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TelevisionWeek columnist and deputy editor Josef Adalian applies his decades of experience covering the television industry to deliver analysis readers can't find anywhere else.

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Josef Adalian


July 2008 Archives

Networks Must Evaluate Shows on Merits as Much as Ratings

July 27, 2008 8:54 PM

Joe Adalian

It was easy to tell the difference between broadcast and cable executives during the recently concluded TV Critics Association press tour.

The cable guys were the ones bouncing around the Beverly Hilton with big ol’ grins on their faces. Critics couldn’t stop kvelling over their shows. Every other day during the tour, there seemed to be another press release about sky-high ratings for the second season of “Army Wives” or the latest episode of “Monk.”

Then there were the folks from the Big Five (talk about a label that seems comically antiquated).

Because of the writers strike, most of the broadcast networks showed up with very little new product to talk up. Hallway conversations focused on declining ratings, the dying sitcom or the latest reality show dud.

No wonder, then, that one prominent cable executive who’s often mentioned as a possible candidate to head a network laughed out loud when I brought up rumors that there might soon be an opening for him.

“Why would I want to run a network?” he said. “Who needs those headaches?”

I thought about that statement last week when CBS announced a time-slot swap for summer dramas “Swingtown” and “Flashpoint.” The latter show is moving behind “CSI” repeats on Thursday, while the former is headed to a likely death on Friday nights.

Swingtown

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE "Swingtown" got pummeled by reviewers who complained CBS had no right to attempt something so risque.

From a short-term perspective, the move makes all the sense in the world. “Flashpoint” fits right in with CBS’ blood-and-bullets formula, and it probably will benefit from a “CSI” lead-in. Plus, because it’s a Canadian import, it costs dramatically less to produce than a typical drama.

By contrast, “Swingtown” offers no cost savings—and in some ways is even more expensive than a regular drama. That’s because advertisers like Procter & Gamble have avoided running ads in the show, as Advertising Age reported a few weeks ago.

“It is a shame,” one media buyer told the magazine. “When the networks try to push the envelope a little and try to be more like HBO, the advertisers run away.”

It’s not just advertisers making it hard for networks to take chances.

Critics regularly—and rightly—bitch about CBS’ overreliance on crime procedurals and middle-of-the-road fare. But when the network stepped outside its safety zone with “Swingtown,” it got pummeled by reviewers who complained it had no right to attempt something so risque.

What’s more, many TV reporters accused CBS of turning “Swingtown” into burnoff theater by airing it in the summer—even though the network launched an extensive promo campaign for the series that included billboards, bus ads and extensive on-air advertising.

But, to paraphrase something ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson said during the press tour, there’s no crying in network TV. Just because it’s harder to stick with quality shows doesn’t mean networks shouldn’t try.

NBC renewed “The Office” and “30 Rock” even though both shows barely had pulses after their first seasons. The network is bringing back “Friday Night Lights” for a third season, and while some critics might not like the fact that it will air on DirecTV first, give credit to NBC for trying everything it can think of to make the show work for its air.

While the overwhelming critical support and upscale demographics for “Office” and “30 Rock” made the Peacock’s mission easier, it still took guts for NBC to stick by two series many network observers once considered hopeless.

CBS, which is home to no small number of very smart executives, has to start showing similar intestinal fortitude if it wants to avoid the fate of so many past winning networks that have hewed too closely to a winning formula. Too many times in recent years—think “Love Monkey,” “Moonlight,” “Cane,” “The Class”—the network has opted for short-term scheduling stability instead of supporting the kinds of shows that could help it evolve its brand and attract new audiences.

“Sooner or later, the networks are going to have to begin making some decisions to keep shows on, even if it doesn’t seem to make any economic sense,” one senior executive told me last week. “We’ve got to break out of this quarter-to-quarter mindset.”

“Swingtown” isn’t a perfect show. Many critics have complained about the uneven quality of its first few episodes, and it’s clear producers have been struggling to figure out some of the characters and plotlines.

But consider this bit of CBS history: Eight years ago, the network launched “Big Brother” in the summer. Despite bad reviews and disappointing ratings, the network decided to give the show another chance—and, in the process, launched an unscripted tentpole that still stands.

With “Swingtown,” CBS has found another possible summer staple—not to mention a golden chance to start evolving beyond its reputation as the crimesolvers channel.

Stroking, Slapping NBC

July 20, 2008 8:54 PM

AdalianConan O’Brien can be forgiven for feeling like he’s traveled back in time to 1994 of late.

The mid-’90s were the dark ages for the pale red-headed kid from Beantown. He had just taken over NBC’s “Late Night” from David Letterman, and the critical response was not kind. Tom Shales, who sometimes graces these pages, called Mr. O’Brien’s show “an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program.”

Eventually the tide turned. Critics (including Mr. Shales) took a second look, ratings rose, deals started being measured in years rather than days. Conan became a late-night icon in his own right.

So why are so many in the media now freaking out over Mr. O’Brien’s scheduled takeover of “The Tonight Show” next year?

After years of bashing, bemoaning or simply ignoring the straight-down-the-middle comedy of Jay Leno, some late-night observers are reacting to his imminent departure from the Peacock as nothing short of a comedy apocalypse.

Conan is too outside the mainstream to take over “Tonight,” they rant. Executives at NBC “are probably wishing they’d never put the Leno-O’Brien succession in motion,” laments the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, one of my favorite TV scribes.

Oy.

Sure, in a perfect world, Mr. Leno would get to die while still at his “Tonight Show” desk. Mr. O’Brien wouldn’t mind waiting until he got his AARP card before taking over.

But what so many seem to have forgotten is that if NBC hadn’t promised Mr. Leno’s gig to him in 2004, Mr. O’Brien almost certainly would have been snatched up by ABC or Fox. NBC would have had no logical successor in place when Mr. Leno did move along.

In other words, some unpleasantness was unavoidable.

ABC last week made it clear that it would love to have Mr. Leno join its lineup. If Mr. Leno wants to go through the pain of launching yet another show, ABC is the best place he could do it. And Jimmy Kimmel probably would benefit from having a more solid lead-in, even if it meant a later time slot.

But NBC’s critics once again are underestimating Mr. O’Brien’s skills. As his hosting gigs on the Emmys have shown, he is a man who knows how to connect with viewers of all stripes, even under the least ideal situations.

What’s more, I suspect Mr. O’Brien may have a large contingent of fans in their 30s and 40s who have drifted away from his show as they’ve grown older—not because they stopped liking him, but because the responsibilities that come with age send them to bed earlier. These viewers have no use for Mr. Leno, but they’ll probably welcome a chance to reconnect with Mr. O’Brien at an earlier hour.

Under Jeff Zucker, NBC has made any number of bone-headed moves. The network’s fading Emmy nomination tally is the latest example of how the network has allowed its once-mighty brand as the home of quality TV to all but disintegrate.

But in the matter of Jay vs. Conan, NBC deserves some slack. And Mr. O’Brien deserves a break.

* * *

If Emmy voters had a message for the broadcast networks this year, it was this: No more excuses.

The basic-cable breakthroughs by AMC and FX—along with strong showings by ad-supported nets TNT, USA, Bravo, Sci Fi and A&E—demonstrated that you can make a creative splash even when operating under the constraints of commercial TV.

Broadcasters have long whined that HBO’s success at the Emmys was powered largely by its ability to spend lavishly on series production. When that didn’t work, they took refuge in the fact that HBO didn’t answer to advertisers.

And yet FX didn’t break the bank to make “Damages,” at least compared to the cost of producing a “Grey’s Anatomy.” AMC still airs commercials in between smoke-filled scenes of “Mad Men.”

Cable still has some major advantages over broadcasters when it comes to Emmy competition. Most of its series produce just 13 episodes per season, versus the 22-plus on the Big Five.

But network executives wondering why they don’t get the same Emmy love they used to need to stop blaming the Emmy voting system and instead take a long, hard look at the way they develop and nurture new shows.

With the exception of ABC, which has been a creative beacon under Steve McPherson, the broadcast networks have consistently chosen comfort over creativity when cranking out dramas in recent years.

The “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises may be well-executed, and vital to a balanced prime-time diet. But CBS’ and NBC’s reliance on such safe choices—and Fox’s so far unsuccessful attempts to get in on their game (R.I.P., “K-Ville”)—has sent viewers hungry for challenging fare fleeing to cable.

Even when non-ABC networks come up with good shows, they rarely know what to do with them (three words: “Friday Night Lights”).

It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that this year NBC—the network of “ER,” “The West Wing” and “St. Elsewhere”—has not a single show nominated for best drama. It’s the first time it has been shut out of the category since 1965.

What’s NBC’s excuse for that?

Enough Emmy Excuses

July 17, 2008 11:29 AM

If Emmy voters had a message for the broadcast networks this year, it was this: No more excuses.

The breakthroughs by basic cable’s AMC and FX—along with strong showings by ad-supported networks such as TNT, USA, Bravo, Sci Fi and A&E—demonstrated that you can make a creative splash even when operating under the constraints of commercial television.

For more than a decade, the big networks have whined that HBO’s success at the Emmys was powered largely by its ability to spend lavishly on series production. When that didn’t work, they took refuge in the fact that HBO didn’t answer to advertisers and thus could put on whatever it wanted, Procter & Gamble be damned.

And yet FX didn’t break the bank to make “Damages,” at least compared to the cost of producing a “Grey’s Anatomy” or a “CSI.” AMC still airs commercials in between smoke-filled scenes of “Mad Men.”

To be sure, cable still has some major advantages over broadcasters when it comes to Emmy competition. Most of its series produce just 13 episodes per season (or fewer), compared to the 22-plus on the big nets. And cable’s dual-revenue stream makes it easier to support gems like “Mad Men” or “Damages,” even when they attract minuscule audiences.

But network executives wondering why they don’t get the same Emmy love they used to need to stop blaming the Emmy voting system and instead take a long, hard look at the way they develop and nurture new shows.

With the exception of ABC, which has been a creative beacon under Steve McPherson, the broadcast networks have consistently chosen comfort over creativity when cranking out dramas in recent years.

The “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises may be well-executed, and vital to a balanced prime-time diet. But CBS’ and NBC’s reliance on such safe choices—and Fox’s so far unsuccessful attempts to get in on their game (R.I.P., “K-Ville”)—has sent viewers hungry for challenging fare fleeing to cable.

Even when non-ABC networks come up with good shows, they rarely know what to do with them.

CBS double-pumps Canadian crime import “Flashpoint” but doesn’t offer the same support to the superior “Swingtown.” NBC has banished promising newcomer “Life” to Friday nights and exiled “Friday Night Lights” to DirecTV.

It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that this year NBC—the network of “ER,” “The West Wing,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”—has not a single show nominated for best drama. It’s the first time it has been shut out of the category since 1965.

What’s NBC’s excuse for that?

***

Emmy, as usual, got a lot of things wrong.

— “Lost” is widely regarded as one of the best series of the past two decades. While it was nice to see the show back in the drama series race, the lack of writing or directing nominations is stunning.

—Emmy voters didn’t seem to be really paying attention to reality TV this year. How else to explain the absence of “Survivor” in the reality competition race following a “Fans vs. Favorites” season that Salon.com (and quite a few other critics) called the show’s best season ever?

—In another sign that older voters dominate the Academy, The CW once again was essentially shut out. Given the network’s miserable ratings, it’s not a shock that voters might not be aware of its shows. But “Aliens in America,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” the costumes and makeup for “Gossip Girl” and Tyra Banks’ hosting chops on “America’s Next Top Model” should have been enough to get the network more than two piddly nominations.

—The failure to nominate “How I Met Your Mother” for comedy series wasn’t a surprise, since it didn’t even make the TV Academy’s top 10 list released earlier this month. But nominations for both HBO’s “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” prove that sometimes voters can be a little too much in love with premium cable.

—On the comedy front, it would have been nice to see some love for “The Big Bang Theory,” which regularly aims for a much higher quality of comedy than Chuck Lorre’s other comedy, the Emmy-nominated “Two and a Half Men.”

Sampling the Reality of Reality in ‘Big Brother’ House

July 13, 2008 8:55 PM

AdalianReality TV producers should be forced to be contestants on their own shows. Ditto the network executives who put the programs on the air.

I came to that conclusion late last month after surviving a hostage ordeal on a soundstage in Studio City, Calif.

Seven other journalists and I were held against our will and forced to play a sped-up version of the long-running CBS reality game “Big Brother.”

By the time we regained our freedom some 12 hours later, tears had been shed, lives had been destroyed and none of us would ever be the same.

OK, that might be a bit dramatic. But what would a column about reality TV be without a zinger about the genre’s reputation for artful embellishment?

In truth, I’m an unabashed “Big Brother” junkie who has watched every second of the show since it debuted in 2000. I hold Allison Grodner, the evil genius in charge of the show, in the same sort of esteem my colleagues reserve for Aaron Sorkin or the guys who do “Lost.”

So when a CBS publicity executive e-mailed me to ask if I wanted to take part in the show’s annual press day, I didn’t even bother replying. I just showed up at the “Big Brother” set and waited outside until the blessed day arrived.

I told my boss I’d come back with a fun little feature story about one of TV’s longest-running reality shows. “It’s big on the Internet, so we’ll get lots of hits on the Web site,” I vamped, playing to my target audience.

But that half-day in the “Big Brother” house gave me more insight into the world of reality TV than I bargained for.

For one thing, after a decade filled with dozens of different reality shows, producers in 2008 don’t have to do much to get contestants to cough up the TV drama so vital to a show’s success. Within seconds of entering the fake home, my fellow houseguests and I immediately began living a life of unscripted cliches.

It’s almost comical the way we immediately ostracized one of our own, labeling People magazine writer Reagan Alexander a “rebel” and a “bad boy” who needed to leave the house. His sins? A quietness that we took as aloofness. Fashionable clothes and a couple of tattoos that set him apart from his less trendy colleagues.

Paranoia set in almost immediately. We began counting various objects in the house because we were convinced that knowledge would prove key at some point in the game.

And then there was the whining.

When locked in (or out) of the house, we’d begin droning on and on about what evil plans the producers had in store for us. Half of the housemates were told they could eat only a vile Play-Doh-like substance during their stay, resulting in all manner of pained looks and kvetching about “the hunger.” (Did I mention we were in the house for only 12 hours?)
Adalian
Playing the game gave me new sympathy for the countless civilians who have participated in “Big Brother” and other reality shows. While many of these folks are fame-seeking idiots, I now understand how perfectly reasonable people can so easily lose sight of actual reality while trapped in a TV show.

If producers and executives were forced to participate in their own games, they would better comprehend the psychological impact their plotting has on players. They’d experience first-hand what it means to be a hamster trapped on a wheel controlled by someone else.

And they could then use that knowledge to make their shows even more outrageous, more sensational, more likely to send viewers’ jaws dropping in disbelief at what they’ve just seen.

While the many critics of reality TV would argue that the genre has already gone too far (Exhibit A: G4’s “Hurl!,” premiering July 15), my short stint in the “Big Brother” house convinced me of just the opposite. Reality TV has grown far too comfortable in its current skin.

My fellow houseguests and I, having collectively watched thousands of hours of unscripted TV, often acted not as real people but as people who were playing a reality game.

Likewise, actual reality show contestants, as well as viewers, have become painfully familiar with the genre’s various story riffs and plot beats. We know voting results never arrive until “after the break.” We expect that the most obnoxious players always find a way to survive until the end of the season. The power is always up for grabs, fire still represents life and moving that bus is always followed by tears of joy.

It’s rare that anything surprises anyone anymore in reality. Everybody in reality knows how the game is played, and everybody plays their part far too well.

That doesn’t mean reality TV is completely broken, or that producers still can’t find ways to make entertaining television within the current format. I will watch each and every episode of “Big Brother” this summer and, in much the same way McDonald’s French fries rarely disappoint, I can predict with almost complete certainty that I will love every minute of this year’s show.

But if producers got their hands dirty and experienced first-hand how their own shows work, maybe they’d be inspired to create the next generation of “Big Brothers” and “Project Runways.”

At the very least, I can guarantee they’ll never see their genre in the same way again.

Time for TCA to Face Future

July 6, 2008 8:45 PM

For many who work in Hollywood, the twice-yearly Television Critics Association press tour has become a sort of necessary evil, not unlike a colonoscopy. There’s lots of messy preparation, followed by a mildly painful episode involving some probing and jabbing. If all goes well, it’s over quickly, no bad news emerges and the whole thing is soon forgotten.

Networks have been unhappy with TCA for years, but other than cutting back on some parties, they’ve done little to change the status quo.

Timidity is no longer an option. The time has come to stick a knife in press tour. But instead of using that knife to off TCA, broadcast and cable networks—in conjunction with the critics—should perform radical surgery on the event, cutting out all the bad elements that threaten to make it a relic.

“The biggest problem with press tour is that its format has not evolved,” one veteran of the broadcast business told me last week. “Sitting in a ballroom talking to reporters for two straight days about your network’s programming isn’t the best showcase to get the word out about the value of your product to the end user, which in our case is the audience.”

That’s the cost-benefit argument against press tour. Many network types hate TCA because it simply costs too much—up to $500,000 for a Big Four broadcaster—and the event doesn’t deliver the same promotional punch it once did.

But as painful as press tour can be, simply giving up on the whole event—or cutting the tour back to just summer, an idea floated by some network executives—is an awful notion.

As anyone at MyNetworkTV or Ion can attest, owning a TV network doesn’t guarantee any sort of significant coverage by the pop culture media. “Saturday Night Live” overlord Lorne Michaels smartly pointed out a couple months back that broadcasters now find themselves competing not just with each other or even cable, but with videogames such as Guitar Hero (not to mention YouTube and Heavy.com).

What networks ought to do is find a creative way to amortize the cost of press tour across multiple platforms. Give the old-school TCA crowd the access they need, but abandon the idea that the only way to deliver information is via mass press conferences in hotel ballrooms.

Here’s an idea: Why not replace one of the semiannual press tours—most likely the winter edition—with a convention-style gathering that showcases the biggest veteran shows as well as newer fare? It’s time to take a cue from events with more cultural buzz, such as the annual geekapalooza known as Comic-Con.

In other words, the television industry needs TV-Con.

Comic-Con, while not strictly a TV event, has come close in recent years to eclipsing press tour as the most important tentpole on the summer TV calendar. The TV business has begun embracing the Con with the sort of passion and intensity normally reserved for the relationship between Republican presidential candidates and big oil companies.

Fans of “30 Rock,” “House,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Brothers & Sis¬ters” and “Gossip Girl” might not be into funny costumes, but they can be just as passionate about their favorite shows as those who worship at the altar of “Lost.” Getting several thousand of them to shell out $75 to attend a weeklong celebration of all things TV shouldn’t be too hard.

TV-Con could follow the same basic model as Comic-Con: Fans interacting with stars at autograph booths, episodes of new shows screened throughout the day and creators answering questions—from both fans and journalists—during panel discussions.

Networks could make TV-Con more useful for reporters by giving them special access to stars and executives—lunch with the cast of “The Office” or “Mojitos With McPherson.” The all-star parties that are such a hallmark of press tour—and where many reporters get their best items—could continue to be a press-only perk.

Who knows, mingling with real-life TV fans and breaking away from the 12-press-conferences-a-day paradigm could result in better, more interesting reporting about the medium. Actual news might even break out.

There are some potential problems with TV-Con. It will be very tempting for networks to make the event nothing but a love-in, giving reporters few chances to ask hard questions of executives and producers. And producing the show might actually end up costing more money than TCA.

There’s also no guarantee that cable networks would be on board. Smaller channels and those not linked to a Big Four network are generally happy with the level playing field the current TCA setup offers.

Some industry insiders favor a less radical revamping of press tour. One possibility is the idea of turning the winter press tour into a giant Universal Studios backlot tour, with reporters packing a dozen or more set visits into a week or so. A virtual press tour that gives reporters the option of attending press conferences via videoconferencing also has been mentioned in conversations between network executives and TCA members.

Whatever form press tour takes in the years ahead, the networks would be smart to figure out some way to keep it going as long as they can. One look at the pathetic Nielsen numbers they’ve been posting this summer demonstrates they need more, not less, promotional firepower in their arsenals.