A Show About Show Biz
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/1/2006 8:00:00 PM
NBC, I feel your pain. When I saw the overnight ratings last Tuesday for the network's new Aaron Sorkin drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, my heart sank. NBC has pinned its hopes for a turnaround in large part on this show, with aggressive marketing and a whopping $3 million-per-episode budget. But my disappointment isn't about the network's fortunes. I just love the show.
Studio 60 spins first-rate, textured stuff from the backstage drama behind a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy. Much as I liked the pilot, last week's episode was even better. But there's always a morning after. About 10.8 million watched, 19% fewer than those who tuned in for the premiere.
More troubling was that the audience fell in the show's second half-hour in both its outings.
The voice of conventional wisdom kicked in: Shows about the TV business, no matter how smart or funny, just don't play.
Sorkin, of course, knows something about this. His ABC dramedy Sports Night, a send-up of ESPN's Sport Center, was a critics' fave but never grew beyond cult status. The Fox comedy Action from a few years back, with Jay Mohr as a ruthless Hollywood agent, was wickedly funny and eerily real but didn't make it to the end of its first season. None of this bodes particularly well for NBC's other show about show business, Tina Fey's comedy 30 Rock, arriving Oct. 11.
Except for rare, bygone exceptions—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown—shows about the industry are the province of narrowcast, not broadcast. Great satires like The Larry Sanders Show and Entourage draw enough eyeballs for HBO but would never make the ratings bar on a broadcast network.
And even on HBO's rarefied air, it's a tough sell—Lisa Kudrow's edgy faux-reality comedy The Comeback didn't make it past season one.
Why? Too inside for a mass audience, is how the thinking goes. People in the so-called flyover states just don't care about the inner workings of a bicoastal biz. Why then do these shows about show business keep getting made? Narcissism, for one—people who toil in TV often assume that everyone is as fascinated by the entertainment world as they are.
And certainly a major reason why I'm tuning into Studio 60 is to watch Steven Weber, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry play the kind of network brass and creative talent I cover.
I have been at numerous press conferences like the one in last week's episode and got a chuckle when Peet's character addressed a reporter named Gail “from the Philadelphia Inquirer”—an obvious name-check to the Inky's irrepressible TV-beat writer Gail Shister.
But more than that, it's the strong writing and great cast that make the show worth watching, just as the same elements made Sorkin's West Wing succeed when everyone said that shows about Washington and politics never work.
With luck and patience, other shows have managed to overcome the mistaken belief that they were too inside to play between the coasts.
When he was head of NBC Entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff famously said that Seinfeld was “too Jewish” to make it in the heartland. We all know how prophetic that turned out to be—the show's humor proved universal enough to play in Brooklyn and Peoria, and continues to do so in syndication.
I hope that NBC shows faith and patience with Studio 60. I'd like to believe that viewers can appreciate good drama on TV shows that aren't set in courtrooms, police precincts or hospitals.
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