Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"What The Television Networks Got Wrong"

After writing recently about the sound mixing process during the post-production phase of preparing a show for delivery, I was thinking of topping off that saga with a description of, what they called and perhaps still do, “sweetening”, which involves supplementing the show, where needed, with a laugh track.  I decided, however, that I had nothing illuminating to say on the subject.  There’s a wasted paragraph, saying why I’m not doing something, instead of just not doing it.  I guess I just needed to start with something.

I will mention only one thing.  One show I created for television, called Family Man, was taped on a soundstage without a live audience, the reason for which I have explained elsewhere and, as I have already wasted enough of your time with that superfluous first paragraph, I will not waste it further by revisiting the matter here.

Because Family Man was recorded without an audience present, a laugh track ”sweetening” was required to be inserted throughout the entire show, although this time, I agreed with that mandatory requirement.  A taped sitcom without a laugh track feels like a soap opera, without the improbabilities.  Lacking a live audience reaction, even the Family Man actors weren’t sure it was funny.  An enhancement was definitely necessary.

(As I have mentioned elsewhere, we subsequently screened completed versions of two Family Man episodes for an audience recruited from the Universal Tour, and it turned out, at least according to their response, that the show was very funny indeed.)

Anyway, I mention this in order to make a confession.  During Family Man’s “sweetening” process, which I meticulously oversaw, there were occasions, though not many of them, where I told our laugh track technician, John Bickelhoff, to beef up the laugh he was suggesting we put in.

“That joke is a ‘seven.’  You made it a ‘five.’  Give it another ‘two.’”

John Bickehoff would then adjust the laugh, I’d say, “Good” and he’d say, “Thank you.” 

This is not a case of there being a weak audience laugh and I supplanted it with stronger one.  There was no laugh there.  So I put one in, attempting to give each “laugh line” what I felt it legitimately deserved.  Of course, I had written all of them, so there may admittedly have been occasions when I “rounded up.” 

On the other hand, there were some jokes that Bickheloff “laughed” too energetically, and I instructed him to “take it down.”  Overall, I believe I was fair.  I suppose.

Anyway, deciding not to write or least not write primarily about “sweetening”, what came to mind instead was the neighboring idea of what the networks, as with the obligatory laugh track, got wrong. 

(M*A*S*H creator, Larry Gelbart, insisted his show have no laugh track, as he said famously, “Just like the Korean War”, and lost.  M*A*S*H was summarily “laughed”, even though it was never explained exactly who it was that was laughing.)

The “laugh track” was finally abandoned on shows not shot in front of a live audience (Modern Family, Parks and Rec), though I imagine the process persists for “audience” shows, allowing laughs lifted from I Love Lucy to live on on Mike and Molly.

Here are some examples of things the networks got wrong.  Perhaps you can suggest others.

- There were once an obligatory “station breaks” between every show, where the network’s logo or “call letters” (remember the NBC chimes?) were injected.  It was discovered that this break in the action allowed viewers the opportunity to flip around to check out what the other channels had to offer.  Wisely, the “station breaks” were dispensed with, and now each show blends seamlessly into the next one.  Now, before a viewer gets a chance to say, “I hate this show”, they are already watching it. 

That change took about forty years.

- An unswerving network “no-no” when pitching pilots was “No shows about show business.”  Too “inside”, it was explained; the audience is unfamiliar with the “arena.”  Fortunately, they forgot to tell Jerry Seinfeld that, and he ended up doing pretty well.

- The audience “testing process”, dutifully conducted before new shows were chosen for the schedule, disadvantaged non-traditional concepts and characters deemed to be “unlikable” or “weak.”  I am unaware of the role testing plays in the networks’ decision-making process today, but, in my day, test audiences were the Supreme Court, and their dial-driven decisions were The Determining Factor.

- Due to a fear of conflicts with time-buying sponsors, writers were forbidden to mention the names actual products on the shows.   Now, with network scratching for revenue streams, “product placement” within the body of shows is ubiquitous.  They don’t care who the sponsors are anymore, but once, this was crucial.  It drove me nuts to see prop men placing cereal boxes on kitchen shelves that resembled the packaging of actual cereals but were mandatorily labeled Flaker Oats and Rice Krisbies.  I mean, I’m trying to make the show feel real, and they’re giving me Cheeri-ho’s.

(Seinfeld, ever the ground-breaker, went beyond mentioning to actually making fun of products – the banality of the “Cotton Docker” commercials, the tediousness of The English Patient.  As far as I know, their cereal boxes touted actual cereals.)

- Beyond likability, all actors on TV series were once required to possess, minimally, what they called, “Conventional good looks.”  Or better, if possible.  This requirement has also been loosened, though only recently.  Compare, if you will, the cast of actors on Friends with cast on The Office.

The cast of Friends – all six of them – were white, stylishly attired, and ready for magazine covers.  The actors on The Office, on the other hand – and this is the only part of The Office I like, and, in fact, find revolutionary – reflect various levels of attractiveness, multiple races, and rotundities, as well as baldnesses, run the gamut on the “neatness-slovenliness” continuum, and look generally like people who would buy the magazines with the Friends faces on them, but never in a million years, grace their covers.  Well, maybe now they will, because the networks have allowed them to appear on television.  You cannot believe how long it took to get regular looking people on the air, based on the networks’ concern that regular looking people would never watch them.

I was going to finish with an explanation of why networks, despite abandoning many of their foolish and yet formerly “set-in-stone” regulations, will always play second fiddle to cable, but I’ve run out of time, so I’ll cover that in a separate post at a later date.  Right now, I have to go clean up, to get ready for a Barbra Streisand concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

I want to look good for Babs.

We have a history.

Which I will tell you about sometime.


Mac said...

"I’m trying to make the show feel real, and they’re giving me Cheeri-ho’s."

Did they have pictures of cheerful ho's on the cereal box? Because I don't think that's appropriate for a family breakfast cereal.
That's interesting about people appearing on TV who look like normal people. I thought that about Lena Dunham, who's not unattractive, but not cover-of-a-magazine attractive, although of course she is now on the covers of magazines.

Enjoy Babs.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; enjoy your reunion with Babs.