Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"What Makes A Hit Television Series? - A Less Attended-To Answer"

When Best of the West – created by Earl Pomerantz – debuted on ABC in 1981, the pilot episode was broadcast, for reasons I am unaware of, a week before the arrival of the new “Fall Season”, meaning it aired against reruns on the competing channels, of which, in those days, there were two. 

I remember Stan Daniels, one of the show’s owners along with Ed. Weinberger – since they were more experienced show runners than myself who had barely even worked on a writing staff, the show I created was produced under their production banner – I remember Stan calling me when he received the pilot’s ratings – where we ranked seventh overall for the week – and announcing in a mock English accent,

“You have a hit, my boy.”

By the end of its first and only season, Best of the West ranked last in the ratings, and was summarily deleted from the schedule.

I had a hit.  Until the other shows showed up.

There are many explanations for Best of the Wests failure. 

The show was, as the Los Angeles Times TV reviewer of the time called it, “uneven.” 

It was an homage to westerns broadcast a decade after westerns had almost entirely left the airwaves.

It had no identifiable stars in it whose supportive following could have kept it afloat while it solidified its creative footing.  

Since I was unable to write everything – although I did write or co-write eleven of its twenty-two episodes – the fact that created its “unevenness” was that the writers and production-week rewriters, though highly skilled, did not have a natural “feel” for the show’s comedic ambiance and tone.

The fifth reason for the show’s failure is the simplest:

The audience was not enthralled.  

Still, there is another “under the radar” reason a show succeeds or fails.  And that reason is

Its time slot.

This issue comes to mind in response to the opening ratings of two premiering series, broadcast at the same time on opposing networks:  NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show and CBS’s The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams.

I realize that even though I have studied television for more than sixty years and worked in it for close to thirty-five – if you count Canada and I do – my judgment remains subjective and open to challenge.  However, in mine ‘umble opinion, going by their pilots, The Michael J. Fox Show is substantially qualitatively superior to The Crazy Ones, the former feeling clever, observant, and human, the latter, glitzy, empty and over-produced.

Yet, despite my astute evaluation, the opening ratings for The Crazy Ones were more than double those of The Michael J. Fox Show.


Not, I shall argue, because Robin Williams is a greater audience-attracting draw than Michael J. Fox.  It is no certainty that viewers-under-thirty are familiar with either of them, and if they are, resulting from the continuing popularity of the Back To The Future franchise, of the two former stars, Mr. Fox is arguably the better known.

Nor is it because the audience preferred one show to the other; at that point, they had not yet seen and therefore not sampled either of them.

Nor, let us fervently hope, is it because the audience, aware of Michael J. Fox’s condition, did not want to spend half-an-hour watching a guy shake.

I believe the ratings drubbing delivered by The Crazy Ones to The Michael J. Fox Show was primarily the result of which show on their respective network’s schedule, was broadcast before it.

Once again, my impatience mixed with incompetence have defeated my efforts to find the appropriate data on the Internet, which, if I could have, would have made this exercise considerably more respectable.  What I know from my head is that CBS’s (preceding) “lead-in” for The Crazy Ones was The Big Bang Theory, the highest rated comedy on television, whereas NBC’s “lead-in” for The Michael J. Fox Show was Parks and Recreation, which is one of the lowest. 

It may be small comfort though nonetheless reassuring that that the ratings for The Michael J. Fox Show rose noticeably from the Parks and Recreation ratings, while The Crazy Ones’ ratings were substantially lower than those of the Big Bang Theory.     

But such hair-splitting does not get you a hit show.

Or maybe it does.  I do not know, though I suspect, that the ratings for The Michael J. Fox Show were also higher than the ratings for the cancelled NBC show it replaced, which is another, though less headline-making, strategy for measuring success. 

The Michael J. Fox Show can legitimately report,

“We went up from our ‘lead-in’ and exceeded our predecessor.”

It merely has to overlook the fact that the show airing against it enjoyed double its audience size.

Which it can’t.  (The “Fox” show has already been categorized as a failure.)

I knew Best of the West was in trouble, not because of its lead-in – which was, ironically, Robin Williams’ Mork and Mindy, albeit in its fourth, ratings-plummeting season – but because, while standing at the check-out counter at the supermarket, I glanced at the nearby magazines, and I noticed that the picture on the cover of virtually all of them was Tom Selleck, the star of Magnum P.I.

Best of the West’s timeslot competition on another network.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

The site you want for ratings numbers is http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com. And yes, The Big Bang Theory's premiere numbers were BIG.

I would, however, disagree that viewers under 30 don't know Michael J. Fox or Robin Williams, though I think Fox is likely the better known (he's done well-regarded guest shots on shows like The Good Wife and others). Today's TV watchers, particularly younger ones subscribing to services like Netflix, have played up and down the historical catalogue. They very likely have seen not only Fox's movies but Spin City and probably bits of Family Ties as well; even Mork and Mindy is probably still in syndication or reruns somewhere. When you ask these kids to list their favorite shows they're all over the timeline. The Los Angeles Review of Books just had a piece on the way Netflix is influencing this, and says that when you ask students what they're watching they'll list everything from current shows (Scandal, It's Always Sunny), to older ones like Freaks and Geeks and Twin Peaks. If it's on Netflix and they like it, they'll watch it; if it's not, why bother when there's so much good stuff that is?

I think that makes it even harder for a new show to build an audience: it competes with the back catalogue in the way that music always has but that TV hasn't had to in quite the same way before.


Keith said...

I remember watching Best of the West quite often. I was also a huge Magnum fan. Somehow I found a way to watch them both, but I don't remember if it was VCR or reruns.

Now that I think about it, we didn't own a VCR at that time (but we rented them when we rented movies), so it must have been reruns.

Unfortunately, we weren't a Neilsen family.

Canda said...

NBC has feeble ratings for it's comedies, so if Fox is building on his lead-in, they'll love that. Plus, he has Sean Hayes leading into his half-hour. I think they will be solid.

Robin Williams show looks like it will continue to fall.

Speaking of time slots, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court had very small ratings until 1984, when your "Cosby Show" aired in front of them on Thursday, and suddenly those shows were in the top 10, following in the wake of the Cosby tsunami ratings.

filmklassik said...

Poor paraphrase of great exchange:

Varmint pointing gun at good guy: "Okay, mister, I'm gonna shoot you dead."

Good guy: "But I'm unarmed. What about your reputation?"

Varmint: "That is my reputation."

Wonderful stuff, Earl. Wish they'd get off their damned tuchises and release the DVDs.