How To Save Network TV - Macleans.ca
 

How To Save Network TV


 

We have notes!Josef Adalian talked to a bunch of anonymous “executives and agents” about how to save network TV, and heard five basic suggestions:

1. Stop the obsession on [sic] single-camera comedies and shift to multicamera half-hours.
2. Give creative types a real, substantial stake in their shows.
3. Get rid of at least one layer of network/studio oversight of shows.
4. Step up investment in new technologies.
5. Find a way to better harness talent found on the Internet.

Of these, #1 is a common-sense idea that networks/studios are already starting to follow (having realized yet again that single-camera comedies are more expensive and less popular); # 5 is the type of magic-bullet suggestion that rarely works (it’s a bit like if ’60s TV was trying to save itself by trolling for talent from Theatre of the Absurd); #4 is more of a long-term investment.

That leaves # 2 and # 3 as the most interesting of the bunch, though notice that such suggestions appear to be mostly coming from agents, who want their clients to get more money and influence, rather than network executives, who still haven’t accepted that their own inflated power is doing more harm than good. The fact that every show has to go through multiple notes stages, from multiple executives, is widely known to be a big factor in causing a lot of network TV to be so bland, yet nobody really seems to be able or willing to do anything about it.

Adalian says that “some networks have already done this by merging studio and network operations,” but that may not actually be a big help, since studio notes often tend to be more of the practical kind, helping the producers keep the show on budget. The real problem arguably is that shows have to get several different kinds of network notes, from several different executives. The obvious solution is for networks to go back to the model whereby one executive could make most of the decisions about a particular show; the producers deal with executive X; if he likes them, they go ahead, and if he doesn’t like them, they change stuff. (Producers who were active 20 years ago note that as a big difference between then and now; back then, getting a show made was more a matter of convincing one person, rather than 10.) In a sense what we are seeing now at the networks is not so much a sign of their lack of confidence in TV writer/producers, but their lack of confidence in their executives, the fear of trusting one exec to be responsible for a particular show.

I’m also intrigued by the agent who suggests that it would be cost-efficient for networks to give creators a financial stake in their shows. It’s a self-interested suggestion, obviously, but a plausible one: the huge budget over-runs of today’s network shows might be less huge if the producers had more of a financial interest in making sure the shows come in under budget. I don’t know if I buy it completely, but I applaud the agent for coming up with a way to argue that it’s in the networks’ own self-interest to give the writers a better deal. That’s some good agentin’.

Update: Come to think of it, there is precedent for the idea of TV harnessing talent from the internet, and it’s the relationship of movies and television. At first the movie studios tried to keep their medium totally separate from television, but then they gave in and started making feature films with TV stars as well as making movies based on TV plays, as well as bringing in more directors who had started in television, some of whom helped revitalize movies with techniques they had learned in TV (John Frankenheimer, Robert Altman). So you could see TV getting an influx of talent and ideas from the internet. The problem is that the internet is still not as big or important a producer of original content as TV was in the ’50s, and there still isn’t as deep a talent pool to draw on.


 
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How To Save Network TV

  1. I've been thinking about number 5 recently. Is there some reason why an Internet 'network' studio couldn't work? It would certainly open up the format (not being restricted to 22 minute episodes for a 30 minute time slot, for example). Maybe just produce the shows and sell them on iTunes or something. I'd be interested to see what sort of structural changes might occur in storytelling if someone were to try and produce actual shows on the web (I'll arbitrarily define a 'show' to be something 15 minutes to one hour, as opposed to say 3 to 5 minute skits which are prominent on YouTube). It's possible, however, that no changes would occur, that those creating the shows would simply try to emulate the standard tv setup in case they got picked up by a tv network.

    I kind of wonder if when tv first got going, the radio execs at the time said "We need to find a way to better harness talent found on TV".

  2. I'd just like to see the end of reality shows–they're killing all tv, cable as well as network. The Food Network (!) is almost unwatchable now–nothing but high-fiving and trash talk.

  3. The best way to save network TV is to encourage people to cut-off cable! The "300-channel universe" is diluting viewership of broadcast networks so much to the point where it's getting harder and harder for them to sell ads (their only source of revenue).

    With the recession you would expect consumers to look at how much they are spending ($600-$1000) a year on cable and evaluate whether it's actually worth it. In many cases, the only shows worth watching are on the broadcast networks (available for in HD for FREE over-the-air). For the one or two shows that are only available on cable it would make better sense to just wait until the DVD release.

  4. 6. invest in more reality shows based around actually talented people. I think that a sektch comedy show with groups of people that act in pre-formed troupes competing against each other would be great.

  5. My suggestion, which probably applies mostly to the 20-somethings that form my peer group, would be to find a way to get out from under the FCC's draconian content regulations. The ability for an almost unbelievably crap show like True Blood to succeed with the desirable demographic indicates that you don't need to emulate the quality of The Sopranos so much as its quantity (of swearing, violence, and nudity) in order to win over the youth.

    Of course, basic cable proves that, even outside the FCC's purview, relying on advertisers means not-quite-HBO-level adult content, but at least they seem to have taken Carlin's list down to just three. If Canada was ready for Sopranos on broadcast, in prime-time, nine years ago, I think the USA is ready for The Shield on Fox, today.