All caught up? Great.
There's the business. Right there. In one hilarious, depressing blog post. One test screening, one ratings point, can make you go from hero to zero, or back again, in a split second. Because the business is all about perception. And perception is driven by numbers. There are the ratings, of course. And then there's the cost. With a new show, you're always fighting about money. What you can amortize over the initial episode order, how embarrassingly low your pattern is, and why Some Other Show next to you on the lot is spending so much more money than you are. It's about how much the studios and networks give you for a writing staff. These days, it's about forty dollars, because development has changed, which means that PODs take a big cut of your budget.
And if your show isn't working, then you're on Death Watch. It used to be that Death Watch only existed inside the industry, but now there's a whole industry outside TeeVee that will do Death Watch for you. For free! Blogs and entertainment sites will gleefully spew about how such-and-such show is about to be canceled, or already has been (Dollhouse was canceled a long time ago, except it wasn't). But you can't really know what Death Watch is like unless you're on a show. The stress of it alone is virtually unbearable. And I've only been on staff. I can't imagine what it's like for a showrunner, for the person who created the show, to be expected to stay creative when their show is hanging by a thread for six months. Because Death Watch starts as soon as your first ratings dip occurs, which is normally by the second episode because that's how audiences ARE. And no matter how much you lie to yourself about the demos being good or the show being cheap or the network execs really loving the show in spite of the ratings, your show is probably dead. The networks will only be so supportive and if they perceive your show as a loss, they will cancel it. And the studio will go about this far, too, because let's remember that studios have different functions than they used to. They are no longer there to protect the show from the network because more likely than not, the studio and the network are the same entity. And as soon as one entity goes, "Hey, you know that fancy licensing fee? We'll pick the show up, but only if that bitch is cut in half," well... the studio backs down real fast.
The studio also makes deals with the network. If they're trying to get an underperforming show picked up but they're also trying to get new shows picked up, they will sacrifice the old in a heartbeat. And overnight, or over a studio lot latte, your show will go from protected to sacrificed. Because from their point of view, that new show is like a horse going into the gate for the Derby. All potential, baby. While your show already struggled down the stretch and finished in the back of the pack. And even though it's frustrating and infuriating, you can't argue with them when they talk numbers. A network may also be more inclined to pick up a show from their vertically integrated studio. This doesn't always happen. But Fox owns Dollhouse, and it doesn't own Sarah Connor. So you can parse whatever you want from that.
All that aside, the one talent you develop from being on show after show that's been on Death Watch (and this is every show I've been on except one) is instinct. You start to know the signs of displeasure. You begin to figure out, much more quickly than your agent, that a certain job isn't going to happen, that your show's going down, or that your pilot is dead. My instincts are razor fucking sharp and so far, infallible. It's not necessarily a talent I love, because it precludes any kind of anticipation or hope. But it's seriously valuable and when we get a show on the air, I'll be ready.
I think the relationship between entities and showrunners has changed, too. Showrunners aren't partners anymore, because partners have no role in a corporate environment. The power structure is different. A showrunner is essentially middle management. But there's also the thorny issue of creativity. A middle manager isn't necessarily a creative person, but a showrunner is. Likewise with executives, who are also middle management but can also be creative and supportive and great. The problem is that they have a corporate structure they must answer to, and this hurts creative partnerships. That's the part of the job that can be infuriating but also intensely rewarding -- when you're working with an executive who really gets what you're doing and what the show can be. But they don't really get to make those purely creative decisions anymore.
What a corporate structure REALLY wants is to make a show without pesky folks who have creative visions. Welcome to the fold, reality shows!
I doubt very much that there's an integrity stand-off or a creative coalition over one of the myriad dancing shows. Although maybe they fight like little Chihuahua critters over which Olympian to cast. I don't know. How easy reality show producers must be to deal with! All the corporations have to do is, every few years or so, feed Simon Cowell some line about how he's irreplaceable, then hand him another bag of money (which they can afford to do because they've slashed the budget of scary robot shows and the writing staffs of everything).
But something's been happening lately, and it has to do with the Thing That Will Change TeeVee Forever -- the new Jay Leno show. Yes, the show that took somewhere around 25 writing jobs and about a thousand -- that's 1000 -- production jobs away. DAMN YOU, JAY, DAMN YOU TO HELL! Except not. Because it's certainly not Jay's fault. "Hey, Jay, turn down all that money so there will be more dramas on the air." He's not a fucking saint. He's human.
So we get Jay Leno, every night at ten. A radical new way of addressing network costs while still airing something. Networks generally order at least one show that is either not totally fleshed out as a series, or that they think is one thing, when it's really something else. Or, they'll order something they like on Tuesday, but have problems with on Wednesday. Jay Leno is apparently that show for NBC. In the first virginal flush of "Hey, this shit's CHEAP!" NBC forgot that they have the Tonight Show, now with Conan O'Brien. The Tonight Show's a big deal. Always has been.
And that format isn't going to change because there's a new host. But funny interview host guy is also Leno's brand. And that would be fine, if NBC had just let the guy go to ABC. But they didn't. They kept him and maybe they thought, "We'll figure out what his show is later." But according to Internet gossip, they haven't cracked it yet. And maybe there's a little bit of buyer's remorse, where they've realized that they have two hours of essentially the same show on every night. How do they make it different, when they're counting on Leno's brand to bring an audience, and that brand is the Tonight Show?
They take the reins and try to fix the problem. They tell Leno that he has to come up with a solution, too. They make the show one of their priorities (and really, it must be THE biggest priority at the network). They do exactly what they do to a drama that they perceive as problematic. This is really interesting, because the Leno idea seemed like something they could order and forget. And that seemed to be one of the main attractions to the idea, aside from the massive monetary savings.
Everybody is going to be watching NBC to see if this works. If it fails, does that mean NBC will go back to scripted programming at ten, or is that now gone forever? I guess we'll see. Regardless of whether or not the Leno gambit succeeds, it will still have changed the network business forever.
Enough of that.
Alan Smithee on Fringe:
But I do think the praise lavished on it is worrying, perhaps indicative of an age of diminished expectations on network television. I mean, isn't the show guilty of most of the things you condemn elsewhere? Cool Ideas given more importance over character, motives sacrificed for mystery, gimmicky, hollow plots. Sound familiar? I wonder why it is that people can recognize all this stuff so readily on the likes of, say, HEROES, but don't want to see it in Fringe and LOST. Maybe it's because JJ Abrams is just so fashionable at the moment that to step back and say "hang on a minute" is to make yourself the only pooper at the party.
I've only seen the pilot of Heroes, but I didn't see anything at all original. Although TeeVee is ostensibly about characters, let's take a look at what most people watch -- procedurals, which are about plots. So seeing a cool idea on a TeeVee show that isn't a new way to catch a killer actually DOES make me happy. And for me, at least, it's not the fact that JJ Abrams is fashionable. I adored Alias, and that had one cool idea piled on another. Sometimes I really, really love cool ideas. The fact that I love them on genre shows isn't acceptable, but other people loving ideas on procedurals somehow IS.
But with Fringe and Lost, I also like the characters. Now, Olivia Dunham certainly isn't the archetype that Fox Mulder is, but it's not necessary that she be. And there was little more terrific character work in last year's TeeVee season than Walter and Peter at the beach house. What I loved about that scene is how the revelations of the episode deepened the characters. They didn't have to come right out and say it. It was there.
Dan said above that there's nothing gimmicky or tacked on about Fringe. Putting aside Nimoy's appearance (which felt like both), there's that other thing they call The Observer. I of course refer to the giant Where's Waldo game that's been going on not only on Fringe, but in fact all over FOX apparently. This is a figure who has no discernible motive or purpose, but gets people thirsty for the Kool Aid. You might as well call him The Gimmick. It just makes the show feel so cynical and manipulative, the TV equivalent of The Cups And The Balls.
Outside of the show, he's a marketing gimmick. But inside the show, well... it's exactly the kind of move that makes me happy. See, I don't think they're trying to be gimmicky. I think they're trying to do cool stuff.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's all bad. The production values are immense. It looks glorious on screen, and I loved the final shot. Production wise, the Bad Robot machine clearly knows exactly what it's doing, as you say. They've got FOX investing in the genre, giving it more minutes and less commercial time, and no one quite builds a hype bandwagon like Abrams. Fringe has clearly got a lot of potential in its set-up and could stand to improve a great deal in its second season if it either gives Astrid/Charlie/Broyles/Nina something worth doing or else ditches them entirely. I don't think the series is structured with enough elasticity to ever match THE X-FILES, but it could be fun watching the attempt.
There are many differences between X-Files and Fringe, and most of them have to do with how the business has changed. A show like X-Files is never going to happen on Fox, or on any other major network, ever again. Fox didn't take a risk with Fringe. Network don't take risks. Nothing gets on the air without extensive testing. And I wouldn't ask Fringe to be another X-Files, either.
Speaking of which, I'm curious about your old X-Files spec should you be tempted to showcase it alongside the unproduced pilots. ;)
Hmm. I've looked at it lately, and it's rather talky
To anyone bothering to argue with pisher in the comments -- it will only lead to great pain. I'm not going to engage him publicly, because then the blog will have been consumed by pisher. And I'm not going to let that happen.
np -- Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited, "Jo Siffert"