Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lords of the Backstage

Okay. So it's two weeks later. But everyone knows the holiday season starts November 1st, so get off my back!

We've been having a great round of meetings lately (new representation is awesome). Not only do you talk about the specific show in a meeting, but you also talk about television in general. We've had meetings where we've discussed independent business models, and meetings where we talked about network branding. This is particularly interesting in light of how well networks like USA are doing. Y'all know what constitutes a USA show. Characters Welcome and all that. And all of their shows seem to be working, partly because they have an extremely narrow focus on what type of show works for them. Because now, networks are branded by genre. But they didn't used to be, and the broadcast networks still aren't. There are two different types of branding, and only one of them is working right now.

I think it has to do with audience fragmentation. TeeVee is like the Internet now. You go to Huffington Post for progressive politics, or Free Republic for the other kind. But what if Huffington Post had Progressive Monday and then Conservative Tuesday? How do you brand that? The broadcast networks have a much more difficult job in today's fragmented market. NBC used to be Must-See TV. You could count on NBC for ten o'clock dramas and that great Thursday comedy block. Saying "That's not an NBC show" is really hard to say right now. But NBC's not the only network having trouble with this. Probably the only network that's somewhat easy to brand is the CW and again, that's because the focus is so narrow.

CBS is the Crime Network, for the most part. But it's also the Older Drama Network. It's a little easier to figure CBS. Obviously, The Good Wife was going to work there. Whenever CBS tries to go even a little outside their box, the shows don't work. CBS has a consistency that the other networks lack. However, their inability to go even one step outside that comfort zone has always been a problem for them.

Over at ABC, they don't seem to be successfully building on their Lost/Desperate Housewives success. They're clearly trying to find a Lost replacement, what with V and FlashForward. But beyond that, are they really taking chances the way they did when they put Lost on to begin with? Should they be trying to emulate Lost? Because that could hurt their shows.

And Fox, with the American Idol juggernaut that takes up about 75% of their programming, is finding it hard to build any kind of scripted consistency. What are they, aside from the AI network? House works great for them but they're more notorious for canceling fan favorite shows than for any innovation. What I do like about Fox is that they do keep some shows on. Bones, for instance. But that show exists in isolation, doesn't it? Ditto Fringe, which is going on cancellation hiatus. It hasn't been canceled yet but taking it off for so long may not do it any good, especially when Fox has shown so little confidence in its winter replacement, Past Life, which was shortened to a seven episode order. Genre audiences know better than to invest themselves in Fox shows.

Funnily enough, it's NBC that seems to understand how important network branding is. They're using the "More Colorful" tagline for the network. I think it's an attempt to lighten up the network. They gave six additional episodes to Chuck, and they were the top bidder for the new JJ Abrams pilot, which is a spy show. NBC needs a high-profile tentpole show and this is likely to be it. I hope they stay in the drama game, that they can abort the Leno experiment and get back to business. While branding a network is tough these days, it needs to be done. There can't just be crappy reality shows and then cable. There's an entire middle ground that isn't being served. And if you look back at hit shows of the past -- back when networks were king -- you see the diversity: Family comedies and dramas, shows for teens, shows for grown-ups. Cable fills the need for shows like Breaking Bad and True Blood, but where does everything else go?

I'm pulling for you, networks. Make the right moves.

Now, some long-awaited comments!

J.J. asks:
What's your take on the Sony announcement that they're not buying anything for the foreseeable future?

Well, they're not alone. None of the studios has any money. But the feature film biz goes dark from now until after Sundance, and that's about when the producers get their development funds. So we'll see what happens. Obviously, studios are in more dire situations than they've ever been. I sure wish they would make smarter decisions about what they produce but just as with networks, the studios tend to get more conservative when times are tough. The perfect storm that allows networks and studios to take risks just doesn't happen very often.

Here's hoping, BTW, that AMC's perfect storm hasn't ended. Did anyone manage to get through The Prisoner?

Mr. Burnett said this in the midst of a great comment:
Much as I love Stross, his rant sounded like many I've heard in convention hotel hallways at 4:00 in the morning. Usually at Worldcon.

And it just totally made me laugh. Because it's completely the truth.

Gareth opines:
Stross's rant is a bit off, true. Star Trek's annoying "tech the tech" dialogue is mostly gone these days. For all the flaws of Babylon 5 or Firefly or Battlestar, they didn't have it. I can see a more valid criticism there, though. It's that SF TV isn't putting enough effort into the SF part. Let's use Battlestar Galactica as an example here. There are plenty of questions that the writers obviously didn't put much thought into, including what a Cylon is in a physical sense, what language the human characters are speaking, and why it makes sense to launch fighter spacecraft from a carrier. It's still a well-written, well acted show, but I'm not sure you can describe it as good science fiction. And you could easily give those questions answers consistent with a TV show, and make it good SF.

But see, I don't have a problem with any of that. I need the characters to make sense, and the world to be sufficiently developed. And I think they did, and it was. I don't think Charles Stross has a suspension of disbelief gene. But for me, if the writing's good enough, my own suspension of disbelief kicks in. It's only when the writing isn't good that I start to nitpick.

Stephen sez:
Charlie Stross speaks only for himself on this one. The fact that Doctor Who has renewed itself and played to successive generations means that it's always had special meaning for all levels of the audience. Even through the long years when the BBC's own management looked upon the show with disdain. Maybe they found it hard to feel respect for viewers who loved a show with shaky sets and low production values.

That's good to know. Because God DAMN, that show is good. It should be a national treasure. And without Doctor Who, I wouldn't know how to pronounce Raxcoricofallapatorius.

Lynn on Zenyatta:
Yay for a Zenyatta post! As someone who first started reading this blog for the posts on TV writing, it was a pleasant surprise to find you were also a horse racing fan, and I was hoping you'd write about Zenyatta. Last Saturday was my first Breeder's Cup in person and seeing her make history was something I know I will remember for the rest of my life. Perfection.

Man, you couldn't have picked a better first experience!!! Incidentally, she's going to parade at Hollywood Park on Sunday. And Oak Tree has renamed the Lady's Secret Stakes (a race Zenyatta won the past two years) the Zenyatta Stakes. I wanted to do a compilation video of all of her stretch runs and when she won the Breeder's Cup still perfect, it seemed like the right time. Link here.

And that's today's blog post, gentle readers. If you celebrate Thanksgiving, enjoy! And if not, don't worry. Kwanzaa's coming.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Apparently, I produce 0.9 posts a week, which I found out when Google Reader suggested I might like my own blog. Way to go out on a limb, Google Reader! I wanted to get it back up to 1.0, but this has been a crazy month. Luckily for all y'all, I've been bookmarking interesting news and blog entries so I've got shit to talk about later.

But all I'm going to talk about now is the Breeder's Cup last Saturday, when Zenyatta made the kind of history you just don't see. Any notion I had that I've seen greatness was totally blown out of the water when Zenyatta crossed the wire. I could wax rhapsodic and spew racing minutiae onto these pages but what I really wanted to do was try to put into words what this really means, and why Zenyatta's victory affected people so much.

I know that the majority of people (all, probably) who read this blog are either not racing fans, or just not sports fans at all. I'm sort of a sports fan. Love baseball, used to love football, can't stand basketball. Mad about racing. If you're a writer pitching a sports project (been there twice), conventional wisdom says "DON'T DO IT, YOU FUCKING IDIOT! ARE YOU INSANE??" When you're pitching a world that's unfamiliar to the majority of your audience, you have to set that world. Same with sports, unless you're pitching a baseball/football/basketball project. While most people have at least a rudimentary familiarity with those sports, they don't, on the whole, know anything about racing. Maybe they've heard of Secretariat. They've probably heard of the Kentucky Derby. But that's about it.

I had a discussion recently about sports movies versus sports and the idea was that sports movies work because they have a narrative that actual sports lack. This isn't at all true but the fact remains that if you don't know the sport in question, then the subtleties that may give you that narrative don't exist for you. Hence, you have no fucking idea what's going on, which makes the sport in question boring only for the people who truly know and understand it. I totally buy this with cricket.

But after seeing what Zenyatta accomplished on Saturday, I have to go against that. Except for the cricket. There were over 58,000 people at Santa Anita and lemme tell ya, on a good day there's 15,000. It was pretty crowded last year but nothing like this. People came on Saturday because they heard about this unbeaten filly who was going to take on the boys for the first time. People -- no matter how much they know -- LOVE the battle of the sexes. That shit is timeless. Even if they don't know the stories within the Classic, they know the main throughline... the high-concept moment. The poster. The trailer. And that's Zenyatta. Speaking of posters, TVG gave out Zenyatta posters. And they ran out. If you saw the telecast, there are freaking posters EVERYWHERE. And not just the TVG posters; homemade posters, too.

You don't need to know racing to recognize what Zenyatta did. You just need to be alive and somewhat conscious of the world around you. All a knowledge of racing does is enhance that recognition. For example, I know what it means for a horse to go out there fourteen times and win fourteen times. Even if a football team wins every one of their games, they always know who they're playing against. Baseball players don't bat 1.000. Pitchers lose games. And geez, horses lose races. Even Secretariat lost races. Seattle Slew lost. Affirmed lost. But Zenyatta faced -- and defeated -- 88 horses in her career, and she won every one of those races at a disadvantage -- her running style. She was at the mercy of every horse in every race she ran, and she STILL won them all. Now, much like a fan of Lost who dissects the clues in the episodes, you can get more appreciation about what this mare accomplished if you have the details. But you don't need it to feel the impact of what she did. And that is certainly the hallmark of great drama.

What's kinda funny is that the people who had the info -- the fans and the punters -- didn't even pick her. Because to them, the numbers didn't stack up. I can look at the numbers -- the cold, hard facts -- and see where they're coming from. But it wasn't how fast Zenyatta went or how much she won by. It was the way she did it. And she won every one of those races that way -- cruising past the leaders with her ears pricked. That's a racehorse's way of showing disdain, people. And she showed that same disdain to non-winners that she did to champions. Bettors need it to be about numbers but the whole reason EVERYONE comes to the races is that one intangible, and that's what Zenyatta showed fourteen times in a row.

Watching Zenyatta match Personal Ensign's unbeaten record of 13 straight in her Classic prep was emotional enough. But this was on a different level, a level the majority of people at the track (me included) had not seen in person. This was Secretariat winning the Belmont. When you have someone like Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. say that this was a highlight of not only racing but of life, then you can begin to grasp the enormity of what was witnessed. But even people who don't know that, who don't have the history of that behind them, can go home knowing they witnessed something special. What Zenyatta's been doing for the past two years was captured by a huge crowd on Saturday. Everybody GOT IT.

I've never seen people just sob with joy after watching a race, but that's what happened at Santa Anita on Saturday. Emotion lifted the grandstand up. Trainers whose horses ran up the track behind Zenyatta were teary-eyed and cheering for her. Jockeys, whose horses ran very well, didn't have the words to describe what it was like to watch her cruise past them. And it was international, too. Horseplayers who were dissing Zenyatta were crying after that race. They were speechless.

Everytime a horse steps out on the track, or a pitcher takes the mound, or a swimmer takes his mark, there's the anticipation that something great could happen. The past, the history of the sport, and the future coalesce into the present. There's nothing more of the moment than a sporting event. And what sustains you through the majority of the non-great times is that possibility of greatness, of witnessing something amazing with thousands of other people. Sports are organized and rigorously policed but what happens when the gate opens in a race is the opposite of that. It's chaos, and the entropy that develops throughout can bring greatness.

It's about taking risk after risk, challenging yourself time and time again, to be better than you were the day before. It's about heart and truth and fight. Now add in horses. Nothing will make a sport more honest or true than a horse. When you see an animal lay it all on the line to WIN, it does something to you. And they certainly don't always win, as the myriad Triple Crown misses have shown us. I went to Del Mar to hopefully see Cigar break Citation's streak in the Pacific Classic and he got beat. I saw Big Brown go into the gate for the Belmont. The swell of anticipation that happens before something like that just fucking dies. It didn't on Saturday.

You can't plan great events in sports. You can hope for them, but ninety-nine out of a hundred times you're going to be disappointed. It's the unpredictability of the game or the race that gives it the drama. And it's about the search for those moments that define greatness. And that search is all about overcoming adversity. And isn't that what drama is about as well? You can't define or quantify heart, but you know it when you see it. And there's something primal about it, something that brings us all together. We recognize it instantaneously, even if we've never seen it before.

Now, if you come in and say that the horse is a dumb animal that is just doing what it's taught to do and it doesn't understand winning, you simply don't get it. And if you're a writer who feels this way, then you're doing yourself and your work an enormous disservice. Writing is about broadening horizons. Not narrowing them. And being unable to grasp what a feat like Zenyatta's means to people is more about being unwilling than blind, if you ask me.

Without Zenyatta's victory, it still would have been a phenomenal day of racing. But with that win, it became transcendent.