Friday, September 12, 2008

"Why I'm Home, And Not Writing For Television"

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.)

Moving on…

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, 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:

“A hit.”

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.”
Stay tewned.


Anonymous said...

Okay... this brings us to the question: How do you know it won't sell if you don't try? How many sitcoms are out there right now for people over 30? over 50?

Would young writers have known how to write for The Golden Girls? or I Love Lucy (and her later shows)... was M*A*S*H written by kids for kids? No. At least I don't think so...

Someone has to do more demographics to show what kind of $ advertisers could bring to sitcoms written for midlife and latelife folks... My mother is 86 now and all she has left to watch thats decent are game shows and documentaries or nature shows(and even those have gotten twisted into shows about reality show type tragedies,ex:when animals attack,etc.)

I think what we really have here, is a lack of sitcom choices...

TV is dumbing down to an nth level. I blame it all on unemployed young idiots that sat home all day watching Jerry Springer, back when he had one of the first sensationalist,tasteless shows available.

I think it would be fabulous if some network decided to create an entirely new and fresh image of themselves. Make money... but make smart TV. Lots of us would be drawn back to TV if the shows were better. I shouldn;t have to look so damned hard to find quality.

Corinne said...

"(It’s not just in government where failed strategies continue to be repeated. You can be stupidly inflexible anywhere.)"

Oh how I love that quote! Especially since Canada is gearing up for elections too. (But at least I'm not as already sick of it as the US Elections.... How can they not be done yet?)****

I think the first comment has a lot of validity to it.

I would add, however, that with the dumbing down you have to add the influence of 'gross out humour' that has become the norm. Since there have been some blockbuster hits based on that form of humour, it's deemed profits are to be made from it.

But what about us over 12? Let alone 25. I want something smart. Funny. Relatable. Something to wind down after a long day of work and kids.

People don't watch TV until they're 32 and quit. So if they're not going to make something smart, funny, and relatable for the 32-82 set...

And we're watching drama because there's no other choice- not because it's our first choice.

Could they at least put M*A*S*H back on must see TV at Prime Time? Start at season 1 and play their way through to the end.

I'd love to see how THAT would do in the ratings.


(****Yes I understand how the US election system works- I'm just making a point. ;o)

michael said...

Back in the early 1980s I was covering TV for local newspapers while I collected rejection slips from a variety of quality network TV programs.
It was during this period the press became certain that the TV sitcom form was dead. Then there was a surprise hit. TV Guide said the show "was TV's biggest hit in the 1980s and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre..." That show was "The Cosby Show".

What I don't understand is why the advertisers and networks aim at only one market (18-49) when that is not the largest market. Since there are products aimed at different people and ages why doesn't the networks develop programs to attract all advertisers of all different products? Or is that what the networks cable stations are for?

I think we need young writers to create new different forms of sitcoms instead of doing the same old plots and jokes we watched decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Enduring the latest new Fox "comedy" for one minute the other night before mercifully switching it off, I was once again instantly bombarded by stereotypical, force-fed characters and "jokes", whose rhythms became old and tired long before I did. Either the executives greenlighting this crap are idiots, or they think the audience are idiots. Probably both.

We still want to believe the characters enough to welcome them into our lives & kind of miss them when they aren't. And there should still be some degree of empathy. And remember when comedy could also be... what a concept... clever? With room to breathe between the gags, making the gags that much more powerful?

The other "edgy" and "in your face" bells and whistles are the tail wagging a dog that needs a trip to the vet.

Sign me a writer who was weaned on MTM shows and Taxi, who wrote for Cheers & Seinfeld.

Oh... and you kids, get off of my lawn.

bbot said...

As a certified Young Person with the hair and the blog and the rock and roll music, I would like to point out that my phone is absolutely enormous. We're talking brick sized, here, Big enough to do arm curls with it, and work up a sweat. Big enough that you can't even put it in your pocket, and instead have to keep it in a holster on your belt.

Of course, it has a full QWERTY keyboard on it, as well as a quad-band GSM/WiFi radio, which means I can make calls over any GSM network, anywhere in the world; and if that fails, over Wifi, using the VOIP client I installed on my phone.

Concerning the actual topic: I watch Mythbusters, which effectively means that I don't watch TV, since Discovery hates actually airing their episodes.

But I'm a 20-year old with a job, which makes me wildly unrepresentative of my species.

Max Clarke said...
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