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Thursday, October 22, 2009

WHY MOST NETWORK SCRIPTED DRAMAS SUCK



Several articles like the one below hit the trades today.  Read it.   My opinions follow.
SAMCRO Defeats Leno: FX Beats NBC, ABC in Ratings
Posted by James Poniewozik Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 12:40 pm
Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
That was the sound of broadcast network television getting run over, twice, by FX's biker drama, Sons of Anarchy, Tuesday night. For the first time, SoA defeated both NBC's Jay Leno Show and ABC's The Forgotten in the 18 to 49 ratings, which, as network programmers will tell you incessantly, is the only rating that matters when it comes to advertising money.
Since all 10 p.m. programming this year must be viewed within the prism of the Great Leno Experiment, what does this mean for Jay?
A mixed bag:
On the one hand, it certainly would not look good for NBC to get beaten by basic cable on a regular basis. In the traditional ratings sense, Jay is getting his chin handed to him.
On the other hand, Jay has company: The Forgotten, an original scripted drama of the kind Jay is replacing, lost out to SoA too. Which raises the valid but unprovable argument that a new NBC drama in the time slot would be getting beat too, but paying much more to do it. (As bad as Jay is doing, some nights he comes close to or beats ABC originals like Eastwick, whereas even NBC only hoped he could take second against reruns.)
Bottom line: I've argued before that the premise behind the Leno show is that network TV is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from large-basic-cable-channel TV. From the vantage point of Leno and The Forgotten—splayed out on the highway with tire tracks across their back, it's sure looking like that.
Let me first say that my opinions are heated and a generalization.  I don't have the time or desire to do the long, detailed, thoughtful version of this essay.  I'm disillusioned and a little lazy.  Having qualified --
It's not an issue of scripted show vs. non-scripted shows.  It's a question of process.  The reason most network scripted dramas suck is because of the process.  For the most part, you have a collection of young, half-bright development executives who wouldn’t know a good story idea if it set itself on fire and fucked their mothers while singing “Cheyenne Anthem” from Leftoverture.  So they do what most chimpanzees do -- they ape and throw shit.  Developing shows based on what they think people want to see.  Churning out clones of semi-successful shows.  Looking for a “hook” to market.  It’s never about the story or characters.  That would demand talent, patience and an open mind.  Commodities that have long up and deserted ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and the CW. 

(There are some exceptions.  Chuck and Glee are all I can think of right now.  In fact, that might be it... oh, and Lost, I love Lost)

Gone are the days of the TV visionary.  Bochco, Kelley, Fontana, Sorkin, Milch, Wells, Wolf.  These guys had fucking balls.  They stood up to network fears and contradicting marketing strategies and pushed their vision forward.  The result was great TV.  It was great because the networks were smarter, they let the creatives DO THEIR FUCKING JOB.  All those savvy executives have been replaced with accounting personnel.  And when a network is inspired enough to hire a creative leader -- Reilly, Ligori -- they never give them a chance to flourish.  It's a fucked up system that has created hours upon hours of dreck.
I have a director friend, let’s call him… CJ, who says the job of a network executive is to turn everything to shit.  They hire you to stop them from doing that.  Unfortunately, the shit-turners are winning.  Nowadays it’s all about formula.  You get rights, attach a hot writer, develop it into the fucking ground until it’s so middle-of-the-road it has no point-of-view, then attach a waning movie star, throw tens of millions in promotion at it and hope that no one notices that it’s the same old crap repackaged.  But folks always do. 
In recovery, the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Primetime is an active asylum.
I’m an extremely lucky guy.  I have a network behind me that understands the creator-network relationship.  Yes, FX has its bottom-line.  They are not in the business to make great TV, they are in the business to make money.  They do that by making great TV.  The truth is that Fox didn’t want John Landgraf to make Sons.  They couldn’t imagine anyone tuning in to watch a biker family drama.  It defied all research.  When John said he still wanted to do it, I think Chernin started to prepare his transfer papers.  But FX believed in the show and by proxy they were forced to believe in me.  I was all they had.  Yes, they were completely up my ass during the pilot, pilot reshoot and the first four or five episodes, but then they backed off.  They had to.  They knew that the success or failure of Sons of Anarchy ultimately landed on my shoulders.  When the show hit its stride midway through the first season we settled into our creative process that we still have today.  I get notes, ideas and feedback.  I take the ones that make the show better and discard the ones that don’t.  At the end of the day, the creative decisions are mine.  Sometimes I bend to a note and regret it, sometimes I disregard a note and regret it, but ultimately it comes down to trust. 
FX trusts the storyteller.  Networks trust charts and graphs.   

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! In the interest of brevity, it's as you say, bad economy, expense control, ignore what's really hot, copy other ideas, don't take chances, accountants will save your business, right to the fucking grave.

I applaud you and FX for taking chances, seeing the big pic, and for bringing something to the market that they want to see, that's creative and new. Juevos gordas! SP in PHX

Aryn said...

I wouldn’t say gone are the visionaries because you are clearly one of them. And fortunately, there are people like you who are giving the shit-turners a run for their money. I wish you nothing but continued success. And please, for the sanity of those wanting and striving for something better, please never stop doing what you do!

Regina said...

THANK YOU! to you and FX for making the only show on tv worth watching. To think that FOX didn't think anyone would watch a show about bikers. HA! I bet they are kicking themselves now.

Anonymous said...

Great to read a fearless text. No marketing candy bullshit, just straight and honest thoughts
All the best.
Andre . Rio, Brasil.

Tom said...

Righteous piece! I dread finding a show I love on a broadcast network anymore, because those shows rarely make it to a second season. It wasn't always that way.

I'm so glad your show, which has become one of my favorites, is on a network that lets visionaries realize their vision. Keep doing it your way; I'll watch.

domino87 said...

Amen. Good read. Its a shame their arent more FXs, HBOs, and Showtimes out there. But I see what AMC is doing and it makes me hopeful that in the future more channels will follow suit.

I would add "Lost" to your list as the ABC execs seem to have given Damon and Carlton complete creative control.

Anonymous said...

You're a fucking renegade genius, Kurt. Also, might CJ be Clark Johnson?

KatieOwenSasser said...

Well said...reading this made my night. I remain utterly impressed by your willingness to "put it out there" and to share what's in your head with all of us fans. Thanks man!

As they say in the management consulting business, companies that re-engineer their processes and streamline everything strictly for profits will "die completely healed." Sounds like network TV.

FX is my favorite network. Please keep your storytelling and multi-layered characters coming. I'm not exactly your target demo (32-year old gal who's afraid of motorcycles), but I am enamored with SOA.

Matt said...

As someone who doesn't really watch "Scripted TV" (i stick to stand comedy, and the discovery channel it seems) I cannot agree with you more.

And, as someone who's grown up during the Quebec biker war, and knowing people on one side of that conflict, I just cant get over how real your portrayal of the characters are.

Good men doing evil things for family and freedom, for better or worse.

Theres a Line from the song James River Blues by the Old Crow Medicine Show that always comes to mind when I think about Sons of Anarchy.. "I've seen good men go it wrong, I've seen bad ones get it right"

sportscull115 said...

A fascinating post but do you not consider Lost to be among the exceptions?

therealzenobia said...

Network or cable, it seems what you say holds true. What killed HBO, after all? It wasn't lack of available talent. What's the difference between FX and TNT? Either it's what you described, or it being run by someone with the artistic sensibility of Prof. Umbrage. What's the difference between FX and Showtime? It's become to subtle to describe in a comment.

WI_Debi said...

Lucky me, I have one more year in the "target demographic" before I become dispensable. Does that mean I have to stop watching after my next birthday?

My response to your earlier blog post today (which was lost in the ether) mentioned a few of the same ideas only I used the term consultants instead of network execs. If you're a writer who is older than your target demographic do you have to change the vocabulary so the younger end of the spectrum (those raised on vapid, tween angst ridden "drama's") understand the nuances of the plot line or do they just tune in for the sex, drugs & guns and the marketing folks call it success? As a writer of quality does that piss you off?
As always, I wish you continued success in the war against drivel driven television. I'll be parked in front of the T.V. on Tuesday night to see if you're a rat bastard or my hero. Either way, your writing always elicits a strong response from me so obviously, you're doing something right. Love it or hate it I always tune in and isn't that *REALLY* the point?

Anonymous said...

I have a couple of thoughts i would like to share. If my post offended someone just piss on that. I'm not from US, so maybe I know shit about it.

Cable shows >>> network shows. No doubt. Better script, more quality than quantity etc. I think the most important, because of CABLE > NETWORK is audience. Networks are still feeding us with same old crap. Same scheme, same pattern.
That is because we all the time let them do it! For example it's sad that people watch NCIS:LA, it's same as NCIS, even worse, but people watch it. Until we won't stop watch crap, maybe they will understand that they have to change something and do something ambitious. It's up to us.
I know, networks can't do nudity, brutal etc. and it's really limit them, but it's doable. I'm from Poland and we are about 30-40 years in programming behind you.
We are on the level "Bald and the Beautiful" but something has changed. There was a couple ambitious projects and for our standards good, but after first seasons it got axed, because of ratings. Until people in here won't change mentality and need a sophisticated art, they will always feed us with crap. For example, they tried something new with something about "Polish X-Files". It's getting better with every episode, but it will be axed.

I am so glad, that people watch cable in US, because I have something worth to watch with quality! Cable audience is the best! Very tolerante and loyal.

PS. Thanks Kurt and the rest of the crew for SOA. The best show with Breaking Bad in tv right now.

PS2. Sorry for my english.

Anonymous said...

Good post Kurt, I think we all get where you are coming from, look at CBS, their procedurals are mind numbing, they don't challenge the audience at all. I still don't why how NCIS can get 20 million viewers that show could cure insomnia, but I think the thinking over at CBS is "lets just spoon feed the audience"

I like when a TV show challenges me, leaves me thinking, has me going back to it days later and tha tis what SoA does.

BTW if you ever get a note from FX that says "time to kill off Tara" I expect you to kick their asses.

Sean said...

my man.

i've been waiting for someone in the industry who isn't full of shit and is willing to call people in the industry out.

seriously, not to blow smoke up your ass, but, you're probably my most well-respected individual working in the business today. and it's articles like this that back that up.

....but i do gotta say i'm bummed out that you like Lost. :/

Jake said...

Great read Kurt...I'm very thankful to you and to the FX for having the guts to put this show on the air...I think it defies the "normal" tv show and that's why it's so successful (along with a great cast and a great storyteller).

I also think giving Jay Leno his own show was a huge mistake..It's *exactly* like the tonight show...Where's the innovation? It's on FX, Tuesday nights.

I've been a long time fan of FX (The Shield, SoA, Nip/Tuck) and they continue to push the envelope and with your creation, Kurt you take it to a new level. Thanks for that..

Jake said...

Forgot to mention..A huge Thank You for taking the time interact with your fans. I know I'm not the only one but I truly appreciate the time you take to do it..

Anonymous said...

I think most network execs think we the viewing public are morons who don't want to be challenged. Hence we are fed pablum like NCIS or even worse NCIS LA. God forbid a show challenges us to think.

oh and Kurt, if you ever get a note from a network exec that says 'time to kill off Tara' make sure it's one of those notes you ignore.

Jeff said...

At the risk of sounding like a sycophant I think you can add yourself to that list of writers/showrunners with balls.

Ron_In_Thornton said...

Excellent Article Kurt.
Your show is refreshing, glad FX gave you the chance to do it your way. Network tv by and large is a wasteland, the last really good show on Network TV was the Black Donnely's on NBC, and they cancelled after 5 episodes. To afraid of anything original.

I know you said at one point you had a seven season story arc, but if you can keep it fresh go longer dude, cause theirs nothin else worth watchin on tv.

Thanks for the show

Ron in Thornton Co.

tonilost said...

Jersey Boy, you sure have a way with words, you cut thru the shit and tell it like it is. I tell everyone about this show to the point of it being such a non-sequitor in conversations that I'm getting weird looks. it's like Hi how are ya, do you watch SOA? I dont give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of me, I'm doing them a service. Ssee, I'm a humanitarian, lol. Thanks again Kurt for making the best damn show evah!!

Mary Shelley Overdrive said...

Congratulations, man. I saw a story about the ratings battle and was both surprised and impressed that a good show was drawing good ratings. For some reason the two concepts rarely cross paths.


- Simon

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for speaking out. Your post rings so true for the viewers who suffer at the hands of these individuals. Yours is one of only three shows I am watching each week.

And yes WI_Debi, once you leave the 18-34 demographic, you have to stop watching. Sorry. Your opinion does not count. I got aged out too. Apparently my 40 year old person income isn't as worthwhile as an 18 year olds which is why I have only three appointment shows a week and no patience for remakes.

WI_Debi said...

Anonymous said...

October 23, 2009 1:01 PM
And yes WI_Debi, once you leave the 18-34 demographic, you have to stop watching. Sorry. Your opinion does not count.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Well then I suspect my underground viewing parties will be well attended...shhhhh, don't tell the execs!
Hey Kurt, could you make sure the Season 3 episodes are all closed captioned for us old fogies? Thanks, you're the best!

Knock on the wooden door 3 times & tell 'em Unser sent ya ;)~

ladybudd12 said...

SOA is the best fucking show in the last ten years! After having to watch the same fucking crap week in, week out, this is great.
Please keep up the good work and do not take any shit from ANYONE! I don't care who the fuck they are, your show is great.
p.s.
Maybe you could tone down the language a bit though?

Bend Beanies said...

So true! Yoou are doing a fantastic job with "Sons".
I cannot stand the crap on network TV, I have maybe 2 shows I watch but I could live without them.
The sitcoms are ridiculous and built around a few one-liners that have no continuity. Reality TV, which of course, is quite scripted and fake, so what's the point? And talent shows with very little talent.
I love most of the stuff on HBO and Showtime, and of course FX.
Now, Sons of Anarchy is my new favorite. Being a Biker myself, I never thought I'd see the day when a drama about Bikers would be on TV! Mant years ago when I used to watch stupid a soap opera, I thought to myself,
"How great would it be to have a soap opera about Bikers?"
But Bikers aside, it's a great show with lots of drama and twists and great characters and ensemble cast.

Stay true to yourself cuz it's working GREAT.

Jay said...

Ha! I just did a post on my own very insignificant blog about how SOA is the best who on TV. (Along with Mad Men). And the best show since The Shield.

Thank you for not allowing execs to dumb the show down. It's brilliant!

holymotherofgod said...

I am ridiculously hooked on your show and love that you have managed to provide Katey with a role that she can sink her teeth into. Drives me nuts that talented, capable actors such as her who successfully champion roles are pigeon holed or type cast. I honestly don't know if the networks will not take a chance on these actors and provide them with better roles (?) perhaps by mistakenly believing the audience will not accept them in any other light? Or what the reason is. It's nothing short of a sin to not provide the creative opportunity for actors to spread their wings and showcase their talents.
So KUDOS to Katey and other cast members for running with their roles in SOA.

Robert said...

As much as the masses are viewed in terms of being a 'herd' that needs to be kept pacified and entertained through the television medium, the foundational success of SOA reveals some important things about the public that most major networks with their formula dramas, sitcoms, and 'reality' shows will never understand: the public doesn't want to be mindlessly entertained or put into a stupifying trance - to be disengaged from the real world and themselves.

Most people do not want to vicarioualy live their lives - though that has been the 'programming' trajectory many have been pushed to follow. As we can see from the world around us, there's a building 'resistance' to this type of programming and people are tuning out the things that try to reinforce it.

Because the nature of a standardizing, global culture through the media is to dehumanize, devalue, and, ultimately, to eliminate human beings, themselves; a show that can accurately (as much as is possible through television portrayal) present characters engaged in non-standardized and de-programmed lifestyles - and the very real human choices that flow come those lifestyles - resonates with many people, whether they are 'into' the outlaw motorcycle club path of life or not.

Powerful writing drawn from the actual reality, and genuine acting, is what makes SOA authentic and realistically 'entertaining' - and that's what people want - regardless of the medium.

Along those lines, it's highly unlikely that we'll be seeing hordes of people flocking to join their local 1% club - though their appreciation for those clubs may certainly be raised. Yet, the show helps to orientate the viewers to begin to take a good look at their own personal sense of individuality, brotherhood/family, and to examine the choices they make which often leads to their own 'charming' becoming 'disneyland'.

'Old white money' playing games with all of us to influence us towards 'disneyland' is just the tip of iceberg!

What you've helped to bring to television, Kurt, is a portrait of reality itself. Thank you and thanks to FX for letting you run with it! \m/

Anonymous said...

Man, you're so lucky the show didn't land on FOX. No offence to the network or anything, it's a big network and all that, but man do they know how to screw up a good show. They still think that House MD will save the day. cmon, what the f*ck. it's been six years, and the ratings are down like 40 per cent since year 1.

I guess it comes down to what you said. They stick their noses up the writers' butt.

Cable tv will save the industry, i guess.
Don't know about the money and enonomy and what not. Im talking about the ideas. The good, inspired tv.

Was watching the shield the other day,(AGAIN), and man, what a show that was. Also cable.
six feet under, sopranos, wire, mad men. All that.
All cable.
not that there are no good shows on fox and abc, nbc etc, but as you say, not alot.

Anyway. Just found out about your blog, via twitter.
You're fucking brilliant.
i've watched fist season of SoA.
(addictive show) and waiting the dvd's of the second one.
I'm from Greece, so... patience :D



Big fan.



ps
Oh, the irony.
the word verification is:
Acharyn. Ha. ridicilous.

Anonymous said...

My mother and I are weekly SoA watchers. This is the best show on TV. Period. We are 71 and 53 respectively. So much for demographic bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Love SoA, love the post. Rock on!

The Juggernaut said...

Speaking of Milch, I was really digging John from Cincinnati. Shame he had to wrap that up so fast. Good to see a couple of the guys show up on Sons.

Anonymous said...

Right On! You hit the nail on the head. Accounts are running every business at GE these days, including NBC. Been that way for the past few years. Their hope, and it is a real one, is to be sold soon so they can be free! I'm very happy for them. If one listens hard enough, he can almost hear the cries of freedom already...

Outsider said...

Here's an anecdote to illustrate a network content battle....I did a small role that had heroin as it's theme, on a certain show...it got cut...then I was on check avail for another role on that show involving a gritty heroin theme...and came to discover that the entire heroin sublplot got cut.....all junky characters released...why? I believe it's that a network is squeamish about the grittyness of the subject....and got cold feet....

(I know the writers and producers are battling said network for more grit not less in this show...I've heard this murmured from the inside...but they are losing and the result is at times an odd compromise...that makes what should be heavy material sometimes seem almost cutesy pie)

Anonymous said...

Hi. Long time fan, blah blah...

I am just getting started in this business - well, hopefully. Yesterday, I had my very first fucked up the ass moment of someone trying to strong arm me and mine. I have no idea why other than that they think they can. The sheer stupidity and shortsightedness of it is what really galls me.

Which segues nicely into why a lot of TV is terrible. Stupidity and shortsightedness. At this point, I watch maybe two hours of TV a week. Nearly everybody I know would have similar habits. We loan box sets to each other and mostly start watching new stuff based on recommendations.

Don't get me wrong, people watch what they watch because they like it, irrespective of critical acclaim and whatnot. At heart, I watch shows with good characterization. Personally, I like and, yes, watch NCIS for that reason. Also, it is endlessly amusing to me that Mark Harmon's character is essentially a law enforcement version of the Punisher. The spin off, though, is egregiously bad and LL Cool J and Linda Hunt need to run quite fast.

Risk-taking is seen increasingly as a Bad Thing. Risk-taking with so much money on the line? Forget it. I do not mind formulaic, reset-each-week procedurals. They have an audience the same as kids TV. I mind them being endemic. I mind so many people aspiring to mediocrity and succeeding. I mind stupidity.

I am slap bang in the middle of the revered demographic. We want to watch shows that make us give a shit. We don't mind if it makes us happy or sad or perplexed or really fucking angry. We don't mind if it is set on a farm or amongst bikers or in space.

So many, many shows I love have been canceled. (Hi Fox!) I still watch them from time to time and get others to watch them. Win, lose or draw, I care that someone made something that made me give a shit. I feel that so very rarely.

Thank you for that.


P.S. Is there any chance that, during SoA's run, there could be an episode with Opie, Happy and Lem's identical twin brother cruising the streets of Charming in their cuts?

Alex said...

This is kind of similar to the New Hollywood movement in the late 60's - with studios giving almost full creative control to the auteur. The best American films were made during the period. Eventually a few directors turned up bombs, they got a fright and took all the control back to make high-concept, mass-audience films.

This is certainly the golden age of television.

squirreltales said...

Thank you for writing this. It's something that needs to be actually heard by network television, and I'm glad you're putting this out there. Keep up the good work.
-Kate

Anonymous said...

Loved your post and I agree completely. I haven't seen anything on major network that comes close to SAMCRO. I Love SoA. I already purchased the first season on DVD and can't wait to purchase the 2nd. But, just so you know, I want more Opie. While I realize that Jax is the 'romantic lead,' I want to see more of the character development and the subtle acting of Ryan Hurst. Also, I can't figure out why Jax is always so concerned about Tara, like when she entered Chib's room this past week, he asked "are you okay?" Like something terrible had just happened. What's up with that? Is she that fragile that he is constantly worried about her? Lastly, loved the first season Shakespere reference when Jax commented "I wonder what kind of poison she's pouring in Lowell's ear" and this season's reference to "the little prince." Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Kuurgen said...

So, having enjoyed seasons 1 and 2, but..3....well..not so much.

Gemma escaping from the hospital, kinda dumb. You're making her look like an emotional basket case, far from the cool cucumber from season 1.

Hugging in the hospital where it's obviously going to be caught on camera, and for fu**sake let the hospital admin's face be healed already.


I was watching the episode where they were fretting how to get 20k, and i couldn't help laughing at how a supposed established club couldn't or didn't have 20k in reserves.

You've done wonders with Katey Sagal and finally getting her un stereotyped from Peg Bundy. BRAVO!

Of course I know Season 3's course is set, so not much to do than let it play out, but it's starting to feel a little too Dukes of Hazardy
and a tad too melodramatic.

I of course am a Sons of Anarchy fan, as I was a Shield fan.

I would love to see Michael Chiklis
go toe to toe with Ron Perlman on SOA!