There are probably a dozen ways to get into this without mentioning or at least dwelling on the fact that I was consistently hostile to television executives, and that, when I did get to run shows, I felt myself to be in way over my head. But I have the need to be truthful (before I start the blaming). Those two tendencies are enough you keep you permanently at home with no outside help whatsoever – being “difficult” and marginally capable.
So there’s that. The “me” factor.
(By the way, only the talent is ever labeled “difficult”, never the executives. Troublesome executives are called “colorful.” There are two reasons for this selective labeling. As the talents’ employers, the executives feel free to call their employees anything they want. Also, executives are serviced by P.R. departments, who spin their bosses as being colorful. And spin the talent as being difficult.)
At some point – and a true student of the medium could pinpoint exactly when – the mandate of network television changed, from trying to attract the largest possible audience – meaning everybody – to demographic targeting – meaning no old people.
Here’s a tasteless analogy you might enjoy: Think of the advertisers as the “Johns” and the television networks as the procurers. The “John” instructs the procurer, “Bring me young viewers!” (To be delivered with a crazy look in your eyes and a trace of spittle bubbling from the corner of your mouth.)
The procurer humbly bows and backs out of the room. The procurer then races off and hires people to make candy (targeted programming) to pull in the kids. Who gets the assignment, making candy for the kids?
Not old writers.
So, even I hadn’t behaved as described in Paragraph One above, being old – “old” being anyone over forty – I’d still very likely be home. Cooperative older writers are home too. (Ha!) Sorry about that. Sometimes, I’m not that nice.
The irony – and for older writers, the bitter irony – is that the “hiring younger writers” strategy hasn’t really worked. No matter what they program, youthful viewers are not flocking to network television. Kids today have too many other, more attractive, entertainment options. I could give you a list of those options, though, since I’m old, I’m really not familiar with what they are. I just know they have them. Texting, I think, is one.
“And the phones are so small!”
(Like limping when I don’t have to, I sometimes enjoy wallowing in stereotypes.)
It is my view that, as long as they’re considered “the public airwaves” – which means, on some level, the public has a right to exert pressure on matters of content – networks will always be too constrained in their programming parameters to attract cutting edge viewership.
(My daughter, Anna’s, current favorite show is Locked Up Abroad – a guy’s caught smuggling, when it’s discovered he’s ingested dozens of cocaine-filled condoms. You won’t see that on CBS’s schedule any time soon.)
Summary Paragraph – (to be read if you’re too busy to read the whole thing): The networks send the old writers home, because they believe only young writers can reel in the young audience. The young writers create shows, and the young audience still doesn’t show up. But the networks persist in this approach, because the advertisers have instructed them to “Bring me young viewers!” and they don’t know what else to do. (It’s not just in government where failed strategies continue to be repeated. You can be stupidly inflexible anywhere.)
I don’t know about your newspaper, but in Los Angeles, every Wednesday, ours prints a list of the week’s television ratings, running from the Number One program of the week to, like, Number One Hundred and Five, generally something from the Spanish-speaking network, or a series on the CW.
A study of these ratings reveals that, on a consistent basis, of the thirty most watched programs on television, two or, at the most, three of them are half-hour comedies, and none of those are in the “Top Twenty.” (The second and, if there is one, third most watched comedies feed directly off the success of CBS’s Two and a Half Men, which they’re scheduled around on Monday nights, Two and a Half Men being the only unqualified hit comedy currently on the air.)
In all my years of paying attention to television, the half-hour comedy has never performed so poorly.
Since the blockbuster years of Seinfeld, Friends, Frazier and Raymond, the popularity of television comedy has taken an enormous nosedive. And we’re not talking one or two seasons. We’re talking…longer.
When I discussed this situation with Ken Levine, the wonderful blogmeister of bykenlevine.com, I set to him this question:
“What would it take to make the four-camera comedy (the format of all the above-mentioned mega-hits) popular again?” Ken immediately replied:
I respectfully disagree. I think it’s over. (It’s flattering to think that, as soon as I went home, television comedy went down the toilet.) Before I explain why I think it’s over – which I’ll do on Monday – it’s important for you to remember that, by nature, and also by habit – though the habit could simply be the product of the nature, I’m still working on that – I am not what you’d call a positive person. Ken is. Ken sees the glass as half full. I don’t even see the glass.
Maybe Ken’s right. Maybe the next Seinfeld will take television by storm, trigger a turnaround, and comedy will be king once again. But as the Scots people, or maybe just pretend Scots people, say, “I hay’ me dewts.”