with the show, because it doesn’t fizzle out and “die” from being forced past it’s natural lifespan. Rather, the show follows its natural course and, like a good book, ends right on time. Viewer is happy, happy, happy. But, advertiser is pissed, pissed, pissed. They’ve just lost a cash cow. Right? Not necessarily.

With shorter series, networks have more space for more shows. With shorter series, more producers get their shows up, more writers are working, more revenue flows, more dollars are out there to buy more soap, and there are more and varied shows on the air to show advertising. Shorter shows don’t have to mean lost revenue. More shows means more creative work is available to be shown. How many great shows never see the light of day simply because networks won’t pull their cash cows from the airwaves to make room for new blood, simply because they are afraid of losing ad dollars? If they are smart (and they are) new product can be put up each season, with more in the pipeline. It can be win-win! If, if, if the creative will is there and the business savvy is in place to make it work. And I believe both those things are out there … somewhere.

But--I hear the wail of despair, “How can we pull performing shows from the air, when they are performing! Are you nuts?” Yes, I am. But that’s beside the point. What I’m suggesting is that even though these shows are performing economically, they probably stopped performing creatively a long time ago. I think that artificially sustaining shows that have died creatively by grasping for new story lines to keep viewer interest only shows that a show has stopped being its intended form and is not being “forced” to keep going despite the fact that it has really ended. Viewers watch anyway, because they’re hooked. That’s a good thing, but why not just hook them on something new, maybe something even better? And in the hooking, more work is generated, more revenue spent, etc., etc., and the great wheel of life in Hollywood continues profitably.

But--I’m not totally pig-headed about this. Seinfeld was the kind of show that could have gone on forever. It’s just the nature of the beast. It wasn’t about anything anyway, so there was not storyline to blow up or mutilate. But, how about Lost, which has been lost for seasons. It was done after its first season. What a perfect example of a show that had nowhere to go after thirteen shows. And then there is Battlestar Galactica, one of the best reborn series in TV history. Three seasons and the producers had the sense to end it. BRAVO! But, it’s spinoff , Caprica, is in the works, so we’ll see. We’ll see.

Be clear that I am not lumping all shows together here. Some shows naturally extend, most don't. What I'm railing against is something like the following:

Cheers, popular 1980s sitcom. Great show, great audience, but as with all great things it started to come to its natural end. But, not wanting to lose the demographic and the time-slot that was generating lots of cash, the producers and network decided to "give the show legs." The decision was made to make a change so they could come up with new story lines to keep their audience. So--what did they do? They had Sam, the womanizing bar-keep fall in love with Diane, the snobbish intellectual waitress. That their mutual antagonism and oil-water banter was the heart of the show, and its success, was of no consequence. Some brilliant exec probably thought, "Hey, if they get on each other's nerves as co-workers, how much more fun will it be if they're boyfriend and girlfriend?" Nice idea, lousy reality. The change altered the show's dynamic and it died faster than the first round Bush bailout bill in Congress today. They killed the show to save it, rather than letting it go out with dignity. This is what I'm talking about ... stupid changes in a show to try to keep it alive. This is the norm, not the exception. This is the problem.

So--To summarize: Shows are like life forms. Some are meant to be Galapagos tortoises (daytime soaps) and live forever, while others are more like a Gastrotrich (multi-cellular bug that lives 3 days). Most shows are more like the Gastrotrich. We can still have profitable shows if we are smart enough to know when a show REALLY needs to die. Viewers can have a better experience, more work will be generated with more slots to fill, more work means more advertising and soap selling, and residuals continue to flow. And creatively things can grow exponentially. It’s a Win Win Win.

But--all the pragmatists and my grounded-in-the-real-world contemporaries out there will, without doubt, come back on all this with, “You’re dreaming! Good luck selling that argument. If they buy this, I’ve got a bridge in Alaska!”

A boy can only dream.

No comments: