Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Heady Tale

I was pleasantly surprised the other day to be directed to this post at the Planet All-Star blog.

THAT IS FREAKING AWESOME. Chad, thanks. I am in some august company there, for sure! I will say, though, that if that shining day ever comes when a studio head hands me fifty million dollars to make my show, I will be making that show with my writing partner, Erin Maher, who's been smart enough to stay the hell away from the Internets. She is a shadow being, witty and articulate in anonymity. I, on the other hand, am the loudmouthed, opinionated one. We share many of the same philosophies about all of things TeeVee. She just hasn't been insane enough to post about it on the Internets.

It's great, and weird, to know that people read the blog and parse the words and whatnot. This isn't a message board, where everybody has an equal say and you spend most of your time arguing with people, usually saying things like, "No, MasterBlaster45671, that's not how it works." In the old days, MasterBlaster45671 would be a minion of Gharlane of Eddore and then you'd just be fucked. Because let's face it, people feel perfectly comfortable stating opinions about TeeVee no matter what their level of knowledge. But they wouldn't do that to a doctor, right? Because doctors go to school. They have to learn things. TeeVee and movies, well... if someone can string a bunch of words together, what's to learn? So blogs are great for writers, because they allow us to say what we want about the business and OWN it.

And to a certain degree, I think TeeVee needs to be like that. It's been like that a little. On Millennium, we got to tell stories we really wanted to tell. There was more originality then. But it's the opposite now. Shows aren't made and then shown to the audience. The audience is always there, even though they don't know it, directing what goes on the air. So more often than not in these times, shit goes on the air. And the audience, which was unaware of this process, goes "Eh. No thanks."

The audience shouldn't know what it wants. That's the whole point of having an audience. We either entertain them, or we don't. But why don't WE give it a shot, instead of trying to anticipate what they want? Because that, gentle readers, ain't working. Why has nobody at NBC -- well, the two people who are left -- admitted that the failure of their scripted programming has more to do with the fact that it just simply wasn't very good?

EDT has this to say:
In the face of all irony - this was the rule in the post-WGA strike world. Whereas conventional wisdom would have the TV business shift toward the prolific younger/newer/hungrier writers who could come in with fresh ideas for 80 cents on the dollar, the POD deals not only continued, but thrived. And worse still - in my world - the serious pitch meetings (the ones that amounted to actual work) were disproportionally doled out to the top-heavy brand names who continued to produce the same... material... as before.

Despite all the AMPTP's ire toward the old guard for both the current plight of the business and the strike itself, when held to the fire, they readily ran back to the dinosaurs that - at the least - contributed to the systemic problems which put them in their crisis in the first place.

Its of little wonder that the new 'outside the box' thinking is to dump 5 hours off the schedule.

Someday someone will see the forest.

Well said. But since executives don't seem to get irony, the obvious reality results in blank stares. I think people need to get pissed about this. Because one of the first things they said when development opened up for that brief window was that they were going to save money by giving shows only to experienced showrunners. But what they meant was show CREATORS, which has become an entirely different animal. So, as you said, we wound up with the exact same effing process. And look! It failed! Wonderful.

I do understand, in an executive mindset, why you would give shows to people you've deemed "established." In tough times, you want to go with a proven track record. But the fact of the matter is that because of its subjectivity, there really IS no proven track record in TeeVee. I guess you could ask Anthony Zuiker to give you another CSI, but that's not really what we're talking about. Even Bruckheimer shows fail. But if a studio and a network give a show to a new showrunner, they're in the position of explaining to their shareholders why they've handed a fifty million dollar corporation to some sweaty-palmed newbie. So I get it, in a business sense. But trying to make TeeVee purely a business, trying to remove all elements of creativity and talent from it, isn't working. I don't know if they'll ever get to the point where they decide to let writers be writers. Maybe the Internet will get there first, and then TeeVee can suck it.

Bruno asked about midseason shows. I have been totally disorganized about what's going to rear its midseason head, so I think I'll just mention shows when they premiere. Which leads me to Leverage, TNT's new heist show from the inimitable John Rogers, and the possibly inimitable Chris Downey. Episode three airs tonight. And so far, I'm liking the show. Everybody tries to do a heist show, and nobody does it right. They're always heavy and portentous and angsty. They're never Ocean's 11. Leverage is a breezy, witty show with enough heft to keep it grounded. The characters are fun and distinct from each other, and I was utterly thrilled to see that the cast included Gina Bellman, who played the wife to Jekyll in the BBC miniseries and had one of the most memorable scenes I've seen in a TeeVee show. The cast is fantastic, the writing's clever, the jobs are fun, and the show looks much more expensive that I'm guessing it is.

A network would've simplified the show and would probably not have cast Gina Bellman, so there you go.

Speaking of networks, one thing I've noticed regarding the NBC thing is how people are conflating show budgets. According to Robert Reich, each episode of TeeVee costs about five million dollars. What's wrong with this is, no episode of TeeVee costs that kind of money. Heroes gets closest, but we've seen what happens to execs when budgets get that high. Now, maybe he meant including development costs and the costs of other pilots that didn't go to series. But he doesn't say so and anyway, that's sorta like saying the auto workers make seventy-five dollars an hour if you factor in their health care. It's bullshit.

In another article I read, the price of an average TeeVee show was pegged at three million. This isn't true, either, unless things have changed a lot in the past year. Bruckheimer shows may cost that much. The aforementioned Heroes, too. And maybe there are a few others. But the "average" TeeVee show? Nope. Average TeeVee shows are given budgets that are pretty tight. There's a lot of deck chair rearranging on average TeeVee shows. And it's gotten much, much worse. It's harder and harder to make shows with these budgets. There are myriad reasons for this, most shockingly that studios charge far more than they should for their own shows to shoot on their lots. And shooting in Canada isn't the cost-saver it once was.

There's also the cost of expectation, which I've mentioned before. A network picks up a show based on its pilot. And pilots generally do cost way more than an episode does. So you can do more in a pilot. You have more time to shoot it, and usually some fancy-pants director. Then, if you're unlucky (and you probably will be), this happens:

NETWORK: Whoa. This shit looks GREAT! We want that every week. Here's your licensing fee.
STUDIO: Hmmm. That fee translates to a budget that's a fraction of what we spent on the pilot. Hope you like interiors.
NETWORK: Hey, where are the fucking car chases? Don't you have a crane?
STUDIO: Crane? Please. Do you know how much we'd charge the show for that?
NETWORK: We bought a show with car chases and exteriors.
STUDIO: Give us a higher license fee, if you're so up in our kitchen about it.
NETWORK: No. Make the show cheaper.
The studio fires a bunch of writers.
NETWORK: Still not seeing our crane. Figure out how to make our show or we'll cancel you.
STUDIO: Go ahead. Our only investment in this show is monetary anyway. We're already moving onto development.
WRITERS, ACTORS AND CREW: Um, guys? Hi, remember us? We're all working our asses off to make this show as best we can. A little help, maybe?
NETWORK AND STUDIO: Fuck you. You're canceled.

Of course, with the change at NBC, this conversation will be a lot creepier because there's only one executive. Will he be angry with himself for not giving the show a higher licensing fee? Will he also be angry because the budget's too high? Will he go all Travis Bickle in the mirror? We'll never know.

BTW, Reich's also on Blogger and we have the same template! Good, or bad? Not sure.

np -- Larry Clinton, "Dipsy Doodle" (On Sirius's Swing Kids channel. Don't be scared)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Until the End of the World

Trying that short post thingy, because this merited a mention.

The appropriately named Marc Graboff, co-chair of NBC (snort. Co-chair. Really? Does this mean he's only co-out of touch?), claimed that the mass firings that took place Friday and Monday at the network is actually supposed to help writers. According to him, writers are being "noted to death by our executives" because of the current structure.

Seriously? That's his reason? He probably didn't even know about development executives and notes and whatnot, but now he's only thinking of us. Sweet, right?

What he's done, see, is decide to merge the studio and the network. This might if the show in question is NBC for NBC. But what if it isn't? What if it's NBC for USA? Or NBC for Sci-Fi? Are you going to fire all those executives, too? And what about other studios selling product to NBC? Exactly who the fuck are they supposed to sell to? The studio? How will that work, exactly, when technically, no other studios have eaten their networks? Are you really going to ask an NBC Uni exec to take development meetings as a studio and a network executive, and give notes on current product as a studio and a network executive? You are REALLY going to ask one person to do four jobs? And somehow, that is streamlining? That's going to work?

Yes, there are too many executives giving too many notes. A show should really only get one set of notes from the studio and one from the network. But you don't have to fire all of the executives to streamline the notes process. And as far as development goes, that process only gets truly fucked up when it comes down to a decision about what pilots to shoot and what shows to put on the air. And Development Exec A does not make that decision.

The studio's job is to support and protect the show and their investment. Or that was the studio's job in the past. But recently, studios have been taking more and more power. Now, when a studio disagrees with the network about the direction of a show, the show suffers. Studios don't protect shows anymore. What this weird, apocalyptic merger does is effectively take any semblance of protection away from a show. Now, shows will be out in the cold, on their own, as the studio eats its own tail as it tries to be both producer and network.

How, exactly, is that good for programming? How is that going to lead to better shows, when there are no advocates for the shows, only creaky monoliths crammed with bottom-liners who know nothing about production or how to make a TeeVee show that actually fucking WORKS on a creative level?

To add insult to injury, NBC's infinite jester Jeff Zucker has given the 10PM slot to Jay Leno. That's 10PM five nights a week. That's five hours of programming gone. That's maybe twenty pilot scripts gone. Only Keith Olbermann, much to my disappointment, seems to think this is a genius move. Talk to some TeeVee writers. Some showrunners. Ask them what THEY think. I'll bet they won't be singing Zucker's praises. Talk to the viewing audience, who wants good TeeVee but isn't getting it from NBC. Zucker said they're not looking to compete with CSI. Well, duh. They weren't looking to compete with CSI when they had drama shows on. All they care about is that Leno is cheaper than any scripted show. But hey, so was "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," and ABC drove that wagon into a ditch.

And, by the way, Zucker and Silverman have now thrown all the development money they've paid out right down the toilet. All those people who sold projects to NBC have already delivered scripts, which means they've been paid. And all of those projects are now fucking dead. Anyone who sold a project to NBC is totally screwed. Happy holidays.

The only hope here is that the other networks look at NBC, smile, shake their heads, and go back to work trying to develop and produce something decent. I hope every other network has a giant-ass hit next season. I hope their midseason shows work. I even hope CBS has another procedural hit. Anything, ANYTHING, to make NBC regret that decision and to at least make the executives who were just shitcanned a little less miserable.

Deep down, we all know that these big companies care only about the bottom line. But there's always a way to ignore that, to just focus on the creative end of things and tell ourselves that it DOES matter. And one of the ways we do that is by dealing with these executives. These are the people who can get excited about what you're pitching. I don't know about you, but I don't want to walk into NBC and pitch to HAL-9000 (oh, it's coming. You just wait). I want to pitch to people who have actually read scripts before. But now, NBC has essentially said that they're not going to pretend anymore. They won't even strive for quality. It doesn't matter.

Marc Graboff claims that this is all about the writers, and then he takes ten o'clock away from us. And Ben Silverman went skiing while NBC burned.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

No Weapon Sharper Than Will

Ah... December, when they're nothing on, and only prestige movies to see. No horse racing, no baseball, nothing to talk about. Well, I did go to LosCon for a day and somebody pissed me off, so there's that.

I wish I'd been able to make the whole con, because I had friends in town, dammit, and it's always fun to talk to smart people on a purely creative level. It makes you better equipped to deal with the bullshit when you remember why you do this in the first place.

But about that guy who pissed me off...

While TeeVee is the bastard child of movies, it is also, apparently, the bastard spawn of novels, as this one panelist indicated. Happily, I can't remember his name, which tells you something about how high-profile this mofo is. The panel was called "Is 'Realistic Fantasy' an Oxymoron?" and featured actual writers like Will Shetterly, Tim Powers, Sherwood Smith and David Anthony Durham. And this guy. Whose name I could look up, but choose not to. And frankly, the fact that I would have to look him up tells you something about his credits. The bulk of the panel discussed the "buy-in" with fantasy. How do you get readers or viewers to buy into your world? That was interesting, especially coming from Will Shetterly and Tim Powers, who write very different types of fantasy. Anyhoo, this asshat continuously bemoaned the notion that future fantasy writers are probably watching television and not reading books, which means that future fantasy is going to suck. Because it does not, of course, suck now. It's all literary and fantastic. All of it. But TeeVee is going to RUIN FANTASY. Since fantasy is currently populated by the Terrys Brooks and Goodkind and Robert Jordan, I don't think that's a cogent argument. Besides, he did it in that "now Daddy is going to lecture you" way that is always irritating.

Poor TeeVee. It can't catch a break. Right now, of course, no entertainment can catch a break. The studios and networks have made massive cuts, mostly in the assistant ranks (middle execs rarely get let go) and, at NBC, some higher-ups had to pay for what they'd done, which is waste an assload of money on underperforming shows. I'm not sure what equation was applied to ensure that the right people were fired, but I'm sure the heads of NBC knew what they were doing. They would never just pick someone as a scapegoat, right?

Even Knight Rider, which had been given a full season, is now stopping production on episode 17. NBC's done this sort of thing before (hello, Medical Investigation) so it's not entirely unexpected. The economy is freaking everybody out, so episodes are cut, budgets are slashed, writers are fired (lots and lots of writers), but the PODs still have their deals. Yep, people who usually add absolutely nothing to the production of a show are getting gobs of money per episode. And nobody seems to be saying anything about it.

There's a much more efficient way to keep a show going without absurdly firing people who are necessary to it. Stop paying pilot directors an episode fee. Stop paying everybody who works at a production company an episode fee. Just pay the people who actually do the work. Stop giving people who fail huge deals. Don't go and hire someone to take over a troubled show, give them gobs of money for a development deal, and then cancel the show. Apply the same fiscal responsibility that I have to on a daily fucking basis. This isn't rocket science. It can be done, and shows can be saved. But shit, when they fire co-exec producers from a show that costs upwards of four million dollars an episode and the guy in charge is still in charge... how is that going to help? These guys don't seem to recognize that there's a problem unless they're told by their uber-boss that there is. And then they start firing writers and assistants because they still cannot see what the real problem is. Ridiculous.

I don't know what this means for TeeVee, but it never means what it should. I.e., they won't go and find cheaper people for the job. They seem to pay "experienced" people even more money, especially when it comes to pilots. So is there going to be a pilot season for people like me? Dunno. I guess we'll wade in there and see what happens.

Adriano posted a link for a Hollywood Reporter article about how pilot-free series weren't doing well. What I love is the assumption that because pilots weren't made before the series were ordered, that somehow caused the shows to suck. Does anyone else believe this? It definitely saves networks and studios money but since they can't get it through their heads that there's a way to make pilots cheaper, they'll always keep making the same mistakes. What is totally missing from the people quoted in the article is the mention of quality, of good storytelling, of compelling characters. Because these things don't matter to the bottom-line execs. Their only focus is on profit and budget. So we basically have two industries here. One that is only concerned with money, and the other that is concerned with storytelling. There used to be a middle ground, uneasy though it was, but I don't think there is anymore. This contributes to the huge disconnect that happens when networks decide what pilots they're going to shoot and what shows they're going to pick up.

I don't know what any of this is going to mean for pilot season, but obviously a lot of midseason shows have yet to premiere so maybe things will settle down a little. We have to count on that, actually, because some of us gots to make a living, and with the shrinkage of writing staffs and almost total absence of upper midlevel jobs, it's all about pilots, baby. I'll keep you posted on how THAT goes.

The bottom line is, everybody is panicking. But no matter what happens, the industry manages to survive. The lack of a real hit this season has definitely hurt. But who's to say there won't be a big midseason hit? We're always working towards that hit. Everybody in the business does that. So maybe a bit of a freak-out is good. Let everyone panic, and then let's get the fuck back to work on trying to make good TeeVee, regardless of the odds of doing so.

One last comment...

Anonymous sez:
The comments about the CBS template made me think of the supplementary materials on the "Millennium Season Two" DVDs. Specifically, how everyone seems all bent out of shape over Morgan and Wong's direction for the show robbing it of the chance of becoming CSI before CSI. At least that's how I interpreted it. Good grief.

You never get credit for being ahead of the curve. Ever. And for my money, Millennium was much more intriguing as an esoteric secret history show than it would be as a precursor to CSI. Because there were already precursors to CSI. Quincy, anyone?

I really wanted to make this post a bit shorter because I do want to blog more often. Yeah, I say that all the time, but this time I really mean it! And here's a present as a gesture of good faith: A little piece of cinema verite for you to enjoy.

Until next time, which will be very soon, or at least soonisher...

Okay, I can't stand it. The idiot panelist's name is Justin Lloyd. No idea if he's ever written a word.

np -- The Maybes, "Promise."