Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"What's Not A Show?"

In a way we had it easier.

There were three television networks.  If you had a series idea, your agent set up appointments and you went in and pitched it.  You either sold it or you didn’t.  And if you didn’t, that was it. 

Like a tree falling in the forest making no sound if there was nobody there to hear it (possibly), a show was not a show if there was nobody willing to make it.  Without the “possibly.”  Even philosophers would say, “True” if they were interested in series television and why wouldn’t they be?
An idea nobody wants to make is an idea sitting in a filing cabinet.  Among, very likely, if you’ve been around a while, numerous other rejected ideas.  Where they reside in the dark and supportively commiserate.

“I know.  They’re crazy!

Until somebody unwelcomely opens it.

“Hey, close the drawer!  We are supportively commiserating in here!”

Pitching itself is an earned opportunity, not an inalienable right guaranteed by the constitution, though Madison apparently considered it and then shelved it, along with the unicameral legislature and freeing the slaves. 

The three networks allowed you to come in and pitch only when your reputation – in my case, of a participating writer on recognized sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi ) – provided the elevating imprimatur of approval. 

Not everyone could get their pitches shot down.  Such rejections were reserved for the crème de la crème.  (Addendum For Optimists:  Yes, sometimes you sold stuff.  Are you happy now?)

Of course, mistakes were invariably made.  By which I do not just mean turning down shows that might have become memorable sitcoms.  Sometimes, they said “Yes” when the more sensible answer would have been “No.”

I myself was the beneficiary of such an occasional mistake.

One of the ways network executives enticed reticent scriptwriters to butterfly from the cocoon of an existing series and take a shot at something of their own was to ask, as I was asked at a breakfast in 1981 that an ABC television executive paid for:

“If you had your choice, what show would you most passionately want to create?”

My immediate answer:

“A comedy western.”

And so, Best of the West was initiated, a series whose well-received pilot earned it inclusion onto ABC’s schedule but was axed after one season.

Why did it fail?  Probably lots of reasons.  But one of the more determinative ones, I retrospectively realize, was that, in 1982 when the show finally aired, I was paying comedic tribute to a genre of TV show – the western – which had by not been popular for a decade and a half. 

In other words…

I was late.

Okay.  Your series pitch gets shot down.  (Or demonstrably should have been.) 

What do you do?

A venerable talent manager encouraged a one-word reaction:


Though insensitively heartless, “Next!” was a reasonable perspective.

Not anymore. 

At least nowhere nearly as quickly.

Why not?

There are more places to pitch to.

A lot more.

Which to an optimist sounds better, but is it?  (And are optimists always correct?)

Imagine a series creator aspirant, pitching a project they are passionately devoted to.  When there were three networks, it was “Three strikes and you’re out.” 
Now, behold before them:

An exponentially expanded playing field. 

Wielding the unappealable ”Final word”, three networks once decreed:  

”That’s not a show.” 

Today – “Ancient history.”

A dad who becomes a woman?  “Not a show.”  Now it is.  Transparent.  A series whose lead character’s a clown whose mother’s portrayed by a man?  “Not a show.”  Now it is.  Baskets.  I could go on and on, listing TV shows I have never seen, but it’s too much of a hassle doing the research.  Make up your own list.  It’ll be easier.  For me.

It’s not only new delivery system outlets that now allow you to pitch interminably.  Virtually every cable channel is venturing into scripted programming.  You could imagine yourself being their original offering.

CLIENT:  AMC (Breaking Bad) once just showed old movies.  Let’s pitch to the ‘Classical Music Channel.’  (On my cable positioning, Channel Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Nine.)  My ‘Modern-Day Prokofiev’s’ sure to be right up their alley!”

AGENT:  “The ‘Classical Music Channel’ plays records.”

CLIENT:  “Now!”

(Something’s happening to me.  Last time I made a compassionate case for studio executives.  Today, I’m pitying agents.  Is that what happens when you get old?  You go all mushy and empathetic?)

Yes, the chances to sell today are unquestionably greater.  But so is the chance of harmfully holding yourself back.  With all the available outlets, you could cling to the same idea an unhelpfully long time, closing your creativity to more marketable possibilities.

The question, previously answered by three “No’s” but in the current arrangement is not, is: 

When do you sensibly throw in the towel?  When do you decide it’s not going to happen and you strategically say “Next”?

I guess you can have more than one “favorite idea”, simultaneously moving on while harboring unwavering hope for your actual “favorite idea.”  But at some point, you realistically have to let go.

Or – with today’s hyper-expanded marketplace –

Do you?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

What's interesting about this is it makes selling a TV show much more like the kind of exercise freelance journalists have always had to do: study the market and decide who is right for the story you want to tell and the way you want to tell it. The latter in particular is likely to change depending on the outlet and the audience. Whereas maybe you could take your proposal from NBC to CBS to ABC without making a whole lot of changes, I think you'd have to think more closely about the differences between Netflix and AMC, or HBO and CBS. Even the networks now seem to aim at different demographics (among the networks, the last few years I seemed to be drawn most to CBS shows, although that's changed this year with SUPERSTORE and THE GOOD PLACE). So I can imagine more rewriting between pitches. Am I right?


Frank said...

I believe Norman Lear is still pitching but Bill Cosby finally retired.