The uncertain fate of TV’s most radical get-rich-quick scheme
Kelsey Grammer (left) and Martin Lawrence in Partners
Kelsey Grammer (left) and Martin Lawrence in Partners

The uncertain fate of TV’s most radical get-rich-quick scheme

The FX 10/90 is probably dead; long live the 10/90?

Earlier this summer, FX earned 45 Emmy nominations, the most ever for a basic-cable channel. This included a second consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series nomination for Louie, the first basic-cable series to earn a nomination in the category. Elsewhere on FX and FXX’s schedules, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is prepping to kick off its 10th season in January (with an 11th and 12th already ordered); The League returns for its sixth season this fall; and Archer earned its first Emmy nod for Outstanding Animated Program.

Behind all the accolades and long-running programs, another comedy narrative plays out on FX. In June 2012, Anger Management debuted to record-high ratings, with the Charlie Sheen vehicle drawing 5.5 million viewers. It was the first of three similar projects ordered by FX through Anger Management’s studio, Lionsgate, and its distributor, Debmar-Mercury. The goal: Developing a cheap multi-camera series around established stars that would theoretically play well in second-run syndication—where the real money’s to be had. In order to facilitate this, each 10-episode first seasons of Anger Management, Saint George, and Partners came with a stipulation: If the show met a predetermined ratings threshold in its first 10 episodes, FX would order 90 more, guaranteeing enough episodes to sell as a package to local broadcast stations. And that’s how FX aired 72 episodes of Anger Management in the last two years.

In August 2014, FX is debuting Partners, another Lionsgate sitcom distributed by Debmar-Mercury following the so-called 10/90 model. The series stars Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence as two Chicago attorneys with wildly different worldviews, forced to work together by circumstance: Grammer’s Allen is fired by his father and deemed toxic by every other major law firm in the city, while Lawrence’s Marcus is suffering after a divorce and needs Allen’s money to keep his storefront legal practice alive. Joined by their employees (Rory O’Malley as the stereotypically gay one, Edi Patterson as the vaguely flighty one), their daughters (McKaley Miller, Danièle Watts), and Marcus’ mother (Telma Hopkins), the two men set out on a journey of self-discovery that, if the ratings are strong enough, could run for 100 episodes in the next few years.

Chances are it won’t. Anger Management’s audience shrank to 2 million viewers by the end of its first 10-episode run, and has fallen a further 75 percent near the end of its 90-episode back order. The second FX 10/90 series, the George Lopez-starring Saint George, debuted to a fraction of Anger Management’s premiere numbers, falling precipitously throughout its run and failing to hit the mark for automatic pickup. Given that FX is burning off Partners over five weeks in the final month of summer, all signs point to the end of the 10/90 model at the channel.

It’s unlikely FX is sad to see it go. What’s become clear since 2012 is that the 10/90 is a form of television development fundamentally incompatible with the FX brand, and with the brand of any channel fostering a creativity-driven environment. In a business that has always been a negotiation between economic imperatives and creative potential, the 10/90 model makes no effort to have that negotiation. It’s the television-production equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, and it shows in every pained, unfunny minute of Partners’ first two episodes, as well as in the creative struggles of both Anger Management and Saint George.


Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne

The origins of the 10/90 model can be traced back to 2006, but the logic behind it stretches to the repeal of the Financial Interest And Syndication (or fin-syn) Rules in 1993. The rules were enacted by the Federal Communications Commission to keep broadcast networks and their in-house production studios from shutting out independent producers like Partners co-creator Robert L. Boyett. With producing partner Thomas L. Miller, Boyett produced Full House, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, and Step By Step in the ’80s and ’90s; Miller-Boyett was one of a number of production partnerships that primarily produced broadcast sitcoms during this period, and which, through the lucrative space of syndication, made millions. (Carsey-Werner, responsible for The Cosby Show and Roseanne, was another.) But when those rules were removed, the networks had no incentive to draw on outside producers when they could produce their own shows and keep the syndication profits for themselves. Miller-Boyett had no new series run longer than a single season after 1993, and with the 1999 cancellation of Two Of A Kind, the company disbanded, a relic of a bygone TGIF era.

In the decade that followed, the rise of the single-camera comedy made stage-bound, live-studio-audience sitcoms passé for broadcast networks, but the affiliate stations who buy syndicated series still demanded broad-skewing multi-camera fare. Many of those single-camera shows—30 Rock, for example—proved too niche for wide syndication. Meanwhile, basic-cable channels that once built their brand on syndicated series were branching out into more original programming, meaning channels like TBS and TV Land were open to the kind of sitcom that was already a key staple of their respective rerun lineups. Sensing an opportunity, Debmar-Mercury and Lionsgate stepped in to meet demand on both ends, creating a model that offered a large quantity of original programming at cheap prices, all the while generating the 100 episodes (the traditional barrier to syndication) guaranteeing profitability for the studio. In just two to three years, they stood to reap immense rewards. And with three TBS sitcoms, Debmar-Mercury did just that: Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne ran for 254 episodes between 2006 and 2012; Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns ran for 140 between 2009 and 2011, and Are We There Yet? produced 100 episodes between 2010 and 2012.

But you can already notice the downward trend here: Whereas the two Tyler Perry series earned additional orders, Are We There Yet? was stopped at 100. Its final season was even moved out of primetime, strip scheduled during daytime hours. The reason? TBS had purchased syndication rights to The Big Bang Theory, the one multi-camera megahit to emerge in the last decade of broadcast sitcoms. Debmar-Mercury’s experience with TBS indicates the inherent instability of this production model. The promise of lots of cheap programming sounds great when a series debuts to strong numbers, but as a network becomes more established, executives have other programming options, and those 90 episodes of Are We There Yet? became a burden rather than a blessing, shuffled off to daytime to continue serving Lionsgate and Debmar-Mercury’s syndication needs but no longer holding value for TBS.

You can think of the FX 10/90 as having three steps. Step one involves finding a star whose previous multi-camera sitcoms performed well in syndication: Charlie Sheen had Two And A Half Men, George Lopez had The George Lopez Show, and Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier) and Martin Lawrence (Martin) came to Partners with their own bona fides. Step three, meanwhile, is the ultimate goal of the model, which is Lionsgate profiting handsomely when the series is sold into syndication. The problem is the second step, making the model the embodiment of a South Park meme: Step two is nothing but “???” for Lionsgate, an afterthought compared to the casting and profit forecasting. In the case of Partners, the show didn’t even start with a premise: It was simply a planned 10/90 series starring Grammer and Lawrence, with Boyett and co-creator Robert Horn (late of Disney’s Teen Beach Movie franchise) brought in to build a show around them. And while this is true of many star-vehicle sitcoms (see also: this fall’s Mulaney, or Bill Cosby’s forthcoming return to NBC), the 10/90 model is so focused on the end goal that it tends to forget to create a sitcom that could creatively sustain 50 hours of TV produced in a three-year period. Partners’ second episode sees Allen and Marcus pose as a gay couple to expose a two-timing “gwedding” planner (Missi Pyle) whose villainy is right out of the Disney teen films on Horn’s resume. The tone is off, the dialogue is tired, and only Grammer is able to rescue the material from itself, with Lawrence sleepwalking through scenes clearly intended to be more dynamic.


Partners

We’ve danced around one important fact regarding the 10/90 model, and the reason why the value of many of these shows declined over time: They are not, objectively speaking, great television shows. House Of Payne has its moments—“Busted,” the first-season episode that unexpectedly deals with addiction, is worth seeking out—but these shows are produced in an environment where quality is an afterthought. They’re not designed for any one episode to stand apart or to be revisited on DVD or streamed on Netflix. The value of a single episode is determined by quantity more than quality.

This is a problem for FX, which built its comedy brand by pushing boundaries and letting showrunners make the shows they want to make. The freedom afforded to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia helped that show grow into a success story; the expansion of that freedom, to an almost absurd degree, gave the network Louie. When FX announced the deal for Sheen’s Anger Management, there was already a fair deal of confusion: If FX was so committed to fostering a strong creative environment, then why make a deal with Lionsgate using a model that is seemingly disinterested in making the best television show possible? On the day of Anger Management’s premiere, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf answered this question, by outlining the networks’s four principles of comedy development: Don’t interfere, keep it cheap, own your own shows, and laugh when nobody else is laughing. Then he outlined a fifth: You can’t make new shows without money.

It was a frank acknowledgement. FX cultivates its comedies on purely creative terms, but it remains a business, one that was willing to accept the low cultural standing of a Charlie Sheen sitcom so long as the network could keep handing blank checks to Louis C.K. Given that Anger Management drew huge numbers, boosting the ratings for Louie and Wilfred along the way, Landgraf wasn’t wrong to see potential.

He also wasn’t wrong to think Anger Management would be harmless to the FX brand. At the time, he explained:

“For someone like me, who’s very ambitious and even fussy about the brand, I’ve never viewed it through a prism of haughtiness. Will I confuse the viewer or somehow lose focus? I literally have not an ounce of worry about that.”

Sure enough, when Landgraf sat in front of critics last month at the Television Critics Association press tour, no one asked him about the continued ratings decline of Anger Management, or the failure of Saint George, or the pending debut of Partners. Critics have been unkind to all three projects and the shows haven’t offered the kind of programming boon Landgraf imagined in 2012, but everyone is content to forget it ever happened, focusing instead on the rest of FX’s programming lineup—which, with the pending departures of Sons Of Anarchy and Justified, is going through a larger transition. In five years, when someone randomly stumbles across an episode of Anger Management on their local Fox affiliate, there’s a good chance they won’t even know the series originated on FX, despite the fact FX will get their negotiated percentage of the syndication revenue.


Anger Management

The failure of these shows carries greater concern for Lionsgate and Debmar-Mercury. In retrospect, the prospect was doomed to fail: The gulf between the limited aspirations at Lionsgate and the expectations of the FX brand was too wide. FX briefly passed Anger Management off as part of its larger sitcom lineup, selling critics on their creative involvement and pushing the show to explore multi-generational dynamics by making Martin Sheen a series regular. But after that failed to boost the show’s ratings, and the show struggled with the same problems that plagued Sheen’s previous sitcom, Anger Management simply faded into the background. It sends a concerning message to Lionsgate’s next target. The 10/90 model left TBS with a 3-for-3 record, but all signs suggest FX will give up on the strategy following two straight failures (barring a stronger-than-expected debut for Partners), presenting significant roadblocks for Lionsgate’s proposed Kevin James project and other future 10/90 series.

Yet, it’s difficult to be sad about the 10/90 model’s lack of immediate prospects. In a perfect world, Lionsgate would team with creatives who know how to build a sustainable sitcom in a contemporary style, developing the kind of show audiences—rather than syndication-market buyers—want to see 100 episodes of. Regardless of its future, the 10/90’s eight-year run stands as an artifact of a moment in television distribution where the promise of profit led stars, producers, and broadcasters down a rabbit hole of low production values, thin premises, and none of what makes great television comedy—on FX and elsewhere.

More For Our Consideration