Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Was 'Major Dad' Done In By Its Own Studio?"

I would not be surprised if it was.  But I cannot say so for a certainty.  Would you like to hear the reasons I think it might have been?

Sure.  And don’t worry.  Nobody expects you to know anything for a certainty.  I mean, it’s not like you’re Wikipedia, or something.

I thank you for your qualified support.

No problemo. 

Here’s what you need to know as background.  Major Dad ran for four seasons on CBS, amassing ninety-six produced episodes, which is close enough to the “Magic Number” of a hundred episodes to qualify the series for syndication (reruns on off-network stations.)  Where the big money is.

As I mentioned not long ago, Major Dad’s fifth-year renewal negotiations were bungled by Universal executives, Universal being the studio (and my ostensible business partners) producing the series. 

In truth, Major Dad’s chances for a lengthier run were seriously inhibited by CBS’s moving it from its longtime Monday night timeslot – Monday’s being the most watched night of the week because people spent all their money on the weekend so they have to stay home and watch television – to Fridays, where people are out partying on the first night of their weekend bacchanals.

This is admittedly conjecture, but here’s what I think happened.  Wait, I’m not ready to say that.  (The appropriate move here is to “Cut” that line and “Paste” it in where it appropriately belongs.  But, knowing me, I will probably forget I “Cut” it and end up “Cutting” something else subsequently which, as you know, causes the first thing you “Cut” to go away.  I am better off just leaving the line where it is and simply writing it again later.  I am telling you this so that when you see that line repeated, you will know it’s deliberate, and not “brain damage.”)

When a show is on the verge of syndication, the “auspices” – whoever it is that owns that show, which in Major Dad’s case, as mentioned, was Universal – their “Sales Executives” send out feelers to potential buyers, in an effort to determine the market value of that series.  From the final agreement – which I was told was the best deal they could get – it appeared that the overall market for the “‘Major Dad’ Syndication Package” was “soft.”  (Major Dad was ultimately sold to USA Cable, which is a subsidiary of Universal Studios.  This basically means that Universal Studios sold the Major Dad “Syndication Package” to itself.  {Can anyone say “Conflict of Interest”?} 

USA CABLE:  “We are proposing this offer?” 

UNIVERSAL:  We’ll take it.” 

USA CABLE:  “You should probably wait till I say what it is first.” 

UNIVERSAL:  “Oops, sorry.”  (TURNING “SERIOUS”)  “What’s your offer?  And it better be good.”

Good or bad, Universal’s selling its series to its own subsidiary is a telling indicator that the legions of buyers out there were not clamoring to have Major Dad rerunning on their stations.  (Which turned out to be an astute business decision.  Major Dad was ultimately an underperformer in syndication.) 
This is admittedly conjecture, but here’s what I… No!  Sorry!  It’s still not time for that.  (Though once again, I am leaving it where it is.)

As series runs get longer, their budgets inevitably get bigger, owing primarily to the show’s regulars either successfully renegotiating their contracts, or because their “extended run” contracts include built-in, often substantial, increases in their salaries. 

This at a time, remember, when Major Dad’s disappointing Friday night performance increased CBS’s negotiating leverage, so that they can demand a reduction in their “licensing fee” payment (the percentage of the show’s budget bankrolled by the network, the rest of the series’ costs, called the “overage”, being shelled out for by the studio, which invariably goes what they call, “into deficit”, in hopes of a mother-lode recoupment in syndication.)  And, of course, the less CBS chips in, the more the financial burden falls on Universal.


This is admittedly conjecture, but here’s what I think happened. 

Let me put this in the form of a question, in case “‘Major Dad’ Business Negotiations” ever comes up as a category on Jeopardy.  

If you are a studio, owning a series about to go into syndication, and you are aware that that series’ syndication value is low, and that, if the series is picked up, its budgetary burden is going to increase on the studio to the point that it may never earn a profit on the series and may, in fact, go into unrecoupable “deficit” on it…

How hard are you going to fight to get that series picked up for another season?

Not that hard.  Oh, was that a rhetorical question?

Not exactly.  Though I did angle you in that direction. 

I mean, think about it.  If every subsequently produced episode of Major Dad leads to its studio’s losing more and more money, would it not, wisely, be in that studio’s best interests, while making a “token” effort to protect the series, to simply passively acquiesce, effectively stabbing its own series in the back?  Or, stately less angrily, simply allow the series to be cancelled?

To which I reply:  In the studio’s short-term, maybe.  But not in the “Big Picture.”

At this point, I shall quote Hugh Wilson, the creator of WKRP in Cincinnati who once observed, within earshot,

“When you don’t have a show on the air, the odds of getting a show on the air are one in a thousand.   But when you do have a show on the air, the odds of getting another show on the air are one in one.”

These numbers are not scientific, but Hugh Wilson’s point, in my experience, holds water.  When you walk into to a network meeting with a successful series gracing the airwaves, the executives treat you exponentially better and listen to you exponentially more attentively (and trustingly) than when you walk in there, an on-the-air “virgin”, or a person whose series’ magnetized name card has been swept off the network’s “Schedule Board” and ignominiously deposited in the most proximate dust bin.

Paraphrasing Hugh Wilson, winners enjoy exponentially better outcomes than losers.

Attempting minimally aggressively to keep a show from getting cancelled may, in the short run, be understandable.  However, by so doing, the studio engaging in such a strategy has severely tarnished the luster (and diminished the clout) of their creative business partner – in this case, me – their “one-out-of-one” possibility of selling a show plummeting back down to “one-in-a-thousand.”   That’s not smart, is it?

No, it’s…

That one was rhetorical.


After Major Dad’s cancellation, I did not in fact get another series on television.  I may not have anyway, but it appears to me that somebody, either through incompetence or a deliberate insufficiency of effort, punched a irredeemable hole in my chances.


John Pearley Huffman said...

I don't have so much a comment here as an appreciation.

Thanks for the insight.

Rick Okie, DRIVETHELIMITS said...

Earl, we have much to discuss.