TCA press tour, days nine and 10: Network programming is a madman's game
The biggest benefit of the TCA press tour to people who cover this industry from a business perspective, rather than an artistic perspective, is the chance to be in the same room as the heads of the various networks who come here. There was so much grumbling about the fact that NBC canceled its executive session (using as an excuse the fact that the network’s merger with Comcast has yet to be officially approved and, thus, no one’s quite sure who’s going to be heading up what, even though the head of programming, at least, should be the same either way) because everybody likes asking NBC just why it’s gone so awry. And the questions in the executive sessions get markedly tougher, markedly more interesting, than they are in some of the show sessions. It’s easy to forget some of the time, but we’re all here because we really love this medium and we want it to GET BETTER. And part of that is holding executives’ feet to the fire to figure out what they’re thinking about assorted topics.
Thus, TV reporters tend to love candor. And the last two days of press tour featured executives who are at least known for that candor, CBS’ Nina Tassler and FX’s John Landgraf. Tassler’s candor may be spurred by the fact that she’s sitting on a network with essentially no weak links, a network where the critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated drama with solid ratings might be in danger of CANCELLATION, simply because it’s not as big as everything else. (It’s The Good Wife, in case you were wondering, and I can’t imagine CBS canceling it, even though it ranks toward the bottom of the network’s primetime offerings in the ratings.) This is a network where How I Met Your Mother struggled for several seasons because young people don’t seem to know the place exists, a network that takes as its programming strategy the idea that if you try to hit as wide an audience as possible, you’ll rope in a number of 18-49-year-olds along the way, too. And if you don’t? Well, people in their 50s and older can be advertised to as well, even if you won’t make as much money off of that.
On the other hand, FX would seem to be the virtual opposite of that model. Its original series all hit a very specific target demographic of young-ish viewers (often male), and they’re deliberately programmed to people who are invited to get deeply involved in that particular program. Justified is probably the network’s drama with the most standalone episodes, and it inspires cult-like devotion the equal of anything else the network has put on the air. This is the place where The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Damages, Sons Of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Terriers all came into being. And while you may not like all of those shows, it’s fairly easy to draw a line through all of them, connecting the dots. Yet the cable model is inherently niche-y, and that requires a certain amount of corporate bullshit, wherein you admit that the demographic you REALLY want are 12-year-old boys who have the reading skills of somewhat gifted toddlers because you can’t seem to attract anyone else. Landgraf, on the other hand, has decided that the best way to proceed with this is usually full speed ahead. When he cancels Terriers, he’s going to get on the phone with critics (and our own Sean O’Neal) and let everybody know he feels bad that the show’s gone, but, hey, TV’s a business, and sometimes this shit happens.
Of course, Tassler’s coming off a fall where CBS sometimes seemed to be the only network keeping the lights on for the traditional broadcast TV model. She can afford to joke with TV reporters about how American Idol is a force of nature, and it will probably decimate her schedule in some ways, though she has high hopes The Big Bang Theory will hold on against it. There’s an element of caginess to this, certainly. If there’s a year Idol goes down, it’s probably this one, and that means if it’s beaten even once by The Big Bang Theory, she gets to look like some sort of genius, on some level. Furthermore, she knows that this is not only possible but downright LIKELY, barring Idol having a season with a deep talent pool, which seems unlikely this late in the show’s life. So, yeah, she can sit around and tell us why it’s still cool to like CBS because she knows that, dammit, no matter what she says about Charlie Sheen’s troubles (one of the few questions she outright evaded), people will still watch Two And A Half Men. They may find his tabloid exploits deplorable, but Americans apparently can’t get enough of Jon Cryer.
Landgraf, on the other hand, had merely a pretty good fall. Terriers didn’t work like the network (and critics and fans) hoped it would, leading to one of the most disappointing cancellations in years. But Sunny and The League both did well (leading to The League’s almost-certain return for season three next fall), and Sons Of Anarchy held on to its audience, despite a season that left some critics and fans grumbling. (Landgraf defended the season as the end of act one of the epic story that is Sons, with the pivot at the end of the finale being the point where act two builds from. This is more or less plausible, I suppose, but it doesn’t excuse some of the season’s shiftlessness.) On the other hand, the network’s new drama Lights Out debuted only marginally better than Terriers last week, and there’s no guarantee viewers will find it in an ultra-competitive timeslot. Landgraf listed 16 And Pregnant, Tosh.0, and The Game as competitors, and that’s neglecting network competition like Parenthood, The Good Wife, and Detroit 1-8-7, as well as the fact that the cable slot gets that much more crowded with the return of White Collar this week. (Looking at that list, we cover four shows in that timeslot and have considered adding both Tosh and Detroit. It’s a ridiculously hard timeslot to break out in, even though FX has been programming it for years.)
Still, Landgraf has high hopes. He’s got a new comedy bloc coming up in the summer, consisting of absurdist comedy Wilfred, based on an Australian series (and starring that series’ original creator) about a suicidal man (Elijah Wood) who discovers his neighbor’s dog appears to him as … a man in a dog suit, and critical favorite Louie. He’s got the new, final season of Rescue Me coming in the summer, as well, along with new seasons of Archer and Justified in the weeks ahead, both of which get started with excellent runs of episodes. (Margo Martindale, in particular, is ridiculously inspired casting for Justified and should win every Best Supporting Actress in a Drama award going away, if there’s any justice, while the batch of Archer episodes FX sent out includes my favorite episode the show’s done to this point.) And he’s still got potential fanboy bait Powers on the back burner, though it seems the network’s taking time to make sure it gets the project, based on the Brian Bendis comic series about police officers solving crimes in a world with superheroes, right. Chic Eglee, most recently of The Walking Dead but hailing from The Shield, among others, before that, is the latest writer to come on board the project. And with Sons and Sunny and Justified, FX doesn’t really NEED another hit, particularly with how well many of its reruns and movie broadcasts do, but more hits, especially critically acclaimed ones, are always nice. So FX will keep trying.
And then there’s, perhaps, TOO MUCH candor. Showtime’s another network that has room to have some swagger, what with its corporate parent of CBS and continued rise in subscription rates. (It’s actually conceivable that Showtime could overtake HBO in the next five years, something that would have seemed impossible even three years ago.) New network head David Nevins strode into press tour on top of the world, talking about how there’s room for many more seasons of Dexter in that series’ story (please no) or about how the network will be adding, uh, a reality show about gigolos in Las Vegas to its late night schedule. Showtime’s always doing some interesting stuff (and its two drama pilots, boasting such names as Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, and Don Cheadle, sound legitimately intriguing), but it also sometimes feels as though the network can’t grasp that so much quality TV stems from strong voices of strong writers, choosing instead to overload on Hollywood stars and hope for the best with premises that are rejiggered bits from other networks or Showtime’s own shows. Showtime often offers the FEELING of watching quality TV without any of the actual effort, and its shows continue to grow and grow and grow. It’s TV for a friend of mine who says Mad Men is too soap-y but then praises newly renewed Californication in the very next breath, as if that show hasn’t seen its share of ludicrous twists. (On the other hand, United States Of Tara is back in late March and the network announced a reality series that will follow the San Francisco Giants around behind the scenes, and I’m so there, so it’s not like I’m immune either.)
Running a network in an age of audience fragmentation is probably a task best suited to manic-depressives, really, people who have brief bursts when they can pull off a whole bunch of activity and then long periods of self-recrimination and doubt. It’s not really a game for anyone who values their long-term sanity, I imagine, and even though it’s fun to play along with programming decisions at home, it’s sort of the Monday morning quarterbacking of the entertainment business. Millions of dollars worth of money are at stake here, millions of dollars designed to convince you that this one detective show is better than that other one you were thinking about trying out, and if the show fails? The money’s simply gone. And maybe so are you.
Some quick hits:
--This was my first press tour, and while things definitely got a little loopy toward the end there (at one point in the Showtime executive session, a reporter kept asking Nevins questions about the gigolo show because he said it “fascinated” him), I was impressed by how well the event works, for something where there’s obviously a bit of tension between both sides involved. It’s hands-down the best place to gain access to the folks who both make TV and star in it, and interviews I was able to conduct should be dribbling out over the months to come (and maybe I’ll tease some information about other things I’ve learned as well).
--The CW also put on a couple of panels, and while Sara Rue, who hosts a new weight-loss reality show named Shedding For The Wedding, remains an unflappable presence, the whole event was hilariously ramshackle, from the extremely brief statement given by presumably-still-outgoing (she claimed to be leaving last summer) network head Dawn Ostroff, which avoided the fact that former CW show The Game boasted a number several times larger than ANY CW show in its BET debut last week; to the utterly bizarre panel featuring the network’s “kick-ass” women, which highlighted the network’s frantic attempts to come up with just the right buzz-words to boost ratings, rather than finding actual good programming. (That said, we’re adding The Vampire Diaries, the network’s generally enjoyable, whackadoodle supernatural soap. Tell your friends.)
--I was sad to have to miss so much of the panel for The Good Wife, the best show seemingly no one who visits The A.V. Club ever watches (seriously, folks, you’re missing out on one of TV’s best dramas), but I did appreciate gaining some insight into how the show seems so prescient about Internet trends. Basically, producer Robert King is a seer, and he can see, say, Wikileaks coming from a mile away.
--CBS is airing a couple of potentially promising new shows this midseason as well. Chaos sort of seems like it’s on the wrong network, and the pilot is a little, well, chaotic, but it has a strong cast and an intriguing concept. Mad Love, meanwhile, isn’t funny, not yet, but the cast is game, and the structure is rock solid. It’s the kind of sitcom that could get very good, very quickly. Unless it gets very bad, very quickly, also a distinct possibility.
--The panel for Showtime’s Episodes convinced me I might have overrated the show. At first, I thought the show’s creators, David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, had some amount of sympathy for almost every one of their characters (the network head aside), based on viewing the entirety of the first season. But, no, their view of the characters seems to be as reductive and good-vs-evil as many of the show’s detractors have alleged. What a disappointment.