Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The 'Annual Inefficiency'"

It’s Pilot Season. The time of the year when the commercial television networks make sample episodes for series they hope will be more appetizing than the series whose sample episodes they made during Pilot Season the year before.

The problem is, the same executives, or people cloningly similar those executives, oversaw the making of last year’s pilots, and the pilots of the year before that, ad backwards infinitum, and their perennial batting average is one that would, were they ballplayers, relegate them to the lowest levels of the minor leagues, or oblivion. Based on mathematical projections, which statistically sensitive networks apply in every area of their endeavor besides Pilot Season, there is no indication they’ll do any better this time around.

It seems stupid. You spend millions on pilots. Most pilots never make the network schedule. And the majority of the few that do, fail. The casual observer might detect a substantial waste of money. Large sums, seemingly down the drain, with a not much greater success ratio than a blind brain surgeon.

“Dr.! You just drilled a hole in the anesthesiologist!”

Maybe the networks don’t ultimately care, at least from a financial standpoint. Maybe they rely on some network version of an “R and D” tax write-off called:

“The writers stunk it up. Again.”

It’s good to have somebody to blame. And, unlike Albert Brooks in Lost In America, you may even get (at least a portion of) your gambling money back.

Look, I know how hard it’s very hard to pick a hit show. I read a book once, saying how Desperate Housewives, CSI and American Idol were all rejected when they were originally proposed. Seinfeld sneaked onto the air, surviving long enough for the “bad testing”, normally a series’ death sentence, to be proven incorrect.

My issue is not the unfortunate decision-making. That’s for the executives’ bosses to evaluate. Though I’m not exactly clear on the standard they’d employ.

NETWORK BOSS: “How can I rationalize keeping someone whose decision-making ability is so abysmal?”

NETWORK UNDERLING: “You decided to hire me.”

My beef with the television networks is narrowly defined:

Creative interference.

In my view, that interference takes a “slim to none” situation – developing a potentially successful television series – and turns it more closely, if not precisely, into “none.”

Here’s the question:

Why do smart people with beautifully fitting suits – I’m talking about network presidents – allow – nay, sir – require their employees, who have no background or training in that area whatsoever, to, not personally respond to – that, indeed, is their job – but to dictate character adjustments and story “fixes” and to, God help us, pitch jokes to seasoned professionals who have engaged in exactly those activities their entire careers?

The networks’ response to those seasoned professionals appears to have been adopted from the mantra of the Child Care industry:

“They can’t go around unsupervised!”

The response to that response?

“How much has that supervision helped so far?”

The networks are protected in this matter. We’ll never know what we didn’t get to see (because the networks preemptively shot it down, by dropping the show, or by picking it up but only after radical alterations). This precludes us from making comparisons with what we did get to see. What we do know, however, is how good (and successful) what we did get to see turned out to be. It’s not a very dauntingly high bar.

Moving on to this justification for network interference:

“It’s our money.”

I happen to be sensitive to this position. I can identify. Years ago, while renovating the crumbling craftsman bungalow we had purchased, Dr. M and I ran afoul of an architect who demanded that the house be remodeled according to his specifications rather than ours. We ultimately had to let the fellow go. The reason?

“It’s our money.”

(Also, it’s our house. Which the network can argue as well – “It’s our network.” And now that they’ve been permitted ownership, they can throw in, “It’s our show.”)

The difference?


We knew what we wanted. ( Networks want a hit show, but have no clue how to get one.)


Dr. M had done considerable research on craftsman bungalows. She was arguably more knowledgeable in that area than the architect. (Network executives may have a plethora of abilities, but few of them could ever be confused with experienced writers.)

And three:

The finished product was intended to satisfy, not an anonymous viewing audience, but us. And, returning us to Point Number One,

We knew what we wanted.

To which argument the networks might politely listen, and respond:

“It’s our money.”

Which brings me to my final point.

It’s their money.

There are Business Affairs honchos, scrutinizing expenditures. There’s a Board. There are shareholders. How do these people, the people whose money it really is, feel about the success levels delivered by the expensive efforts of Pilot Season?

Say something, you guys!

Or nothing ever is going to change.

DISCLAIMER: If I’ve written about this before, forgive me. I’m still trying to have an effect.


Joe said...

When you're right, you're right.

PS Good call on the Arts & Crafts thing.

andrew said...

Aaaaahhh!!! Maddening.

Someone once gave me this analogy: you take your car into the mechanic and he tells you you need to replace your break pads. You, instead, instruct him to replace the steering wheel. But he is the expert. Too bad - you are paying. How do you think the car will drive when you leave the body shop?

Hope you are well. I am off to Toronto for a month to, believe it or not, help out the CBC. Will tell you all about it when I return...


A. Buck Short said...

Just one more example of how the Warner Bros. were years ahead of the Lehman Bros. And speaking of derivatives, I guess the flip side of this is the seemingly incongruous complaint that the studios and networks are less to try anything completely new, because when a clone fails, they can always say, “Don’t understand it, that always worked so well for us before.” But then I guess your point relates to unwanted participation even more than to a wanted decision.

Nice architecture-artchitecture analogy. Always wondered why the word architecture is applied so liberally to the ostensibly less creative (hardware) part of information technology. What do you take for that, Digitalis?

growingupartists said...

Earl, forgive me*, your blog posts are so complex, I'm starting to see them as soundbytes, which I prefer. Hope I don't overflow your comment box.

1. Networks spend MILLIONS on pilots? Boy, if the airline industry could have some of THAT dough. Of course, they'd have to pay the flight attendants to put on a comedy show, to delight the guests, but how much could that cost? Less than millions I'd imagine.

growingupartists said...

Plus, they'd still have to fulfill the safety role. Just thought of that afterwards. Like you, I've never attended law school, guess we just find it more interesting to mock all the gay lawyers.

growingupartists said...

"The writers stunk it up again". No, no. Ken Levine would never work for an industry that throws false weight around like that. Too dangerous, and the engineers would know this.

growingupartists said...

A gamble? Slow down Earl, slow down! TV executives would never gamble their wives shopping money away...we all know how much their manicures mean to them.

growingupartists said...

Goddammit with the turbulance, Earl! You just threw me upwards, and I landed on that annoying, and very irritating title. How you writers have mastered physics, I still don't get. Has something to do with that Acting School you mentioned...what was it, here hafta open a brand new page to find the link, but totally worth it:

(Perfect title for that series, Earl, if I do say so myself)

But the Annual Inefficiency, frankly, it grates on my nerves. Couldn't it at least be every other year that they fail miserably? Or every other, other year?

growingupartists said...

Natural Laws, that's where you intrigued me Earl. Homeschoolers and religious fanatics LOVE natural laws.

London, eh. I've got history books to enjoy that country.

growingupartists said...

Oh, I'm so embarrassed. You see, Earl DOES this to people. He sends them on tangents, ask Buck Short, he's the WORST at it. Twice, Buck Short has sent me into the conspiracy theory panic attack of a lifetime. Sweating included. Through WORDS!

I had to cut Earl off for a while and he noticed. How do I know he noticed? Because the moment he posted a blog saying "where's that one reader", like a green beret with absolutely no training, I was back in the line-up.

And this is the clincher...I DID NOT EVEN READ HIS BLOG. I just KNEW!

growingupartists said...

But, forgot to say London isn't a country. It's a city, or something.

growingupartists said...

Earl, Earl, Earl. It is NOT hard to pick a show. I pick products out of thin air all the time, I'm more critical of their basic features, but who doesn't love a critic?

Huh? People HATE critics? They do? They really do? I hadn't heard that before. Oh.

growingupartists said...

Even Late Night producers? Please don't tell me Late Night producers hate critics. If I have to spend a single cent of my time comparing and contrasting daytime chat stores, with no honorable motive worth I give a damn...I just can't.

Women already hate me for being naturally generous with my brownies. I can't subject myself to being rejected AGAIN!

Oh, it's about rejection. Hmm. Executives being rejected by their demanding socialite wives, or their children who are so isolated they haven't a chance in hell carrying civilization forward like regular bloggers do.

Quite the dilemma...

growingupartists said...

Tune into my email where I more fully discuss this issue with Earl. Oh wait you can't.


Anonymous said...

Hi Earl,
I wish I could sign my real name to this, but because I am still taking money from those lowlife studio execs, I can't... but everything you said is 100% true. I am currently on a hit show, and I have stopped doing pilots... I only collect my staff money now because, although pilot money is easy and sweet, I can't put up with the morons who give notes and ruin everything they touch and manage to do it with an air of confidence that I would kill to have. But of course they are confident, they are idiots. And you know why the network and studio presidents hire stupid people below them? Because they know that they are hiring their potential replacements and they don't want any real threats to their own phony-baloney jobs. I know that to the casual reader, this all sounds like sour grapes and I'm not saying that there arent' bad writers out there writing shit pilots, there are. But there are also top notch writers like Earl and many others, who are VERY good at what they do but are not allowed to do it because of these 28 year old whiz kids from Northwestern or Emerson who don't know how to create anything or contribute anything but possibly some parody of TV they watched as a kid. I am so happy to be nearing the end of my career... yes, ageism is also one of their great sins... but I've made a fair amount of money, certainly more than any of these brain-dead execs will ever make. But you know what? I'm still a bit sad because the stupidest of the stupids were allowed to ruin it for the rest of us. Shame on them, if they had any shame... which they do not.

growingupartists said...

"Pilot money is easy and sweet?" How come they never say things like that in MY neighborhood? Or do you have to live on a set, which in itself would be jarring to the senses.

Karen said...

This process drives my (non-pro) husband insane. "Instead of paying for a bunch of new scripts, why don't they use the good scripts that they almost chose last season?" Because that would make sense?

The other day my agent suggested I come up with an idea with a very strong female lead. I said, "Why? So I can have ANOTHER perfectly good yet unproduced script with a strong female lead to add to my growing collection?"

If only God have given me just one other marketable skill...

growingupartists said...

Karen, the only marketable skill missing from your repertoire, besides a good dictionary.com link, is girlfriends.

Sorely missing in the entire industry, and much of real life, is girls who can do the dirty work your husband wouldn't be caught dead permitting.

I know a few, I'm not lying. Though my concern that I misspelled repertoire is freaking me out. Hold on.

Holy carp! This has NEVER HAPPENED TO ME BEFORE!!! I found the one word that dictionary.com DOES NOT HAVE. I'll need a day to think about what this means to my life.