Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Why The Networks Can Never Compete With Cable - Part Two"

Every pilot-pitching season, the commercial television networks cry out for something “distinctly different”, “an original voice”, and then summarily reject everything of that nature the moment it’s pitched, or down the line, because it didn’t test well, or it was “incompatible with the ‘flow’ of our Tuesday night lineup.”  Of course, it was incompatible!  The new show pitchers were doing something “distinctly different” in an “original voice”, and the network’s Tuesday night lineup wasn’t. 

Whatever commercial networks claim, what they really want is what they already have, but a tiny bit different, their target, a panorama of programming with mainstream homogeneity, exemplified most prominently by the networks’ news anchors, who are required to speak authoritatively but with no personalizing uniqueness.

“Good evening.  I’m from nowhere.”

Cable channels, for reasons explained yesterday – because of less content restrictions and because they’re subscription-driven rather than commercial-driven – happily program series that are “distinctly different”, offering “an original voice”, and that’s why they are dominating in the Emmys for excellence, and the commercial television networks go home envious.  Fabulously wealthy, but envious. 

On cable, original voices sell subscriptions; on network TV, if they ever get on, original voices trigger letter-writing campaigns to immediately get them off.   That’s why many writers eschew the promise of a big network payday, opting for the creative clarity of working on cable.

The difference between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm?  Larry David, working on cable.

Writers are hungry to speak in their own voices.  (Otherwise, why write?)  Early in my career, it concerned me that I wasn’t.  I felt like I was merely, albeit skillfully, imitating my teachers, be they Jim Brooks, Ed. Weinberger or Stan Daniels, to name but three.  It seemed like I was most richly rewarded when I delivered a script that sounded most successfully like them.  Which, in fact, was the case. 

And so, desirous of reward, Earlo, the Good Boy, adhered to the requirements and did exactly what they wanted.  (Plus, he felt more confident writing in their voice than his own.)

Only on rare occasions would something “distinctly mine” find its way into a script, and survive the scrutinizing week of rewrites into actual production.  In “The Great Line”, a character named John, who was later dropped from Taxi, was given a sure-fire pickup line, which he used, the line being:  “Forget the preliminaries, let’s get married.”  The first girl he tried it on said okay, and a day later, John found himself unexpectedly married.  And terrified at the predicament.  Which he expressed – in my words – this way:

“I thought they were all connected – you get married, you have kids you get old and you die.  Somehow, I thought, if you didn’t get married, you wouldn’t die.”  

That was “pure me.”  And it got a solid laugh.  The rest of the show also went well, but it wasn’t “pure me”; it was me mimicking what my employers – and the network sitcom format – demanded.

A belief floated around in my mind, though it never audibly surfaced, that when I created my own shows, I would write more truthfully like myself.  And this did, in fact, occur.  Though hardly as distinctively as I’d imagined. 

Nobody was better suited to come up with a realistic-feeling – rather than cartoonish – half-hour comedy about the Old West than E. Raymond Pomerantz.  And yet, re-viewing Best of the West episodes, I notice at least as much “formula” writing as “original voice.”  Tonally, I can definitely hear myself in there.  But just as strongly – or even more so – is this constricting urgency to conform to the mold.

Family Man was, by definition, original, as all the eleven episodes I wrote were rooted in experiences that had occurred to me, either as a parent (and stepparent) or as a child.  Using the singular anecdotes of my life guaranteed something different.  Plus, I was experimenting with what, for me, was an untried technique – filming (actually taping) shows without an audience.

Though Family Man is my most truthful effort in commercial television, you can nevertheless detect an unswerving insistence on sticking to the rules – a laugh every ten seconds, every scene “buttons” (ends) with a joke, the build to a hilarious, payoff final scene, the episode’s resolution must be hopeful.  

No one ever behaved outrageously.  And if you’d been mean, you had to apologize.

On Major Dad, I was essentially a hired gun – and don‘t I love saying that – developing an idea that was created by others.  Even with my substantial involvement, however, as a consultant writer friend observed, Major Dad was not “particularly groundbreaking”, and she was right.  I knew she was right – and that she expected more from me – because it stung me deeply when she said it.

I suppose that’s the way it is.  Not everyone, it would appear, has “groundbreaking” capacities.  Some of us have to settle for “good at what they do.”

As for speaking in my own voice, this is it.  Blogs.  Here, I have the freedom of simply reporting it as it happened. 

I run into a dark-haired girl in Paris when I’m twenty-two and there’s an uneventful payoff, and that’s okay, because the goal here is to tell it like it is.  This “nothing happened” ending would call for a rewrite on a network sitcom.  And it definitely wouldn’t work on cable, where’s we’d either have to get naked, or one of us would have to be a vampire.

The primary rule of blog-writing is “Be honest”, and that’s what I try to do.  So in a way, nothing has really changed. 

As when he wrote sitcoms for network TV, Earlo The Good Boy is, once again, merely

Following the rules.


Mac said...

"The difference between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm? Larry David, working on cable."
Although, if only for the sake of being contrary, Seinfeld had to work a lot harder than Curb. While there are some terrific eps of Curb, it takes dips in quality that Seinfeld wouldn't have been allowed to.
Also remember the "masturbation" episode of Seinfeld? How much less funny would that have been if they'd just said "masturbation? Which the could on cable, but half the fun was watching them trying to avoid using the word.

JED said...

There's that attractive, dark-haired girl in Paris again! I wonder if we'll ever hear more about her?

Jon88 said...

Late to the party, sorry. There's one way the networks compete easily with cable, or at least, some cable stations: financially. Not the HBOs and Showtimes, but Lifetime, Hallmark, ABC Family -- the production values, the continuity, the dialogue, heck, the *grammar* are often wanting.