Before the show was picked up by AMC for domestic and Fox for international, its creator Frank Darabont presented the first version of the script to NBC, with whom he had an overall deal. According to Hurd, their response was, “Do there have to be zombies [in it].” NBC then asked Darabont if the show could be a procedural in which the two main protagonists would “solve a zombie crime of the week,” she said.
– Variety, August 26, 2016
On a recent car trip, my husband (note: not in the entertainment industry) asked why some TV was so interesting and challenging, and some was so … well, bland and safe and easy. He wanted to know why HBO (The Night Of was my most recent must-see) or USA Network (Mr. Robot, of course) could keep making such intriguing, buzz-worthy series while the broadcast networks, generally speaking were the equivalent of white bread.
This is one of these things that seems obvious once you cover the industry long enough, but may not be immediately clear to the more casual viewer. Without getting into too much mind-numbing detail, the more your outlet relies on ad dollars, the fewer risks you can get. Simultaneously, the older your outlet is, the more likely you are to be entrenched in bureaucracy, which means more vice-presidents have to justify their jobs by asking questions like “do there have to be zombies?”
Cable kicked the doors open in the 1980s, first by proving people would pay for access to a lot of movies, reruns and sports programs, then in the 1990s by proving again that they would pay for original shows. But original programming is only a small portion of what a network like HBO offers – the news in March that the channel would offer 600 hours of original programming was a 90% increase over the 320 hours in 2014. But a 24/7 channel has 8,760 hours per year to fill. That’s about 7% of your programming. Plus, you’ve got money raining in thanks to subscriptions that are not reliant on one particular show.
Now take that same 8,760 hours on broadcast and imagine that all of it has to be filled with original programming. Even adding in the syndicated shows, news, sports and morning programming (all of which is original as well, just a different type than scripted or reality TV), there’s a small wedge of reruns and that’s all they got. If HBO suddenly had to fill over 8,700 hours of programming per year, what do you think would be the quality of many of their offerings?
Still: would it be so hard for the broadcast networks to try … a little harder? You have exceptions: CBS’ The Good Wife was procedural yet also pushed the envelope. A lot of Fox’s scripted shows drive up to and sometimes over the edge. ABC is doing its best to diversify, and proving masses will watch shows that aren’t blindingly white. NBC is … well, they’ve got Law & Order: SVU and a longstanding history of comedies and … OK, they’re maybe in a bit of a fallow period. Maybe Walking Dead with Zombies might have helped.
I ask this because I just watched some of the DVD pilots for upcoming shows, and man, my bar is just set way too high. This Is Us is just about as treacly and contrived as the previews mean for it to be. The fact that our first shot of a human being in it is that of the rear end of a main character says volumes. I also checked out Timeless and when you have lines like “we have a soldier; we need a historian” to go back in time and ensure the Hindenberg does crash and someone does say “oh the humanity” and no one really comments on all of the problems with time travel (except “don’t change anything” but of course they do) … well, I had to check out. That said, we do have an African-American character who notes that going back in time, to any time in American history is a pair of bad idea jeans for him, and that’s not bad. As for Son of Zorn, the less said the better; The Exorcist looks promising and gruesome at the same time, so The Following fans should be happy.
Maybe I’m just being hard on broadcast shows. I mean, I didn’t like Parenthood. But I digress.
But the other element of this I want to mention, which actually was the heart of my discussion with the hubs in the car, is this: The new kid on the block gets to be the badass. They don’t have as much to lose. When a channel or a network is striking out in new territory, either because they want to get in the game or they’re desperate to up it, you get some very interesting thinking. No surprise that AMC’s first foray into series TV was Mad Men and while they’re getting into a bit of a groove by tapping into the geek/comic book culture with more great shows (like Dead and Preacher and so on), there’s a reason why they went with Mad Men. Nothing to lose. Let’s think weird. Different. Retro. A show run by a guy who’d had the pilot in his closet for decades. Go for it.
This is why you hear so much about Netflix these days, and Amazon and to a lesser extent Hulu. These are the new machers on the block, and they’re looking to make a mark. What’s more interesting is how so few are able to tone it the crap down once they’ve had a success or two; I scrolled through my Netflix offerings the other night and saw stuff that might have been more appropriate on Lifetime back when it was still the Network for Abused and Vengeful Women. A lot of half-baked documentaries. Lots of comedy specials. Not a lot of quality material to fill your hours until the next Making a Murderer or House of Cards.
As for Amazon, I can’t really speak: I tried Man in the High Castle and I know Transparent is quality and after that it’s a lot of white noise in my head: I don’t have Prime; my dollars only go so far. Hulu’s user experience is so borked that I can’t find or bookmark anything – I need a tutorial. They picked up The Mindy Project and sadly, it doesn’t resonate with me any more.
Who’s still doing it right? HBO, for one. There’s a reason they dominate the Emmys year after year. Once they got that Emmy for The Sopranos, they knew what they were doing. Select, quality items. They’ve branded extremely well, and kept production under control. That said, they’re also far from infalliable: back in the late 2000s, when I was writing full time for one of the trade publications, I got an invite to come in for lunch to just talk TV. Hey, free food. I think they just wanted my opinion on a few things, and it’s always flattering to be asked for that.
Who should we be working with next? Was the question I got from a vice-president.
Joss Whedon, I said. He’s got a huge cult following, is forward-thinking in his storytelling and yeah, Dollhouse isn’t doing so well but it’s still one of the most interesting things on TV. So yeah, Joss Whedon.
Not to pat my own back, but 2012’s biggest movie was directed by Whedon: The Avengers. And so far as I know, HBO hasn’t tapped him for a project.
But I would watch the hell out of it if they did.
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