Thursday, January 14, 2016

"What The Networks Got So Extremely and Excruciatingly Wrong When I Was Around"

Here’s what network executives used to tell us and we had to act like they were smart with a straight face.  (Because, in those days, there were only three “buyers” and it behooved people desiring to sell shows to remain amenably on their right side, which I was never terrific at doing, because when I hear something that doesn’t sound right to me, my face invariably makes a face before I can stop it.)

What I am about to mention, at one time, was the “Conventional Wisdom.”  It was not a question of ignoring it at your peril.  You were not permitted to ignore it at all.

(Note:  The following is hardly a comprehensive accumulation.  Consider it an illuminating sampling.)

Okay, deep, calming breath.  Did it.  Now here we go.

When pitching and producing TV shows, these were, as the great Jimmy Durante used to call them:

“The conditions that prevailed.”

– Shows about show business were strictly verboten.  Why?  Because they were too “inside” for the tastes and interests of the typical television viewing audience member, who would not even understand the word “inside.”  And would not give a hoot that they didn’t. 

– Comedies must always be accompanied by a “laugh track”; otherwise, the typical television viewing audience member will not know it’s a comedy.  This applied even to the most incongruous situations, such as M* A* S*H, where the typical television viewing audience member, rather than wondering if it’s a comedy, might instead be asking themselves, “Who exactly is laughing?”  (The North Koreans, I suppose, but considering the show’s content, they would more likely to be frowning.  Unless they didn’t understand English and they were laughing at “Klinger’s” atypically gargantuan – for North Koreans – shnozzola.)

– Every episode must be self-contained – rather than extended into multi-episode-long “story arcs” – because a typical television viewing audience member might drop in in the middle and not be able to understand what’s going on.  Also, if the show reaches syndication, the episodes may not necessarily be shown in order.  Then, nobody will understand what’s going on.

– Speaking of syndication, no series should appear in syndication before its run on the network is completed.  (For fear that the syndicated episodes could siphon off viewership from the episodes of the same series currently running on the network.  And also, because the earlier episodes, now in syndication, might actually be better, making the episodes currently running on the network appear inferior, which, if fact, they could be.)  

 – No mention or representation of actual products shall be included in any production.  (For fear that those actual products appearing on the show gratis might conflict with similar products shown in commercials during the same program which the networks required the sponsors to pay big for.  That’s like,



– All regulars on TV series must be likable, attractive and white.

“Gays and lesbians – are you kidding me?  And ‘transgenders’ – I don’t even know what that is.  And if I don’t know, neither will the typical…” 

“Sorry, Bub.  Just funnin’ ya.”

– No lead character can display any personal failings beyond not wearing a tie.  Or – proving the networks were flexible – wearing one, but not pulling it all the way up.

– Nobody on television was permitted to be divorced.  (Leaving the children watching this daunting number of “widow and widower” programs wondering if they themselves would be growing up with at least one deceased parent.)

  All sexual activity must be referred to as “…you know”, as in, “You wanna… you know…?”

– Network station identification breaks are absolutely mandatory.  Otherwise, how will they know where they’re watching?

– Even though television has often made stars out of “new faces” while recognizable “names” have frequently fallen flat on their faces, networks continue to prefer recognizable “names.”

  No jargon.  Imagine characters in a sitcom having lengthy conversations about physics.  (The words “For heaven’s sakes!” being entirely understood.)

– Most importantly, any show that has succeeded contradicting those hard-and-fast regulations should be considered an anomalous and inexplicable exception, and should in no way bring the way things have always been and must continue to be done forever into question.

Hardly a definitive list.  But you get the idea.


If the networks got those fourteen things so so so so extremely and excruciatingly wrong in the past, the question is – sing it with me, children...

“What exactly are they getting so so so so extremely and excruciatingly wrong today?”

Who knows?  Maybe they saw the error of their ways and have now become humble.


1 comment:

Gene said...

Just happen to be watching Barney Miller tonight and reading your post during commercials. I'm watching part 2 of a 2-parter. Seems to me that Barney Miller regularly bucked conventional wisdom. They did many episodes about gays, including a gay cop; a cross-dresser at least once; don't recall any transgenders but that doesn't mean they didn't broach the subject. They openly spoke of sex, many times dealt w/prostitution, even a male prostitute. Obviously, Soap defied the wisdom throughout its run (4 or 5 years?). Their episodes were never self-contained. Besides having a gay character in the main cast, they certainly elevated sex well beyond "you know." Obviously, many other shows destroyed the CW. I'm too lazy to list more and more examples, but you worked on some of them, so I know that you know, too!