Friday, March 18, 2011

Why do shows that were once good now suck?

Ready for some Friday questions?

lansing asks:

Do writers on a long-term show perceive when the quality of a program is in decline? A substantial decline in ratings makes this obvious to everyone. However, a ratings decline can substantially lag a quality decline.

Well, first of all, if I’m a show creator, that’s a problem I’d be happy to have.  By the time we jump the shark I'll be in Hawaii. 

There are several reasons why a show’s quality declines. You start running out of stories. Imagine if Shakespeare had to come up with 200 stories for Hamlet.  They'd be doing the talent show episode by season two.

You find yourself falling into familiar patterns. And you find that the characters no longer surprise you. You pretty much know exactly what they’re going to do in every situation since you’ve already put them in every situation.

Another reason is that often show runners get tired of the grind of producing a show every week and scale back their involvement (Aloha!).  The replacement writers, although they may be good, just don’t have the same feel for the show as the person who created it. So it drifts a little. That’s how we felt with MASH. David Isaacs and I, on our best days, were not as good as Larry Gelbart on his worst.

Sometimes your star over time will assume more creative control and that can cause a sea change in the show’s quality. Yes, I’m thinking of you, Cybil Shepherd. (Sidenote:  I see she's agreed to be in a sitcom pilot this season.  God help those poor writers.)

I used to welcome when we’d have a cast change because that would alter the chemistry and give the show a new sense of freshness. Charles Winchester on MASH and Rebecca Howe on CHEERS are two good examples. TWO AND A HALF MEN could experience that too. (Who should they get? Gary Busey? Mel Gibson? Randy Quaid?)

Someone who didn’t leave his name wondered:

When you were working on becoming a baseball announcer, did you ever have the cojones to ask Vin Scully to listen to one of your tapes and comment?

No. I never wanted to impose. Plus, I didn’t want my idol to think, “Jesus, this guy is horseshit!”

From Robala:

How many pilots will a network allow for a new show? For instance, I know that there two previous pilots for "All in the Family" (with two other actors cast as Mike and Gloria) and another pilot for the "Bob Newhart Show" where Jerry wasn't a dentist but in practice with Bob.

It all depends on how much faith the network has in the project. 90% of the time if your pilot isn’t picked up it’s dead. But there are times when the network is willing to redevelop it. There have been several HAWAII 5-0 pilots before the current version (one even starring Gary Busey). NBC made a couple of versions of the British hit COUPLING. And for some reason NBC just wouldn’t let the LIPSTICK JUNGLE project die. There must be a version starring every TV personality except Ivanka Trump.

Today, networks routinely recast and re-shoot parts of pilots after they’ve been picked up. That way if Gary Busey's and Cybil Shepherd's pilots doesn’t go, they can be inserted into yours.

Stephen wants to know:

What is your opinion on multi-year contracts actors enter into when they join a show, as opposed to the single-season contracts most actors are signed to here in the UK?

As a producer, I love it. That way I know that if the show takes off, I’m protected. My cast is locked in and so are their salaries.

For the actors, it’s not such a good deal. Based on one script (that is bound to change) you’re asked to make a multi-year commitment. For the quick income you make on the pilot, sometimes you’re then stuck on a terrible show… for five years. That's more of a sentence than some people get for murder.  And you don’t have a lot of time to think about it. There are a hundred other actors who would jump at that opportunity. That’s a big life commitment to make in six minutes.

And finally, sophomorecritic has a question about my book WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED (the Kindle version you can order here, the paperback you can order here), and all other ebook formats here.)

I would buy a book about Ken Levine's experiences in TV (easier than scrolling through all the back entries), but why would I be interested in his travels?

Ken's developed a readership based on his great firsthand accounts about working in TV and his insights into the TV/film industry. Does anyone else think it's a big mistake for him to self-publish a book that has little to nothing to do with what bought people to this blog in the first place?

That's a fair question.  But I like to think of my blog as more than just a TV industry and writing advice destination.  I post about whatever interests me.  And that may range from baseball to pop culture to radio to travel.  I happen to think readers would enjoy following my turbulent sojourns.  Doesn't mean I won't do a TV related book at one point... assuming this book sells.  So if you want a TV book, the best thing to do is buy ten copies of this one even if you have no interest or hate it. 

What’s your question?  Please leave it in the comments section and thanks. 

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