Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fixing American Television

There seems to be a misunderstanding among the people of hollywood's boardrooms, well to be fair there are many, but the one that stands out the most is that they believe that given other countries are literally shoveling them truckloads of American dollars to air their programing internationally, they feel we must be the best at producing television. They assume that because we pioneered and innovated so much in the field, and that our programing becomes “international hits” more often then not, they believe that what they are doing, and what they are producing is excellent, quality programs. When in truth, when compared to programing from around the world, in content, production, quality of acting and writing, things like that, American television most of the time falls short of the mark, and in more then afew cases falls so short of the mark you have to wonder if anyone even attempted to aim for the target in the first place. You see, the problem with it all is, American Television Executives are completely out of touch with those who they are aiming their product at. They seem to be completely unable to reach the common everyday person with 90% of their programing, and the 10% of the time where they do, its either rammed down our throats until we vomit it back up at them, or is canceled after one season, sometimes not even that, you see, it doesn't matter to a network that fans rave about a show, or that critics rave about a show, all they care about is how much money they can make off a program based off how many people are watching it. Because thats their bottom line, to those who dictate what is put on the air these days, money they can make off of something, is all they care about. They no longer care about innovation or quality, all they care is that we will sit down infront of our televisions and watch, they don't really care what they air, as long as you are on your couch watching whatever they put infront of you, no matter how lackluster or mediocre a lot of it is.

Now, don't get me wrong, when we here in America produce a show that goes international and becomes a hit, about three and a half out of five times, its deserving, the rest of the time you end up with mostly badly written programs that are a hit here for some reason, and people internationally clamor for only because they hear the buzz about it coming from our magazines and websites and the like, because lets face it, the American Hype Machine is unmatched the world over, after all, its how horrible excuses for famous people like Paris Hilton and that guy from Twilight keep their faces posted all over every news stand the world over. People in general, myself included, have a habit of keeping up with things just because they feel if they don't their friends will look at them odd for being clueless when talking about whatever they watched the night before, anyone thats ever watched any of the many reality shows the world over know exactly what I'm talking about, no one wants to be that person that gets confusing looks because they didn't watch whatever over the top serious drama or reality show was on the night before, no one wants to be the odd person out, we all feel we need to be in the loop on stuff like that, its important to us all, the whole common ground thing and all that, if we can't relate to what our friends are talking about, then we feel we're left out or will be left out. Its funny because we all know that its not supposed to matter or effect us, but we all know it does, and will continue to do so, simply because we as people care about what others think of us and what we watch. Network boardroom executives call it “Buzz Factor” and count on this to get as many people watching as possible which brings in higher prices for add space, infact many times they blatantly play off of it as a means of making money by making you think you are seriously missing out, buzz factor is what keeps shows like “Lost” and “Law and Order” on the air regardless of if most claim they've become tired lumbering almost parodies of themselves and what they stand for or not.

So the question still remains, how do we fix American Television? Well, there are afew ways, none of which are really all that simple, but at the same time, not all that complicated, they're abit time consuming, but, as the old saying goes, “If something is worth doing, its worth taking the time to do it right.”.

The steps to Fixing American Television is as follows...

Understand Your Subject Matter: take the time, hire writers that are aware of the subject matter they are writing about, look outside of the normal 30 or 40 guys that write on television, look for someone unknown if you have too, but no matter what, find writers that actually are knowledgeable on what they're writing, you can't write a comedy with people that have been writing cop dramas for the last 10 years, and you can't write a drama with sitcom writers it just doesn't work. Example: If you are writing a science fiction series about vampires, that is going to attract many different types of views given how vampires are viewed in today's popular culture, now thats all well and good, but, here is the catch, there are so many different types of belief on vampires out there, and you don't want to exclude one group or favor another because that will make you lose those viewers, so what do you do? You go out and hire one writer who is knowledgeable in each of the different beliefs on the matter and they all work together to mesh the different types together as one, sure there will be some that hate the aspects they don't believe or agree with on the matter, but, they'll still watch the series for what they do enjoy, which is probably as close to enjoyable as you'll get with some fans, especially in certain sci fi niches, where people can become angered and out and out rude and spiteful over certain things. If you need farther proof of this fact, go look at a comic book forum whenever a movie or television show based on a comic book comes out, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.

Now I'm not saying, you need to simply aim at pleasing a niche of fans, obviously the goal of any series is to bring in as many viewers as possible, but what I'm saying is, more people will watch your program if you are aware of, and respectful, to what the subject matter is. Another example; afew years ago there was a series called “Over There” which was based on the current Iraq “war”, it was violent, it was gritty, and it didn't exactly show the united states army in the most holy and pure of lights, it was realistic and true to its subject matter, and though that brought controversy and eventually an undeserving cancellation after only one season, the ratings were so far through the roof it was almost criminal watching this show slaughter anything else in its timeslot. Now, what made this possible is, 3 of the writers on the show, and the show's “Creative Consultant” were former military personnel who had either served in the 1991 Occupation of Iraq or in the case of their consultant, not even home from Iraq just about 18 months before being hired for the job. The show did gain a lot of praise and a lot of hate for its realistic depiction of what things were like over there, but the final facts on the matter are, even though its realism was its downfall, people still to this day 4 years after it was taken off the air talk about it, and how true it really was. Love it, hate it, or not even remember it, all that matters really is, that the firestorm that followed that program, came because the writers knew exactly what they were doing and what they were writing about. Its proof positive that knowledge of subject matter will make a show great.

Cast Your Series Correctly: This has to be one of my biggest issues with television here in America, they don't want to cast for the character, they want to cast to find someone that looks like someone that is already a star, or who has a look that could make them a star. They don't think about the character or the acting ability, they just think about the marketing, and personally I kind of see that as a kick in the crotch to viewers. Its like saying “We aren't strong enough as writers to write a series that you will find enjoyable, so instead, here is an actress who looks like whoever the super hot actress everyone is going nuts for on the internet, we will write around dressing her in sexy clothing and put her in as many vaguely sexual situations as possible just so you will not notice our lackluster attempt at writing.”. They do the same thing with men on shows aimed mostly at women too, except in those cases you can spot the guy their trying to do with with by the fact he's normally wearing an unbuttoned shirt or no shirt for atleast one scene per episode.+ Now some people might think its silly to say that correct casting is important to a tv show, but, you see, no matter how you look at it, casting is the corner stone of any series, it can make or break one. Here in the states a role is cast do to how well they can market them if they become popular, it doesn't matter if the actor or actress can actually act, or more is believable as the role, all they care about is if they can stick you on a poster or a lunch box, or whatever other useless bovine excrement they slap your image on. See, your characters need to be as believable as your plot and your over all story, two years from now, a thin Paris Hilton looking blonde idiot might not seem as great a character on a “fresh and hip” teen aimed drama, that would work on a comedy, where as people would just assume you're making fun of Paris, but you get the idea, you need to think ahead instead of looking at whats outside your door.

You also need to learn what “average” is, more times then not, a character is described as “an average everyday person” or something or another, and yet, they look like the spend all the time they aren't working for a delivery service with an angry fat midget that runs the dispatch, working out in a gym. I'm sorry, I understand the need to make things look “pretty” for television, but take a really good look around at the casting of people in other countries, on other nation's programs, they don't all look that way, you have a nice mixture, much like you would in any average place here in the states. When foreigners watch our programing, many don't understand why on television, Americans are all in excellent shape and attractive, when the average American isn't, that isn't saying that we're all fat and ugly, I just mean that looking at statistics the average American isn't what we see on television, its a falsity. Other countries cast their programs accordingly to how people look where they are, and it pays off. Example; if the Canadian series “Trailer Park Boys” was made here in the states, I doubt that the characters that appear in the series would look as they do, Bubbles, who has thick glasses, lives in a shed with kitties and spouts wisdom wouldn't look as he does, Randy the shirtless trouble making assistant supervisor wouldn't look the same, nor would main characters Ricky and Julian, or the girls, or well the whole cast really. Someone in an American network boardroom would say “these don't look like what we want Americans to think are your average everyday people” or something, and they'd be changed to pretty people who look good on posters and things, except Bubbles, he would be made into a nerd that spends to much time on the internet and constantly spouts off quotes from various cult classic movies. Yeah, the idea of a show like that scares me, but you get the idea, American networks seem scared to cast realistically, if we're to survive and bring our product up in value, we need to get over the “only pretty people on TV” stigma we have here, and do what the rest of the world has done, try and cast our shows so they fit more with how our people really look, so they can identify with them.

Stop Making Formula Sitcoms: I can not stress this one enough, the writers on American television programs have become lazy and unimaginative, and just recycle the same plots and the same episodes over and over again, either on the same program or on different ones that follow the same formula. There is no creativity anymore, and it just has become so painful to watch as this circle repeats over and over and over, its been happening sense before I was born, and it will be happening long after I am dead unless someone stops it. It was once said to me, the sitcom killed television comedy, and in a sense thats true, before sitcoms came along, there were actual comedy series on television, which were filmed infront of live studio audiences, which ment the laughter, was real laughter, there were no signs saying to laugh or cheer or clap, people just did it because they wanted too, because the character was someone they all cared about or because the jokes were actually funny. Now most shows are closed set and the laughter is added in later with what they call “canned laughter”, which pretty much tells you when a joke is ment to be funny. I don't want some moron with a sound effects board to tell me when to laugh, or what should be funny, I want to decide for myself. And I want writers to come out from behind their hiding spots at their desks and own up for how they've done nothing but prostitute themselves for the sake of claiming they wrote on a certain television show, it happens this way in drama too, more so actually, where they try and make everything all super high tone drama all the time, but its just not. Though were a drama can sneak by with the guise of it being ment to be super dramatic, a sitcom can not.

And example of why the “American Style Sitcom” does not work; back in the mid-1990s, New Zealand's then fledgling network TV3 wanted to branch into comedy, so they hired some American sitcom writers and producers to come over and make a sitcom for them, the end result was the series “Melody Rules” which not only is seen as the worst comedy that was ever made in New Zealand, but also is seen as one of the worst sitcoms ever made in the entire world, it actually ranks number 4 on the international all time worst list, it used to be number 3 but was recently moved to its current standing do to an american made sitcom that aired and was promptly canceled ranking above it. The fact that the top three worst comedy programs ever made are american and follow this formula doesn't seem to bother anyone amazingly.. Melody Rules followed the “American Formula” which to those that don't know means this; three cameras to film, very few sets normally a living room/lounge room where most of the show happens, a kitchen, a bedroom, and maybe a hallway or front or back porch, everyone has a catchphrase, there is atleast one “wacky neighbor”, you hear people on the phone or references are made, but you never see them, and no one talks about anyone else they know that is not either part of the main cast or the extended cast and if they do, its because this person who they've known for however many years is going to appear in that episode and then never appear again or be mentioned, they are in a sense in their own little bubble, oh and they use canned laughter instead of live reaction. Melody Rules lasted two seasons, but most claim that was because they didn't want to give up on the show right away, given their lack of a replacement series for its timeslot. When asked why they disliked the program, the general response was that it seemed fake and cheaply made, they seemed to have no real point of plot, and were just poorly written and poorly conceived. This doesn't say that all sitcoms are bad, there has been a rise in recent years in one camera ones that are pretty good, one camera meaning they aren't bound to one location, they can go anywhere and its just needing one camera staying with the characters to film it, plus with those, the world seems more rich and believable because you aren't stuck in a living room or a kitchen all the time, you're able to roam and meet others, and have a big rich cast of extended players, this, though still using absurd plots, makes it seem more realistic and allows you to believe these people aren't just in a bubble where nothing ever happens except what goes on in that main room.

Do Not Use Ratings To Judge A Show's Worth: Its a hard cold fact, more times then not, ratings kill a program long before it should end. See, unlike other countries, which are willing to let a show air for its complete ordered run and maybe a second series, or season, or whatever it is they call first run programing where you are, just to see how much can be done with it, and allow it to properly set up its world and those who live in it, here in America we don't seem to believe in that concept, we believe that if the ratings aren't to a certain level, its not worth the time to air the program, and that we could just replace it with something else, or a rerun of something else in its timeslot till something can be found to fill that space. We seem to forget some programs start out slow and build up steam near the end of their first season, or the beginning of their second one or later. Some stories and characters take time to properly develop and build to what we're expecting them to be before the show can be as great as we're told it can be. Seinfeld was that way, I don't know how many people realize that after its first year Seinfeld was canceled, it was brought back after some boardroom politics and went on to become the series that so many claim to be one of the best comedies ever put on television, in a similar vain Fox's Family Guy was canceled for almost three years, only to come back and become a behemoth of sorts in the world of animated comedy. But in a world where so often you're given just afew weeks to attempt and find and gain a fanbase, cases of that nature are very few and far between, these days at best you can hope for would be a miniseries that concludes everything for you like the series Jericho had recently, or a direct to video finale like the series Prison Break. Or in the case of Guiding Light, the longest running non-news or sports program in american history, you'll just get an end, no real send off, no real fanfair, nothing, just shutting down the set. I mean I'm no fan of a soap opera, but come on, after 63 years or something, you're gonna just up and cancel a program because of numbers? Thats nuts.

More times then not in this day and age, the voices the networks should be listening too, are ignored, what the critics say and more importantly what the people say, a lot of times is completely ignored, and instead the over night and weekly ratings are all that matter. Now, I can understand to some degree where they might dismiss those like me in the critic field, but when you completely dismiss the voice of the viewers? That just seems like idiotic to me, the viewers are what matters, the viewers have all the power in this industry, they are the ones sitting infront of the television to watch a program, that means they are really all that matters. And if you ignore their voices, and just keep churning out spin offs and rehashes of the same thing over and over again, eventually they will leave you. Think about it, why do you think there are so many police and law shows out there? American Networks don't care about giving a program time to grow, to find its place, two perfect recent cases of this were the great dramatic comedy series “Reaper” which was poorly advertised but was incredibly fun to watch and loved by critics and fans, and the american take on the british series “Life On Mars” which, though very well made and well written, might have strayed from its concept slighty, though to be honest, I found it abit more enjoyable then its original version, both were great programs, that had slightly slow starts, and ended up being canceled because of it. Apparently averaging 2.5 million viewers per week isn't good enough to keep a program going, shame that. Also, just because a large amount of viewers appear for a pilot or a movie that will become a tv series, does not mean they are going to always be there, curiosity factor is huge in ratings, and how we end up with piles of crap like the 2008 version of Knight Rider.

Have Faith In Your Programing: This one is sort of a secondary to the ratings one, but is just as important. Sometimes, a television series will go through a small creative slump, sometimes it lasts half a season, sometimes it lasts a whole one, sometimes it lasts afew, but the point is, that doesn't make a tv show bad, its just in a ratings fueled world, a slump puts a target on your back in the entertainment business. Its natural that after a while, a show will have a small slump in writing, after afew years writers get alittle tired, and alittle creatively tapped and are in need of a refill on their creativity, this happens with all tv shows, its the nature of the beast as they say. But that doesn't mean you give up on them. A network should have enough faith in what they are airing that it shouldn't mark a show's demise when it has a slight slump in ratings, if it was always the case that once your ratings go down you're done, iconic series like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, M.A.S.H, All In The Family, Cheers, The Flintstones, and The Simpsons, wouldn't have lasted as long as they did, each and every one of them, to some degree had a slump in ratings, where they'd go from top 10 programing, to top 20, and finally round out somewhere in the top 50 for a time, but they would eventually power back, in most cases they'd do this cycle repeatedly. Infact in the case of The Simpsons, FOX Network owner Rupert Murdoch has stated that the show will only end when those that make the show feel its time to end it, and that he keeps it on to prove a point, that if you're good to your shows, they'll be good to you. Which is kind of ironic because FOX is one of the biggest offenders of canceling a program to do ratings. But my point is, if more networks had enough faith in a program to stick with it through the good times and the bad, and see it through to the light once again, we would have a lot more programs that are of good quality and of good standing with all aspects of the business, specially in a time when making 10 years is a big thing, let alone soon to be 21 years that The Simpsons have been on.

Less Reality Programing: Now, Reality TV is some pretty tricky water to traverse, and before you get the wrong idea, I'm not saying all reality series have to go, there just comes a point when enough is enough. Sure, we all have our own guilty pleasure reality tv shows, there isn't a person alive thats not watched atleast one episode of Survivor, or 3 minutes of the Real World, I have a friend in the UK thats like, super way into Big Brother, I personally am a huge Hell's Kitchen and Extreme Make Over: Home Edition fan, and I'd be abit hypocritical to shout down all reality television when I personally know some of the cast of Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International. But despite all of the good programs out there that are reality, there is a whole lot of bad ones out there too. Mostly in the “reality game show” market, which in itself is a kind of slippery slope a lot of times, where the good is lost to the background for horribly bad dating game shows like “The Bachelor” and all the rehashes of that, or the ones where they put former or minor celebrities in horribly idiotic situations and record as they whore themselves out for prize money. Reality Television has become the last stop before you fall off the entertainment grid forever, its become a freakshow of sorts, anyone that doesn't understand what I mean by that, google a series called “There's Something About Miriam” and you'll understand exactly what I'm saying about reality tv.

Shorter Seasons Make For Quality Programing: I have said this so many times, quantity, does not always lead to quality when it comes to television, infact 9 out of 10 times it leads to failure. In every other country, and on both subscription and non subscription channels that do original programing here in the states, the most you'll see your average television series is between 10 to 13 episodes a year, sometimes more then that, sometimes less, depends on the show, the network all that. Now this isn't done for cost reasons, though cost does help, its done simply because it allows the writers time to come up with good quality unrushed scripts, that don't rehash or retread things they've already done, or were done by others. It allows them time to carefully write out and create great programing that people will wait all year, or in afew cases over a year, for. This works for the network's favor in two ways, first, you can allow your writers time to come up with the best programming you can for their timeslot, there is a very little pressure situation when you only need 13 episodes of gold instead of 26 episodes, of which 13 or so are gold and the rest is just filler, and secondly, it keeps a buzz going for your series, people knowing they'll have to wait like a year or half a year to see how a storyline progresses, that wait factor and the buzz it causes in a fanbase is the greatest form of promotion possible, its free, its honest, and its truly what the fans are saying, all the magazine adds, television spots, and whoring out of your female cast won't get you the kind of buzz word of mouth does. Plus, 13 episodes a year is cheaper then 26, the money they're saving, could fund another program that might have been great, but passed on because they couldn't find room on a schedule or something, which would be great, because I can't count the amount of times programs have been killed before they ever got the chance to air. I still am upset for shows like Babylon Fields, Pretty Handsome and Global Frequency among countless others that looked so well done, and such good ideas, but were killed because there was no place on the programming schedule for them, with 13 episode per season shows, there could be a chance things like that never happen again.

And my final point i'll make, given that this is kind of becoming a longer list then I wanted it to be in that start, is as follows....

Dissolve The FCC: Next to the RIAA and the MPAA, the FCC is the most harmful organization in entertainment, originally designed as a governing body in the early days of broadcasting as a government run organization that sort of acted like a police force for, at the time radio, it was created to regulate and monitor and keep in line localized and nationally broadcast radio programs, back in the days when american radio wasn't a joke, it was basically a way to witch hunt communists and other groups who were deemed subversive and “a threat to our freedom” by instilling none of them are able to get on the radio and reach the masses. Over the years its broadened its hold to include television as well as radio, and, by most accounts, is the single largest reason why american television has lost its way. The FCC seems to feel its their job to tell networks what is and isn't ok to air, in a sense, censoring content, which, I find very odd, given that each network has their own internal censors called “Standards and Practices”, who's job it is to regulate the nature of content aired on their network. Why we need a Federal organization that does this even after standards and practices has gone through a program, and simply just nitpicks and waters down each thing they show, is anybody's guess really. It all seems slightly redundant to me, if you have an inhouse censor who is versed in the rules of broadcast, who goes through each episode with a fine toothed comb before it airs, looking for anything at all they find questionable and with the new rating system we have here that clearly marks a program's intended viewer group, then why do we need a group like the FCC who really don't seem to do any good at all, and infact, a lot of times will go against their own written rules, I wonder just how many people are aware of The Safe Harbor / Watershed Laws out there.

The Safe Harbor / Watershed Laws are the laws that dictate what content can be shown after what time at night, as the night gets later, we're allowed to do more, these are the laws that let words like “bullshit” and “asshole” be used in dramas after 9pm at night, as well as in the past allowed for naked human rears, and I quote directly here, “side boob” meaning a woman's breast but seen from the side. Basically as far as the time frame goes, by 1am EST, there are no real limitations on what you can air content wise, this is why a lot of cable stations air “uncut” or “uncensored” versions of films at that time of night. Its funny though, even when we know that we're allowed, by law, to say certain words and show certain things after a certain time, the major non-pay networks are still pressured by means of threats of fines and being put off the air, to ignore these laws, and air the same “safe” programing they do otherwise. No one that I have asked in the industry really understands why this is done, but they all know it is. Its just one of the many things the FCC does that people find questionable. And what scares me the most, they've been doing it sense the beginning of television, if not longer, because, well, there aren't a lot of records remaining from the early days of radio, so we can't really guess.

So really, what good does the FCC do now that each network has its own internal monitoring group and willingly submits to its own clearly marked rating system? It does absolutely nothing. It just hinders people, as it always has, and most of its hindering has seemed puzzling in reason. Example, during the early 1950s, the FCC took up issue with now american classic series “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, first complaining about, and I kid you not, young Mary Tyler Moore, who played Dick's wife, wearing “skirts that were tight enough to show more female bottom then they believed wholesome”, when they would later fix this idiotic complaint by allowing Mary to wear pants, they then complained that “women don't wear pants, men do.”. I kid you not, these were their actual claims. They lost the pants issue when the entire female staff of the network showed up for work one day where the FCC was there to discuss it, and they all wore pants. Ironically, not long after this, “I Love Lucy” appeared, and both Lucy and Ethel would wear pants from time to time, many saw this as a jokingly supportive stab at the FCC. There are many other incidents like these, most recently, “nipplegate” as its called, where singer Janet Jackson flashed a nipple on international television for less then 0.7 seconds, the FCC used this incident to go on a media witch hunt of sorts, laying most of its brunt down on radio DJ Howard Stern, though, I'm not exactly sure how an incident that happened on television would lead to issues for radio, but I guess in their minds it was allowed. Anyway, you get my point, the FCC is a joke, its become nothing more then an interest group out to govern what we watch and what we see to their own personal likes and dislikes. Which is wrong, no one group should be allowed to force its ideas on anyone else, regardless of who they are. They're on par with religious radical groups like you read about in the news with their beliefs and really should be taken out of power. Plus, they're watering down and changing of our television programs is the number one thing keeping us from being able to compete with the other countries in quality.

And now, with all of those things said, I leave you with one final thing...

I understand that a lot of people won't agree with my ideas, and thats fine, its your right to do so and I respect that, but even if you don't agree with all of my ideas, think about them, just try to picture them in practice, and if you don't agree still, then I respect your right to think that way. I am just a man who wishes to make a medium he loves just abit better then its becoming, thats all.

I thank you for your time




  1. So here's the thing, with sitcoms in general, writers apply a rule of all dialogue being one liners. Its annoying. One of my favorite from my era is Roseanne(go ahead Chris laugh) but seriously, she did to tv what tv should have kept going, just good writing about middle class life, until the end when it got weird. Seinfeld was famous for the same reason and so was Cheers and Mash. Now i have to deal with the same dramas with different names, and reality tv with the same looking people doing the same stupid shit all the time. I just want something well written. Harper's Island was great, seemingly no name actors, short story, boom it's done. More of that.

  2. Eric my friend, as shocking as this might be for you, I completely agree with you, I always sight Roseanne as what an american comedy should be, true to the life of those its about, which that show was. And you're right about Harper's Island too.

    Actually looking back, I should have added "know when enough is enough" as to keep trainwreaks like Prison Break from Season 2 onward from happening.

  3. Yeah, 1st season of Prison Break was win, but yeah after that...