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When I set out to write this column, the negotiators for the 11,500-member Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were working overtime to figure out how to blame one another for devastating the city of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry in general should they break off their talks. They settled.
But, according to a Reuters report on the negotiations, "For most Americans, the most noticeable effect of a shutdown would likely be a proliferation of game shows, news magazines and Survivor knock-offs in prime time this fall as networks would be forced to fill their fall schedules with shows that can be produced without union talent."
In a recent USA Today, we read the following:
1. We're in the "post-Seinfeld era" where
duds far outnumber new hits
2. Top comedies tend to be the older ones, such as Friends
3. Only two of the 20 new sitcoms introduced in the 1999-2000 season
are hits Malcolm in the Middle and Titus
4. Over the last two seasons, ABC and NBC haven't launched a hit
and CBS only launched one, Yes, Dear
This is followed by one quote after another from producers,
television executives and others as they speculate on whether or
not the sitcom is "in the doldrums." and we're assured
that "most aren't worried about the genre's future."
I am reminded of the analogy that Andy Kindler came up with during his State of the Industry address at last year's Just For Laughs. He bemoaned the majorly crappy overall quality of most of the sitcoms coming out of Hollywood and likened it to the auto industry. To paraphrase, he said that if auto manufacturers had as bad a track record as television executives, automobiles would be exploding in the showroom and killing people right and left. And those auto execs would be fired and possibly brought up on criminal charges.
Mysteriously, no such action is taken when it comes to television bigwigs, even though the Big Three and the Little Three continue to crank out crappy automobiles that regularly spray viewers with hot, molten schrapnel. The suits wear huge grins as they roll out their schedules every fall. And USA Today solicits their opinions four times a year. And here's the real funny part: When they continuously crank out a product that no one will buy (read: watch), they blame it on the genre! ("Slumping Format is Trying to Shape Up" reads the subhead!)
Malcolm and Seinfeld "came out of left field," according to Darren Star, the creator of Sex and the City. Left field? They came out of the fertile imaginations of Linwood Boomer and Larry David, two men with a vision and a combination of chutzpah and balls. Since both shows are fresh and entertaining, I gotta assume that both of these gentlemen were so ballsy that they refused to let a team of network executives muck things up.
We're told that network executives, during their recent presentations to advertisers, "talked about seeking comedies with more distinctive voices." Oh, really? All they've ever talked about is finding comedies (and comedians) with distinctive voices. What they need to do is find the comedians with distinctive voices and then stand back and let the distinctive voices do the talking! Apparently this rarely occurs to them. They spend a small fortune each year going to showcase comedy clubs, going to film festivals, going to Aspen, going to Montreal, seeking comedians with distinctive voices and tacking them down with development money. Then they proceed to ignore the distinctive voices and shoehorn the comedians into the most horrific dreck known to TV-viewing man. Then they scratch their heads every 20 months or so and wonder why only one out of fifty sitcoms ever goes on to be watchable and one out of 150 goes on to become a "classic."
In light of what Dan French talked about a coupla months ago, this shouldn't be a surprise. But it always amazes me when I see the actual quotes from the suits in articles like the one in USA Today.
Get this: They told the advertisers that they're going to "look beyond the four-camera studio-audience form...for more novel approaches, including improvisation and interactivity (emphasis mine)"
Bruce Helford (who, in our humble opinion, knows how to make a funny sitcom--witness Norm and The Drew Carey Show) is going along with the gag and working with Carey on a new show for NBC that will be presented live with improvised dialogue. My prediction: A giant, steaming turd. Helford's a smart guy. I'm guessing he's getting a ton of money to go along with NBC's misguided and pathetic resorting to gimmickry.
Chuck Lorre, the man who brought us Dharma & Greg (you know, the one with the retarded chick and the guy), "is working on a Fox pilot that would allow viewers to decide the lead character's fate online." My prediction: A giant, steaming turd. Lorre's a smart guy. See above.
Why do network executives manhandle good ideas and talented actors, comics and writers to the point where the end product is a stiff, then scratch their heads, proclaim the genre dead and start barking about ediginess, experimentation and "novel approaches?" How about this novel approach: Hire talented writers, actors and a standup comic or two, then stand back and let them, oh, I don't know...create a funny sitcom?
Producer Caryn Mandabach (That '70s Show) says that people make "the wrong assumptions about what seems to be a hit formula." She says it comes down to "writing and acting." Radical!
Mandabach's comments are the only ones that seem even remotely connected with reality. The quotes from the rest of the TV hotshots are in a sort of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Medium." An assortment of knuckleheads scrambling around trying to find a buried treasure using vague clues and putting roadblocks in each other's way while seriously hampering their own progress.
ABC's entertainment co-chair "wants to re-establish comedies with a strong point of view, in the manner of shows that starred Roseanne, Tim Allen and Carey..." Where do they come up with these crazy ideas?
The article closes with another quote from the level-headed Mandabach, who was recently made a partner at Carsey-Werner. "Before we did The Cosby Show, it was famously said that comedy was dead," she says. "There will always be comedy."
In yet another USA Today article, this one an interview with Jeff Zucker, the guy that NBC has put in charge of their Entertainment Division. He's taking over for Garth Ancier, who only lasted 19 months.
Zucker's qualifications are that he ran Today for 10 years. He's regarded as a genius for sending Matt Lauer around the world on the "very popular 'Where In The World Is Matt Lauer.'" This is like taking credit for quieting down an 18-month old by dangling keys in his face.
Speaking of keys, Zucker claims that the keys to getting NBC back up on the top of the heap by creating reality programs and to "make sure we came up with comedies."
And Paul Majendie, writing for Reuters news service writes that "One of Britain's top comedy writing teams said Monday that American television comedies were funnier and better written than British ones."
Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran are 20-year veteran comedy writers across the pond and they "acknowledged that the United States was the international master of the genre right now."
"In America, 15 to 20 per cent of the budget goes into the writing," the pair said. "In Britain, it is three to five per cent. In this country a half-decent script will have to do."
It is our sincere hope that American producers don't hear about the methods of British producers. Three to 5 per cent might prove irresistable. If there are any sitcoms left at all.
The British funnymen continue: "It is not only money but they (Americans) really care about the words on the page."
Things sure look different from the other side of the Atlantic.
I wonder if they know that an American network is building a show around a chef. Bam! Kick it up a notch! Wow! I smell a tremendous situation comedy hit cooking!
And finally, Doug Young writes, in Reuters again, that "TV comedy writers and producers had little to smile about ... when the big four networks unveiled a fall lineup that gives just 27 per cent of airtime for new shows to sitcoms.
"The poor showing by situation comedies marked a continued downwards trend for a genre once considered a mainstay of prime-time television, TV critics said.
" 'It is becoming increasingly difficult to really score big with a new comedy,' said J. Max Robins, a columnist with TV Guide. 'It seems to be the hardest thing to do.'
"With so much competition for (acting), writing and producing talent, the talent pool gets spread very thin," Robins concludes. But he's not done making excuses for network nitwits: "The high costs of celebrity actors, along with high production costs in general are a major factor that have made sitcoms less palatable to the networks in an era where TV audiences are increasingly fragmented," says Robins.
Is there no bottom to the giant drum of horseshit that TV critics and network executives will sling when it comes to discounting the role that writers play when it comes to the success of a television show? Is someone in denial?
Once again, one of the networks thinks that it's a good idea to build a show around...A CHEF! Just remember that when someone tries to tell you that there's a talent pool that's getting spread very thin. If there's a talent pool that's shallow, it's in the executive offices of the major networks.
Why aren't these same critics reminding the net execs and
their readers about such abominable practices
as building a show around Bette Midler and Geena Davis? Are
they that desperate to attend the annual pow-wow in Pasadena
that they'll continue ignore the obvious bumbling going on
with OUR airwaves?
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