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.