Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"What's Entertainment?"

It is not unusual for a person to think about people they care about.  But when you – by which I mean I – find myself thinking, as I did at a recent congenial dinner with a friend, about people I don’t care about, I know something other than what’s on the surface is going on, though I cannot for the life of me figure out what.  (Or what “for the life of me” means.)
I warmed up the conversational exchange with my traditional pre-Oscar musing:

“I wonder how studio executives feel when none of their blockbusters get nominated for Oscars and the movies that do are seen by a comparatively paltry number of filmgoers?”  

Like I care about how studio executives feel.  Which by the way is “Super Duper!” since some of their movies – forgetting the kind of movies they are, but I’ll give you a hint; the “fourteen year-old boy” audience loves them – went through the box office roof.  Allowing those studios – via their subsidiaries – to invest in smaller pictures, regularly recognized by awards.

So it’s “Win-Win.”

They would proclaim. 

(Their vacuous “moneymakers” remaining embarrassments, except at studio shareholders’ meetings.)

I say, once – and beware of an old person starting a sentence with “once” – quality movies were also popular movies.  Now, studios have to settle for an unholy alliance betweem the smart brother making real movies and the dumb brother, producing theme-park fodder that rakes in a fortune.

Here comes the “bridge” in my thinking.  I like to alert my readers to the “turns.”  It’s like “Route Guidance” warning you of an upcoming “parked car on the shoulder.”

My next “I have definitely said this before” was that when I started in television, quality sitcoms were also commercially successful.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Cheers.  (And, forgive me.)  The Cosby Show.

So it is not impossible to pull off.  They just don’t do it anymore.  The Big Bang Theory, the top-rated television comedy, is fine.  But no one will ever mistake it for All In The Family or Barney Miller.  

That was “Hop” and “Skip.”  Now for the always accompanying “… and a jump.”

With skyrocketing viewing alternatives, the fragmented television landscape decrees smaller audiences for individual programs, bringing an inevitable acceptance of lower ratings.  No longer would a show, like my show Family Man, be cancelled with seventeen million viewers. 

The issue for me is,

“How small is small?”

Are these streaming programs actually “hits”, an accolade previously calculated by volume?  Or are they just darlings of the media, getting unmerited attention?  (The vaunted New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum regularly mines value from shows, like the recently reviewed The End of the F***ing World, that starts out, she explains, being a comedy that is “so cruel it doubles as an endurance test” which then evolves into “a convincing teenage romance”), programs of that nature that not only “Flyover Country” but trendy portions of Los Angeles have no idea are on television. 
The sensible response comes back that “A good show is a good show.  What difference does it make how many people are watching it?”

The show Frank’s Place then comes up, recently mentioned in reference to the passing of its creator, Hugh Wilson.  Frank’s Place.  Quality show.  Died in the ratings. 

Does that make it a bad show?

No.  But even in failure, Frank’s Place garnered millions of viewers, just not the, sufficient for the time, thirty million.  (Three networks.  The goal was collecting one third of the available audience.) 

I don’t think streaming outlets promote their ratings.  As with their conceptual predecessors Showtime and HBO, they are selling subscriptions, touting,  “You can’t see the show if you don’t ante up the subscriptional dough.”  (Or something more demonstrably artful.)

For streaming services, the “Name of the Game” is “unusual.”  (Risk averse networks, whose “business model” remains dependent on “Da Numbahs”, eschew the “unusual”, leaving “smart and quirky” to the technological “New Kids.”)

And here’s where I sound ancient.

I understand “The business model has changed”, “success” now computed by added subscriptions rather than audience ratings, which is an viable approach or they wouldn’t be doing it.  You can, apparently, make money producing these shows.  Even though, by earlier standards, almost nobody is watching.

But that’s “Business.”

The question is,

Isn’t at least one element of “artistic achievement” being able to attract a reasonable-sized audience, reaching a “critical mass” viewership via the show’s intrinsic ability to “connect”? 

Or is that an old-fashioned concept? 

That a hit show requires people.

Does the application of “good” now include no assessment of “popular” whatsoever? 
I’m just askin’ here.  (It feels bizarre, arguing this position.  I admire creativity.  And I come off sounding worrisomely like a mogul.)

I “get” that this is a “radically altered environment.” 

Still, I am left with the grumpy ungenerous question:

“What does it take to get cancelled around here?”

(When I got shot down with an audience of seventeen million.  And I never sold a film though they’re making crapola.  Yeah.  I guess it’s about that.)

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