The bottom line when it comes to producing high quality televison may lay in producing fewer shows with the impact being better results. For example, the average network show produces 22 episodes in a season. the critcally acclaimed cable show Mad Men produces only 13 episodes per season.
Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the shows that pour all of their energy into 13 episodes tend to have a better quality standard. Or perhaps it’s a sign that their producers have more focus and not the marathoners pace of the network guys.
In addition to the quality being condensed into tighter scripts and story arcs, The limited nature of the shooting schedule means that actors who might not normally commit to a 22 episode run, will make time for smaller more curated shows. For example, Dame Judy Dench appeared for 13 seasons in a comedy series called As Time Goes By, while simultaneously doing her best work as a film actress. 67 episodes in 13 years, thats a breeze on a tight schedule. You would never ever expect to see Meryl Streep play a regular character on The New Adventures of Old Christine. It is a good show, but it would never attract her because of the 22 episode commitment.
I am not saying that all of the shows that produce under these conditions are great. I am only saying that if the effort were put into 10 to 12 solid episodes per season, we might have a higher quality product than we are used to.
Another effect would be that different shows could run at different times of year on a revolving basis and we would have time to miss that show while it was in hiatus. Writers would not be forced spread their resources out over 22 episodes or by putting their talents only into the episodes that run during the sweeps rating period. It certainly would not be boring. A Fall and a Spring season might make for a lively and entertaining change of pace.
After watching documentaries in class last week about Philo Farnsworth’s invention of television and the development of radio, I started thinking about current or future involvment of “suits” in the creation, production and distribution of television.
I just wonder how this influences the quality of the TV we injest. It seems to me that the noble pursuit of technology, as in Armstrong’s quest to enlighten the populace, gets watered down and homogenized for easy consumption by the masses and quality gets lost or is an afterthought along the way toward the profit margin.
When executives put themselves into the creative mix it is usually the sign that creativity has ended and the business of making the product dance for its supper begins. Like Sarnoff holding FM down with his thumb for ego and bottom-line’s sake, how much good television are we missing from the shows that don’t make the cut after pilot-season.
It doesn’t surprise me anymore when good or great shows are pushed out to make way for reruns of American Gladiator. Sportsnight is a great example of a show that was ritualistically killed off with the old “schedule shuffle.” Similarly, Arrested Development, a quirky and niche-humoured show on Fox was shuffled about and survived only as long as its 3 year run due to intense fan support and critical accolades.
A lesser known show called Action with Jay Mohr of CBS Gary Unmarried ‘s was a stunning and funny look at the undoing of a Hollywood producer. It was biting and clever and should have been given a shot by the Fox network. It lasted, however, only through its initial order of 13 episodes–why? There was a great cast and good writing, but it was controversial and off-color, so it got canned for not appealing to a lower common denominator. Now on cable there is a show with a very similar theme that has become a huge critical and commercial success. Its called Entourage.
Maybe with a generational shift and awareness of past mistakes in programming, executive influence will be seen by the networks as stunting. Evidence of that can be seen in the hands-off approach NBC’s The Office has gotten. Ultimately, I think we will get less quality when there is a bottom-line, pencil-pusher sitting there waiting to kill something with an original voice that might alienate the ad-revenue guy sitting next to him if that guy starts rolling his eyes. Then CBS Chairman, Les Moonves, can just give another horrible, base show like Big Brother to his wife, Julie Chen.