Let’s blow the system up: How to fix the fall TV season


Using my patent-pending multi-tiered approach to television show promoting, shows that might otherwise wind up in an early grave could have new life breathed into them.


So here we are, right, knee deep in the first few months of the TV season, and all the new shows are tiny little turtles being picked off one by one by hungry, circling seagulls.

It’s a shame. Believe me, all the people involved in the shows are upset about it. Do you think that the people who made Animal Practice wanted the show to suck? Do you think they wanted it do be lambasted for six weeks, the careers of all involved being soaked in criticism? Do you think they wanted to be cancelled?

The system we have for picking network shows was invented 75 years ago and never updated.

The people who made Animal Practice aren’t demon spawn. They’re good people, I bet, who wanted simply wanted to make 100 episodes, and then retire into sacks of money and super models.

The problem is that the show never had a shot. This is for two reasons:

1. It was terrible. Really.

2. The system we have for picking network shows was invented 75 years ago and never updated.

Now, to the first point, I only have this to say: the people who work on Hollywood Entertainment are the greatest people on earth, and when they make a misstep it’s probably the fault of Chinese currency manipulators. (And I say this in no connection whatsoever to the impending release of my first movie, How Sweet It Is.)

The second point, though. That’s worth thinking about.

(And yes, this is a topic I covered once before on TV Squad. Before you think I just Jonah Lehrered myself, understand that if you made a Donal Trump offer of $5 million to anyone who could produce actual memories of my original article, all you would get is me in various degrees of fake mustaches.)

Here’s the way a network picks its shows: it looks at all the pilots that it commissioned, picks the ones they think people will like, then puts them on the air.

That’s it. That’s the whole system. This is trickle-down entertainment and it just doesn’t fit the world we’re living in.

My idea:

Each network owns several baby networks. FOX owns FX. NBC owns Bravo. CBS owns MTV and VH1. ABC owns ABC Family. And on and on. You’d be surprised just how many channels all share the same corporate parent.

As it stands now, the fuzzy-logic rules of the broadcast world are this: the over-the-air networks like CBS try to put out home-runs that appeal to everyone. The baby networks are free to try to develop an identity, and then pick niche shows that fit that identity.

That makes a kind of sense until you realize the following:

1. It’s nearly impossible to figure out what will be a home run.

2. The niche channels tend to engage in “Channel Drift”.  (A term a super-talented blog writer from a now-departed website once coined. I believe that writer was stabbed for some trucker meth, but when he was alive, he was something else!)

What I’d like to see is a move to a more strict and tiered system with a bottom-to-top approach. (Incidentally, this exact sentence was in the personal ad that Zed from Pulp Fiction placed when he was trying to find the Gimp.)

What I’d like to see is a move to a more strict and tiered system with a bottom-to-top approach.

Let’s say that has three levels. A bunch of niche channels and the first level, a few basic cable channels next on the next, and a single broadcast channel at the top.

One of the executives at a niche channel devoted to pets decides to greenlight a comedy called Animal Practice. It’s not that great, but no one really expects it to be great, because, shit man, it’s on channel 5031 and it’s about an animal hospital.

But guess what? Some people start watching it and after a season, the writers work out some of the kinks that strangled the earlier episodes. Soon it’s the most popular show on the niche channel and it’s getting some notice at the network level.

Here’s what happens: the network PROMOTES it to the basic cable level. It moves it from Single A to Triple A. Animal Practice gets a bigger budget, some actual publicity, and a second season.

You can see where I’m going, right? By the end of the second season, maybe everyone is in their groove. All of a sudden, Animal Practice is being talked about as the new Cheers (partly because Rhea Perlman was hired to play a gibbon midway through the year). Then there are 20 posts a day about it here on CliqueClack, and in the most obvious signal of its success, hipsters everywhere are saying it was a lot better back when it was on channel 5031.

Everyone says the show is ready for the majors, and boom, in its third season it debuts on NBC, right there in the world for everyone with an antenna and an opposable thumb to see.

You tell me what makes more sense: developing a show from the ground up like this or having a 29-year-old network exec shrug and point to a DVD pile.

Could you imagine how much fun it would be to argue about which shows are ready to make the leap? Or how great it would be to argue that a show would be better not to move up. Louie might make Twitter have a stroke all by itself!

But more than that, it would do something that hasn’t happened in a very long time: it would give every show the chance to develop both itself and its audience. That’s good for the creators. It’s good for the networks. And most importantly, it’s good for the audience.

Photo Credit: ABC

3 Comments on “Let’s blow the system up: How to fix the fall TV season

  1. Genius! Except, big name actors would not appear on niche channel shows. They would wait until a show gets popular then step in to take over the role the lesser known actor created. Imagine anyone, say underappreciated comedian Jay Black creates the role of “Jimmy the narcoleptic kleptomaniac” on “Our Dysfunctional Family” on Bravo. After two wonderful seasons (and two Golden Globe nominations) NBC picks up the show, but then demands that Jay be replaced by Christian Slater. The entire chemistry of the cast is undermined, Slater’s performances suck in comparison to Mr. Black’s, and the show is canceled in 6 weeks. Black gets offered more niche channel spots, but feels (and deservedly so) that he should be on only major network fare (or HBO equivalent).

  2. As a fan of “Animal Practice”, I was disappointed by the early cancellation.
    Dr. Rizzo, we hardly knew ya.

  3. I think that is a workable concept. I would even like to see it in reverse too. Say that show A is highly touted by someone high up in the network and they premier it on the top level. The show doesn’t do all that well, but shows promise. So, just like in pro Baseball they demote it to the minor leagues to work on their fundamentals.

    To the person who says that no big name actors will appear on niche channels, take a look around, it happens all the time. I see them popping up on shows like Children’s Hospital all the time. Plus realistically the only “big name” actors you see in full time roles on network Tv are usually in the twilight of their career/popularity. There are exceptions, but they usually are people who prefer the network shooting schedule and being able to stay close to family.

    Also who are these big name actors? Look at their history and you’ll probably find they got their start on no name shows. Tom Hanks, who does cameos on SNL and other comedies all the time, got his start in “Bosom Buddies” with Peter Scolari.
    George Clooney, Facts of Life.
    Leonardo DiCaprio, Santa Barbara, Parenthood (the 1990’s one), Growing pains.

    That list goes on and on. Plus without successful network shows the pool of “big name” actors would be much smaller. It gives them a place to hone their talents and timing before the big screen microscope.

    I would also like to see a return to longer initial commitments to shows. This would allow them to, as the blogger here says, work out the kinks.
    A couple prime examples of that were Seinfeld which got DISMAL ratings in the beginning. If that show came on today it would have been cancelled by week 3. Another is The X Files. Again dismal ratings for probably the whole first season. Luckily Fox was so young at the time they really didn’t have anything to replace it with.